Anna McNeill Whistler sits in profile, composed in all senses. She leans back slightly, her hands on her lap, her hair smooth under her cap. And up close, seeing the painting clearly, not a reproduction in a book — her eyes are bright.
“Whistler’s Mother” has become one of the most recognized (and copied and caricatured) paintings ever made. But few people know the woman in it. Looking at the elderly figure in her black dress, how many people see a girl sitting in a cool, high-ceilinged room in a plantation in Wilmington, North Carolina — or a young woman helping her doctor father in his lab in New York — or a young mother holding her dying 2-year-old son on a ship bound for Russia?
Anna Whistler had come a long way to sit in a chair in her son’s London studio, from a fashionable home near the Imperial Winter Palace in St. Petersburg to a Connecticut farm house so cold the chickens froze in the coop. And her painting has come a long way back across the Atlantic to visit the Clark Art Institute this summer, until Sept. 27 — until her birthday.
She was born in 1804, and Elizabeth Mumford, in a beautifully written and sympathetic biography, describes her as a quiet and happy child, moving between the city of Wilmington and the family’s country estate. Her father brought the family and his medical practice north to Brooklyn Heights in 1815, when she was 9, partly because he was ‘unreconciled to slavery,” Mumford says.
So she became a well-off city girl, immersed in friends and family and books and new boots in mud season. She married her brother’s friend George Whistler, a flute-playing adventurer who had come from Indiana on the frontier to learn engineering at West Point. (She had known him for years; he had married a close friend of hers, and after his first wife’s death he came to Anna with three step-children.)
Anna followed George across the world. She and their own four children came to Russia when James was 9, where he had accepted a challenge from the Russian government, from the Czar, to engineer a railroad between St. Petersburg and Moscow. They would live in high style, and James would study art at the Imperial Academy — until George Whistler died of the cholera.
And here I began to want to know Anna intimately because of a biographical detail most people have passed by. When her husband died, Anna Whistler brought her family back to New England and chose to settle in Pomfret, Conn.
Pomfret is a one-time farming village in the hills, and today it feels like Egremont or Monterey, Mass., a place of old houses, a farm-made ice cream stand if you know where to look and a downtown easy to miss at a blink. My Abbott grandparents lived there. It must have made a sharp change from a grand house in a brightly teeming Russian city to come here to a rented farmhouse.
The Whistlers lived in Pomfret only two or three years, a short period. And yet these years, so soon after George’s death, must have been an intense time of change for them.
Anna chose Pomfret for a school. She wanted a good place for her teenage boys. Her younger sister, Kate, lived nearby in Stonington. And Pomfret in 1849 was not the sleepy hill town it is today. A railway line ran through town, and wealthy families including the Bowens of Brooklyn Heights built summer mansions in the area, and Pomfret had “the Street,” a downtown corridor of large estates, churches and schools. The Whistlers lived here, but not in luxury. They rented part of an old farm house. Every account agrees that first winter was cold, even for a family used to Russia. A coat left on a kitchen chair froze over night. A chicken that died with food frozen in its crop. Anna had to push her cold teenagers to get out of their beds on winter mornings and get moving, to warm up with exercise, shovel snow, feed the pig.
Many biographers tend to call up this activity and her occasional frustrations over her sons as evidence of her puritanical nature, and I find this reading odd. A mother wants her teenage boys to help with the housework. A teenage boy wants to play with friends instead of shoveling the driveway. This is ordinary New England winter life. The family needed that pig, and they needed a clear pathway from the house to the barn.
At Christmas the boys brought in evergreens and Anna gave away candy and some of her own small, beautiful things saved from earlier days. She did did what she could to make a place of order and warmth for her family.
Anna Whistler drew on her faith for comfort, Mumford says. She had lost two children in their early years, one before the family left for Russia and one on the way. She had lost her husband. She was the only adult in the house besides a local country woman who helped with the heavy work. She met her neighbors, visited and nursed their children, but still — when the snow fell, and her boys were playing pranks at school, she must have struggled.
She must have been lonely here. She had always reveled in company. She had a gift for conversation, says Kate R. McDiarmid, composing a biography from Anna’s letters and diary excerpts copied by her niece — and in her letters Anna writes lovingly of high-spirited family reunions.
In Pomfret, Mumford says, Anna’s diary became filled with stars. She wrote keenly about the winter and the night: “We had such a peculiarly clear sunset and such a moonlight I could scarcely bear to keep within doors. And I wish I had staid out this evening to see the band of ruby light fro the west extending to the reflection of the sun in the east.”
Later, Mumford writes consideringly, as an artist Whistler became known for his “Nocturnes” — his own night skies. People who wonder at the power of Whistler’s painting of his mother, or at his love for her, or at his own formative years might learn from their time together here: “Some who later commented, with a surprise flattering to neither, on the devotion of the mad-cap artist for the mother in grey and black might have understood it better if they could have thumbed through the pages of her Pomfret diary.”
I love this thought. The sunsets I’ve grown up with could have inspired Whistler’s night scenes over the Thames.
But most of all as I read this I think of Anna on a cold country night less than a year after her husband’s death, afraid for her sons and away from her family — called out to nurse a neighbor’s daughter through a fever — walking in the dark on the dirt road and looking up at the sky.
I’ve drawn on biographies, local histories and conversations in looking for Anna McNeill Whistler. Elizabeth Mumford’s “Whistler’s Mother” gives a good deal of the insight here into Anna’s life and character. In “James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth,” Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval tell the story of the chicken that froze to death. I have also drawn on Kate R. McDiarmid’s “Whistler’s Mother: Her Life, Letters and Journal,” a slim volume at the Pomfret Library, Susan Jewett Griggs’ “Folklore and Firesides of Pomfret,” and on Richard M. Bayles’ “History of Windham County.”