Whistler's Mother

Art, Paintings
Whistler's Mother
Photograph: Jean Schormans / RMN-GP

For the first time, one of America’s most important artworks will make its way to Australia

There is a scene in the 1997 film Bean where Rowan Atkinson’s bumbling anti-hero finds himself in a position where he must impersonate an art expert and give a speech on ‘Whistler’s Mother’. To bated breath, Bean finally delivers his hypothesis on the piece. “It’s quite… big. Which is excellent.” 

Ludicrous as the scene is, perhaps it’s not so far from the way we receive the work today. The painting, which was created by James McNeill Whistler in 1871, is instantly recognisable, and yet, as with other iconic pieces like the Mona Lisa or Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, it’s difficult to immediately identify why the work has seeped into public consciousness in such a profound way. When the Musée D’Orsay in Paris offered to lend the National Gallery of Victoria the painting as part of a cultural exchange, curator Dr Isobel Crombie saw it as the perfect opportunity to shed some light on the mystery. Whistler’s Mother will explore the career of its creator, the story behind the artist and his mother, the work’s reception and its influence on Australian art. 

The painting is not called ‘Whistler’s Mother’
Dr Isobel Crombie: “Whistler called it ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ when he first released it to the public, so he saw it as a kind of a tonal painting. It’s almost abstract in some ways when you look at the detail of the dress – he uses this kind of flurry of paint that takes out any detail in it. People at the time were very confused by it because it was so severe in its appearance. But after a while even Whistler changed his mind about the title and called it ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’.”

It took a US president to change public opinion
C: “Roosevelt went and stood in front of the painting at the Museum of Modern Art with his mum. He went home and he drew a little drawing that he gave to the postal office and he drew it up as a stamp for Mother’s Day.

Its mystery continues to capture public imagination
C: “It’s a really interesting painting for many reasons. Part of that is psychological. He had a very complex relationship with his mother. The painting is a combination of being about maternal authority and also love. There’s a great deal of tenderness in the way that he paints her hands clutching onto that white handkerchief and paints her old skin on her face. It is invested with a lot of feeling, and that’s one of the things that we really explore in the show.”

Whistler and his mother couldn’t have been more different
C: “I was interested in who Whistler’s Mother was – was she this little mouse that she looks like in this painting? No, she was quite a literate, well-travelled woman. And a fervently religious woman. She was always nagging him to go to church and trying to get him to straighten himself up in regards to money and women which were both areas he was completely disastrous in.”

The painting had a profound impact on Australian art
C: “The artists that we call Australian Impressionists adopted that way of working through looking at Whistler’s art. There’s a famous painting in our collection called ‘The Young Mother’ [1891] which is by John Longstaff. There’s no in my mind that he saw Whistler’s painting because if you compare the two, they’re really similar.”

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