In the spirit of Mother's Day, here's a look at the iconic 'Whistler's Mother', perhaps the world's most famous 'motherhood' painting.
'Whistler's Mother' was painted by James Whistler in 1871. Born Anna McNeil in pre-Civil War North Carolina, she came from a cultured and well-to-do family. Her uncle was a rich plantation owner who created a scandal when he married a black woman. This led, upon his death, to a widely publicized legal battle. Family members challenged the terms of his will, in which he had bequeathed the largest part of his enormous wealth to his black wife.
Perhaps to distance themselves from the scandal, Anna’s family moved to Brooklyn when she was 10, where she remained for the next 7 years. Upon the death of her father, Anna and her mother moved first to New York, then Baltimore, and finally, Georgetown. In her mid-20s, she also lived in Great Britain for a short period, when she visited her two half-sisters.
She married George Washington Whistler in 1831, by which time her travels had exposed her to a variety of social and cultural environments, no doubt contributing to her liberal point of view.
On Her Own
Thirteen years into her marriage, they packed up and moved to St Petersburg, Russia, where her husband, a world-renowned engineer, had been hired by Czar Nicholas I to build a railroad from St Petersburg to Moscow. However, six years later her husband died of cholera, so Anna and her two children returned to America. From a position of relative wealth and status in Russia, Anna suddenly found herself almost impoverished; without her husband’s income, she was forced to depend on her modest savings.
Although she could no longer live lavishly, her social status still allowed her opportunities she may otherwise not have had. Being the widow of a famous and respected husband helped to give her an identity and some credibility. For instance, it allowed her to coax Robert E Lee, when he was superintendent at West Point, into giving her cadet son, James, a weekend pass. And she later put her second son, William, through medical school. Upon being dismissed from West Point, her son James moved to Paris and London to become an artist. Anna acted as his unofficial business manager, promoting his work in America.
But then came the Civil War, which presented Anna with a dilemma. On the one hand, she was a southern woman who still had relatives in the Confederate states. And her youngest son, William, who had married his southern cousin, and enlisted as a surgeon in the Confederate army. Anna’s late husband, however, had been a profoundly patriotic graduate of West Point, and would have certainly served the Union side. So, with failing eyesight, and her children far apart, Anna slipped off to England, to avoid having to pick a side.
Whistler's Mother Emerges
There in London, Anna directed her son James' household, where she lived for most of the next 11 years. It was during this time that, in 1871, she sat for the famous portrait, 'Whistler's Mother'.
James Whistler had experienced one of his periodic bouts of self-doubt in the last half of the 1860s. Reconsidering his art, he experimented with new painting techniques. He began limiting his range of colors and spreading his paint more thinly and smoothly. He rejected the assumption that a painting must tell a story or convey a moral lesson. Beauty was all that mattered, he now said... 'art purely for art’s sake'.
James shunned narrative titles for his paintings, describing them, instead, in musical terms, or according to their dominant colors. The results were his unique series of nocturnes and his 'Arrangements in Grey and Black'. The portrait of his mother was initially considered to be an unorthodox, even eccentric, painting. But of course, it went on to solidify James Whistler’s fame, and to become one of the most iconic paintings of all time.
Anna Whistler passed away in 1881.
Interested in reading more about the masters? Check out our other blog posts.