In 1878, James McNeill Whistler said about his most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), “Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” Painted in 1871, the portrait was intended to demonstrate Whistler’s recent focus on tonal harmonies over subject matter.
Both austere and ambitious, accurate and abstract, the portrait serves as a quintessential expression of his then-newly developed “art for art’s sake” aesthetic. The composition—better known today as “Whistler’s Mother”—was initially met with puzzlement, but it was soon lauded, spurring a staggering quantity of critical responses, reproductions in various media, and references within popular culture. Despite Whistler’s intentions, the portrait of Anna McNeill Whistler has thus become an icon of motherhood, beloved by Americans but rarely seen in the United States.
In March, Whistler’s masterpiece returns to Chicago for the first time in over 60 years. The fame of this iconic work is considered in a focused installation of approximately 25 objects, including small- and large-format paintings, prints, drawings, posters, and other ephemera. The presentation also explores Whistler’s use of family members as subjects, his abstract treatment of conventional genres such as portraiture and landscape, and the arc of his professional ambition.
The return of “Whistler’s Mother” to the Art Institute of Chicago is especially meaningful given the museum’s deep holdings of Whistler’s paintings, prints, and drawings. Championed by the museum during his lifetime, Whistler is one of the 19th-century artists whose work lies at the core of the Art Institute’s collection.