Whistler's 'Mother' takes Scottish vacation

She's an American icon, if ever there was one - even if she does live, like the Mona Lisa, in Paris.

She is one of those rare paintings that become indelible in popular mythology - images we all know, or think we know.

"Very few works of art have had such a career after they were made," says Pamela Robertson, art historian and curator of the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow. It is "loved by cartoonists, filmmakers, and others."

She is talking about Whistler's "Mother."

Now the redoubtable old lady is about to take a summer vacation in Scotland. From June to October, Glasgow will host centennial celebrations of the American-born James McNeill Whistler, who died in 1903. The five-month celebration will include exhibitions, children's activities, and study days to highlight Whistler's delicate, sophisticated paintings.

The University of Glasgow's Whistler collection happens to be one of the two major collections in the world of the artist's works and archives. One reason Glasgow is the owner of this prominent collection is that Whistler, who had an impressive ability to hold grudges, felt ill-done by the English art world. He bequeathed the entire contents of his studio to his wife's sister, expressly requesting that "none of them should ever find a place in an English Gallery." His sister-in-law gradually gifted the trove to Glasgow.

The collection in Scotland's largest city is strong in images of women, in etchings and lithographs, in watercolors and pastels, in decorative works, in late and unfinished paintings, in letters, and even in the artist's materials.

These will be featured alongside the serious presence of Whistler's full-titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother" on loan from France's national collection.

So will the very first of his "Nocturnes," on loan from London. He painted it in August 1871, at the same time as he was working on his mother's portrait.

In a letter to her sister, Anna Matilda Whistler later described how she and her son had seen the River Thames "in a glow of rare transparency an hour before sunset" and how she had watched, fascinated, after he had "rushed upstairs to his studio" and painted what he was to call "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea."

Whistler's first "Nocturne" was an innovation. It was a way of escape from the weighty realism he had learned as a young artist in Paris. Now after many years, he had found an inspired way of suggesting transient and shadowy effects in fluid, translucent paint. It was performed with sophistication and an economy inspired by Japanese woodcuts and amounted to a personal form of "Impressionism."

Musical designations like "Nocturne," "Arrangement," and "Harmony" were Whistler's novel way of emphasizing the self-sufficiency of his paintings as art - "art for art's sake" - rather than only as realistic depictions of nature. He broke down conventional barriers between high art and decorative art, between the abstract and the observed. And, conceptually, between painting and music.

Robertson characterizes Whistler as an artist for whom technique held major importance. But "he invested so much in technique," she says, "so that it would never be apparent." He fell foul of uncomprehending critics, notably the English writer and critic John Ruskin, for just this reason - for so successfully disguising his effort under apparent ease. Ruskin scorned him as "a coxcomb" who had asked "200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The ensuing court case, which Whistler won although its costs ruined him financially, has gone down in the annals of art history as a vindication of the artist's right of independence from critics.

But as Robertson points out, while he resented criticism - particularly from those who had never picked up a paintbrush - he was himself "extraordinarily driven and ruthlessly self-critical." He destroyed huge numbers of his works that didn't meet his high standards.

He was a paradoxical character. A showman and self-publicist, yet serious and sensitive about his work. He allowed himself a Japanese delicacy when painting a young woman, yet also betrayed a relish for the grimier aspects of cities. When he painted in Venice, he sought out back streets and hidden canals rather than its picturesque "sights."

He was born in Lowell, Mass., in 1834. (When asked snobbishly why he had been born in such a place, he replied with characteristically quick wit, "The explanation is quite simple. I wished to be near my mother.") But Whistler spent half a century away from his homeland. He didn't need to return, because US collectors flocked to Europe to buy his work.

Although London, no less than Paris, is so much a part of his vision, he came to hate the English. He found it hard to forgive English collectors, who bought his work when it was cheap and sold it later, making substantial profits of which he saw nothing. He also felt London's Royal Academy did not give him the honors he deserved. He visited Scotland only once, but Glasgow University gave him a doctorate, and he was lionized by a group of Scottish painters known as "The Glasgow Boys."They campaigned to have the city buy the first Whistler painting to enter a public collection anywhere: "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlisle."

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