She was the daughter of Dr Daniel McNeill and Martha Kingsley. She spent her childhood between North Carolina and New York. In 1831, she married the widowed George Washington Whistler, who had attended the USMA, West Point, NY, and became a construction engineer for Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. George was a classmate, close friend and work colleague of Anna's brother William Gibbs McNeill. George Washington Whistler brought into his second marriage three children from his previous marriage, George William, Joseph Swift and Deborah Delano. Anna herself bore five children, James Abbott (1834-1903); William McNeill (1836-1900); Kirk Boott (1838-1841), Charles Donald (1841-1843); and John Bouttatz (1845-1846). Joseph Swift, Joseph Swift and John Bouttatz all died young.
Anna became a widow at the age of 45 in 1849, when her husband died in St Petersburg from cholera. Between 1843 and 1849 George Whistler had worked as a chief engineer for Tsar Nicolas I, supervising the construction of the rail road between Moscow and St Petersburg. The family joined him for most of this period, based in St Petersburg.
Her writings there reflect the wealthy life-style they enjoyed, surrounded by the elite of Russian, American and British social circles. Anna was a prolific correspondent, writing constantly to her friends, relatives and administrative officials. She also wrote lengthy diaries, which unravel a difficult and complex life, and occasional long pieces including a profile of her late husband.
In St Petersburg Anna was in charge of running the household, providing for her husband and children, looking after their education and well-being. She had a deep religious faith and brought up her family in accord with her beliefs. She was a capable housewife and when her husband died, Anna proved that she could provide the best future for her children on her own.
When the family left St Petersburg, the widowed Anna was in a poor financial state. With no means of her own, she had to depend on family and friends for living expenses. Their way of life changed drastically and six years later they were still suffering comparative poverty.
When her son James was at the USMA, West Point, NY, Anna prayed that he would be a credit to his father's memory, but when he was dismissed due to poor grades, she used her influential friendships and relations to find a new position for him. She managed to secure a series of posts, but James showed little ienthusiasm for these.
When James set off to Paris in 1855, to pursue an artistic career, she remained faithful in her support. She became his agent in America and helped to sell his etchings.
Anna, having lived in Russia and Britain for a considerable time, had visited Museums and exhibitions across two continents. She was a cultivated woman who kept up with current affairs. She was opinionated but at the same time reserved. When asked about the Civil War and slavery issues, her southern background arose, supported by her Christian upbringing and life. Thus she did not oppose slavery but she worked for charities for the poor both in the north and south of the USA.
Anna left America for London in 1864, to join her step daughter Deborahand her son James. Her other son William, a physician, was soon to set up his practice in the British capital. She lived with James in Chelsea, still helping him as much as she could. She corresponded with his patrons, ran his household, trained the servants, and even helped in the studio or chaperoned sitters. The cooperation between mother and son culminated in the iconic portrait, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101.
In 1875 she retired to Hastings, due to ill health, where she was to live until her death six years later.
Record Group 405, National Archives, Washington, DC; Elizabeth Mumford, Whistler's Mother: The Life of Anna McNeill Whistler, Boston, 1939; K. R. MacDiarmid, Whistler's Mother: Her Life, Letters & Journal, unpublished MS. in Glasgow University Library, n.d.; MacDonald, Margaret F. (ed.), Toutziari, Georgia, Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow; MacDonald, Margaret F., (ed.) Whistler's Mother: An American Icon, Aldershot and Burlington, 2003 ; Whistler's Mother: An American icon, Aldershot, 2003.
The Correspondence of James McNeill Whistler, 1855-1903, edited by Margaret F. MacDonald, Patricia de Montfort and Nigel Thorp; including The Correspondence of Anna McNeill Whistler, 1855-1880, edited by Georgia Toutziari. Online edition, University of Glasgow, 2004.