Rembrandt-like, her face shines clear against a dark and grey background, said Jay A. Clarke, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.
Whistler painted her in 1871 and kept her portrait for 20 years before he sold it to the French government, she said — it was the first contemporary painting the French state had ever bought. In the 1930s, a tour brought it to eight cities across the U.S., and Whistler’s mother in her black dress and bonnet became one of the best-known images in Western art.
“She’s one of a handful of works like Munch’s ‘Scream’ and the Mona Lisa,” Clarke said.
Visitors can meet the original “Whistler’s Mother” this summer at the Clark Art Institute and get to know James Abbott MacNeil Whistler in a pair of shows at the Clark and at the Williams College Museum of Art.
He and his mother both have ties to New England. He was born in Lowell, Mass., but as a child he lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, and studied art at the Imperial Academy When his father died of illness, Whistler’s mother, left in a country where she did not speak the language, brought the family back to Pomfret, a small farming town in Northeastern Connecticut.
Whistler got through high school as a rebellious and charming teenager, resisted his mother’s attempts to interest him in the church, got thrown out of West Point and failed as a cartographer — he kept drawing mermaids in the margins.
He returned to Europe, to Paris on the eve of the Impressionists, determined to become an artist. Around Whistler’s mother, Clark has gathered prints and sketches to show his growth as an artist and the kinds of artists and artwork that influenced him.
He made casual portraits of people on the streets, as well as commissioned work for wealthy patrons. In his early days, influenced by French realism, he painted and sketched the people around him, she said — rag gatherers, an elderly woman knitting. He made sketches of family and friends.
In Paris, he and his contemporaries discovered Japanese wood-block prints. Art dealers and print shops carried them, Clarke said, and many artists of the time — Manet, De lat tour, Degas, Van Gogh — came to know them. She sees their influence in Whistler’s work, in his themes, his light and shadow, his somber colors and planes of composition.
She sees it in the dusky light of drawings from his time in London, “Black Lion Wharf” and “Nocturnes.” He drew scenes along the the Thames, she said, in muddy and sometimes rundown stretches of working waterfront, as he walked on the wharves and talked with fishermen. He drew wooden sailing ships in the harbor, and she found Japanese ink-brush influence in the lines of the rigging.
Through his painting career in Paris and London he stayed close to his mother, and she later came to live with him in London. Clarke saw her as a loving mother who supported him even when she did not agree with his choices — he was the eldest son, and she a widow with children to support, and his early career nearly left him broke. She called him a butterfly. When they lived together, Clarke said, he told his mother not to come into his studio because he was painting nude models.
And judging by some of the work at WCMA, he may have meant it.
WCMA shows a collection of etchings and prints in black and white and small small paintings in lighter colors and fine brushstrokes, including the reclining woman on a red couch in “the Siesta,” on loan from the Terra Foundation for American Art.
In the WCMA show, descriptions bring Whistler to life as a combative, determined man, honest even when it cost him — winning a libel suit against noted art critic John Ruskin and going broke in the process. He lost his house in bankruptcy and yet won a commission almost at once for etchings of Venice.
He turns in this show to small works, partly abstracted in a way some people thought unfinished. And it seems like him to have turned a tool for mass production on its head and used it to make a few, unique works of art. Etching developed as a way make many copies of an artwork and sell it inexpensively to many people. Whistler made it an artistic medium, shaping his prints as he made them, using the press and ink themselves as artistic tools. So he made small batches of prints and considered each one a work on its own.
The Clark show traces Whistler’s influences and the continued importance of his best-known work.
His mother wears black because she was still in mourning for his father, and she sits because she she was elderly and not well and felt too tired and sore to stand for long. But he often painted in dusky colors. He described his paintings in musical terms, Clarke said — “Nocturnes” for studies of the River Thames at night, “arrangements” for portraits. Even his mother’s he called “Arrangement in Grey and Black #2.”
“Black fascinated him,” she said. “In the studio he didn’t want natural light — he wanted shade.”
She sees the influence of Japanese artists in his use of light, and the Clark will show prints by some of the artists he knew and collected — Katsushika Hokusai, best known in the West for “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” his print of a foaming crest of water, and Utagawa Hiroshige, who caught moonscapes and fields in the rain.
Like many artists of his time, Whistler became familiar with Japanese woodblock prints in Paris. Dealers carried them, Clarke said, and many French Impressionists — Manet, De La Tour, Degas — studied them.
She finds their influence in “Whistler’s Mother,” in its composition, it’s flattened space and spareness and the shadow in the background.
I began writing this story last spring, when the Clark Art Institute and WCMA first announced these shows, and some of this information appeared in the Summer Previews magazine I edited in May.