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  • An Abiding Interest In Whistler's Mother
    26.06.2006 By Greg Cook, Globe Correspondent

    Museum of Fine Arts Assistant Painting Conservator Irene Konefal does a condition check following the hanging of James Abbott McNeill Whistler's painting "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1:Portrait of the Artist's Mother", commonly referred as Whistler's Mother. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)

    It's a portrait. And an icon. But that's not all.

    The evolution of 'Whistler's Mother'

    James Abbott McNeill Whistler had been commissioned to paint the daughter of a member of the British Parliament, but the girl fell ill. And so, as the story goes, the 37-year-old asked his mother, Anna, to pose, grabbing an old canvas, turning it over , and beginning anew on the back.

    He painted it between August and October 1871, dubbing the result ``Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 : Portrait of the Artist's Mother" to emphasize the abstract play of shape and color, but it became famously known as `` Whistler's Mother." It is one of the world's most famous paintings, a star of the ``Americans in Paris" show up at the Museum of Fine Arts through Sept. 24.

    Yet in the recent edition of a prominent art history textbook, ``Whistler's Mother" was omitted for the first time.

    Whistler, a Lowell native, asked his ``mummy" to model standing in his gray studio in the London house they shared, but after three tiring days the 67-year-old sat instead. He painted her in profile, before a black Japanese curtain, with one of his own prints hung on the wall. He struggled to perfect the composition, while his Episcopalian mother prayed for the painting's success.

    Anna's severe expression is matched by the severe black and gray composition. She'd dressed in mourning black ever since her husband died in 1849. The solidity of her face and rigid stare are put into relief by the misty rendering of everything else. In person, the canvas is surprisingly large, and one notices details: Anna's lacy bonnet and cuffs, the stool under her feet, the floral pattern along the bottom of the curtain , and Whistler's butterfly logo at the curtain's top.

    ``Arrangement in Grey and Black" debuted at London's Royal Academy in 1872. Apparently the academy initially rejected it but reversed its decision after a prominent member threatened to resign. Whistler showed the canvas again in Paris, Dublin, Amsterdam, Philadelphia , and New York, and had it reproduced in engravings.

    ``Whistler was a tireless self-promoter," MFA curator Erica E. Hirshler says. The painting ``kind of became his calling card."

    Prompted by Whistler pals including the poet Stephane Mallarme and painter Claude Monet, the French government bought the painting at a bargain price in 1891. The purchase was a triumph for Whistler and secured the painting's place in the canon. It hung in the Louvre for years and now resides at Paris' s Musee d'Orsay.

    Whistler intended ``Arrangement" to be a major work (the scale suggests his ambition) that would build his name and elicit commissions. Compared to French Impressionist paintings then bursting on the scene -- and even his own moody, abstracted river- and seascapes -- it's positively staid, but it became famous, beyond famous, an icon among the likes of Leonardo da Vinci's ``Mona Lisa," Edvard Munch's ``The Scream , " and Grant Wood's ``American Gothic."

    How? Like so many famous things, its celebrity is partly a fluke and partly some alchemy of composition, talent, timing, subject (motherhood), Whistler's prestige, and the multitudes who saw it in person and in reproduction. People continue to learn about the painting solely because it is famous (read: important), perpetuating its fame.

    Whistler digested Japanese design concepts -- all the rage in Europe then -- carefully balancing the big shapes to produce a striking composition that fixes the painting in people's memories. Anna's pose borrows some of the grandeur of seated portraits of ancient Egyptian pharaohs and the prophets of Michelangelo's ``Sistine Chapel."

    It doesn't hurt that the nickname `` Whistler's Mother" is easy to recall and instantly brings the image to mind, notes W.J.T. Mitchell, a University of Chicago professor and author of 2005's ``What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images."

    And then there's Anna's mysterious sideways gaze. ``She's kind of indifferent. She's absorbed in herself," Mitchell says in an interview. ``What does it mean to be faced with the indifferent mother?"

    Whistler's stark arrangement influenced Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's portraits. The MFA frames ``Whistler's Mother" with 1883 portraits by William Merritt Chase and Cecilia Beaux that ape his design.

    ``The portraits he was painting at that time . . . are really arrangements of color and shape and not just a record of what somebody looks like," Hirshler says. ``And that's a very modern idea at that point, that a portrait could be more than a likeness."

    By the start of the 20th century, books called ``Mother" a ``classic," likely to be ``ranked among the greatest pictures of all time."

    The work was a hit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair and appeared on a postage stamp honoring American moms. It was parodied in The New Yorker, on the cover of Mad magazine, in ads for Mercedes-Benz. The painting featured in a key gag in the 1997 film ``Bean." And the title was borrowed for the name of a 2004 episode of the sitcom ``Arrested Development."

    Steven Biel, a Harvard professor and author of 2005's ``American Gothic: A Life of America's Most Famous Painting," says, ``I think what fixes iconic status . . . is that insatiable capacity for parody."

    Yet editors cut ``Whistler's Mother" from this year's edition of ``Janson's History of Art," a widely taught text, in favor of a different Whistler portrait. Could its fame be waning?

    Tallying books published about Whistler suggests interest in his work peaked in the two decades immediately after his death in 1903, then briefly bottomed out during the war-torn 1940s, before achieving its greatest height (nearly four books published per year) in the 1970s, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the first public exhibition of his ``Mother."

    Over decades since, on average, at least one new book on Whistler has appeared each year, indicating a steady interest in the artist -- and presumably his signature painting.

    ``To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?" Whistler often said. ``It must stand or fall on its merits as an arrangement."