Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


James McNeill Whistler Painted More Than a Portrait of Mom

Washington exhibitions aim to enlighten viewers about the wide range of his art

By Leslie Albrecht PopielStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 1995



WASHINGTON

SUDDENLY, Washington is teeming with James McNeill Whistler's art.

Skip to next paragraph

Perhaps no other artist's mother is so well known: "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother," casually known as "Whistler's Mother," is one of the most recognized paintings by an American artist. But other works by Whistler have eluded prominent public display for nearly a century, since memorial exhibits following the artist's death in 1903.

Three Whistler exhibits recently opened here in Washington: "James McNeill Whistler" at the National Gallery of Art; "Whistler & Japan" at the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery; and "In Pursuit of the Butterfly: Portraits of James McNeill Whistler" at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. A fourth, "Prints by James McNeill Whistler and His Contemporaries," also at the National Gallery of Art, will open June 18.

Taking a fresh look

"It has been a time to reassess and take another look at Whistler," says Charles Brock, exhibition assistant at the National Gallery of Art. "He's known by 'Whistler's Mother' - it's an American icon - yet people don't know the substance and range of the rest of his art," he says.

Until fairly recently, "his personality has overshadowed his achievement as an artist," Mr. Brock explains. During the last 30 years, more scholarly attention has been paid to Whistler's work. Washington is a perfect setting for a celebration of Whistler, Brock says, as some of the best research about Whistler and important works reside here.

"James McNeill Whistler," the largest of the current exhibits, is a major retrospective presenting 200 works including "Whistler's Mother," which has not been seen in the United States for more than a decade. Until recently, a show of this size was not possible because of legal restrictions keeping many of Whistler's important paintings from being lent. Though several Whistler collections were not available for the exhibition, the National Gallery of Art was able to seek out enough other representative work for a comprehensive exhibition.

Whistler was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1934. The beginning of the artist's expatriate life began almost immediately, when at age 9, Whistler's family traveled to St. Petersburg where his father worked as an engineer for the czar. At 15, Whistler returned to America and attended the US Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. There, Whistler practiced his art, studying prints by the Renaissance masters and learning etching techniques. Two years later, after being discharged from West Point, Whistler began studying art in France.

As Whistler traveled between Paris and London, he became friends with the French Realist painter Gustave Courbet, whose work began to influence Whistler's. But Whistler's artistic path diverged after Whistler's brother-in-law encouraged him to work from nature. He soon settled in London, where "the climate for the acceptance of new art was more favourable there than in Paris," writes Richard Dorment, one of the show's curators. Patrons were also more numerous, though Whistler still spent time painting in Paris.

A pivotal painting

In Paris, Whistler painted one of the pivotal paintings of his career, "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl," displayed prominently at the National Gallery. The painting "serves to symbolize Whistler's identity as a Franco-British painter," Mr. Dorment explains. It also had the "distinction of being utterly misunderstood on both sides of the Channel," he writes.

Critics guessed at the meaning of this portrait of Whistler's mistress, Johanna Heffernan: Was it a portrait of a bride? a fallen woman? an apparition? But curators Margaret MacDonald and Dorment explain, "The picture makes no concessions to a nineteenth-century audience's expectation of narrative." Unlike other artists of his time, "Whistler's realism becomes clear. Whistler's painting has no subject - or rather, its subject is so blatant that the critics were unable to see it: a model posing in an artist's studio."