Painted during the summer of 1871 in Whistler's studio, 2 Lindsey Row in London.
One of the most famous works by an American artist outside the United States, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, famously known as The Artist’s Mother, was completed in 1871 and is currently housed in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
In January 1864, Whistler’s mother Anna arrived to stay with her son in London. As a result, Joanna Heffernan had to move out of the apartment, and could only visit as a model. Heffernan’s presence displeased Whistler’s mother and his relationship with both women became strained. Anna posed for her son while they lived together at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Several questionable stories relate to the painting; one claims that the mother acted as a replacement for another model, who failed an appointment. It is also claimed that Whistler originally planned painting his mother standing up, but that she was too uncomfortable to pose standing for an extended period.
The painting was shown at the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in 1872, after almost being rejected by the Academy — it would be the last painting to be exhibited by the artist at the Academy. The sensibilities of a Victorian era viewing audience would not accept what was apparently a portrait being exhibited as an “arrangement”, hence the addition of the explanatory title Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. After Thomas Carlyle viewed the painting, he agreed to sit for his own portrait — a great undertaking as Whistler had a bad reputation for how long he would take on his portraits, often rubbing out a whole day’s work to begin again if he was not happy with what he had achieved. Sitting for Whistler could be a timely and very demanding experience.
The painting was eventually acquired in 1891 by Paris’ Musée du Luxembourg and it was this first official recognition that really helped the artist’s floundering career. From this point forward, he received many more commissions for portraits and his name was well established as an accomplished portraitist.
The image has come to have a lasting significance with viewers across the world, standing as long enduring representation of motherhood. The sitter is presented as a patient mother, dressed in her widow’s clothing and we are at once conscious of her many sufferings in life. The loss of her husband, as well as the tragic deaths of two children, can be seen in melancholic use of tones. We can also detect the artist’s fondness for his parent in the fine delineation of her aged, but attractive and lucent features. Whistler’s great admiration of his mother led him in his early years to exchange his middle name ‘Abbott’ for Anna’s maiden name ‘McNeill’. A woman of devout spiritual faith, the image is reverent in its approach and still in its portrayal. Whistler uses the smallest amount of paint possible, as in some parts of the canvas it merely stains the material, while the mother’s headdress is depicted with a transparent deftness rarely seen in oil paintings.
Inventory number: RF 699
1891, acquired from the artist by the State for the Musée du Luxembourg;
From 1891 to 1922, Luxembourg Museum, Paris;
From 1922 to 1925, Louvre Museum, Jeu de Paume Gallery, Paris;
1925, attributed to the Louvre Museum, Paris;
From 1925 to 1986, Louvre Museum, Paris;
1986, assigned to the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.