Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

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Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother dates from 1871. 1

Anna M. Whistler, photograph, GUL Whistler PH1/247
Anna M. Whistler, photograph, GUL Whistler PH1/247

According to the sitter, Anna Matilda Whistler (1804-1881), her portrait took about three months to complete, and was painted while she was staying with Whistler at 2 Lindsey Row over the summer of 1871. It was started when a model failed to arrive for a sitting for another painting, which is known as Annabel Lee [YMSM 079]. At first Anna Whistler posed standing, then, when this proved too tiring, seated. She wrote to her sister Catherine Jane Palmer (1812-1877) describing the painting and early history of the portrait:

'A lovely study ordered two years ago by a wealthy M P. was promised in August. A beautiful young girl of 15 had posed for it, she was a novice & soon wearied standing & pleaded illness, then her brother in play with her as she was at home hurt her seriously & she had convulsions. poor Jemie does not relieve his trouble by talking of it, but I saw his misery. But he is never ill, his talent is too eager, if he fails in an attempt he tries another. so I was not surprised at his setting about preparing a large canvas late tho it was in the evening, but I was surprised when the next day he said to me "Mother I want you to stand for me! it is what I have long intended & desired to do, to take your Portrait." ... I must introduce the lesson experience taught us, that disappointments are often the Lord's means of blessing, if the youthful Maggie had not failed Jemie as a model for "The girl in blue on the sea shore["] which I trust he may yet finish for Mr. Grahame, he would have had no time for my Portrait.' 2

She then wrote further about the portrait to her friend James H. Gamble (b. 1820),

'I refused all invitations to visiting relatives here or friends, while I could be at home with Jemie, & even after he finished painting my Portrait such a success! ... Jemie has been at work at Speke Hall since early in Oct, Mrs Leyland writes me of the Portrait he is taking of her that it is as life like as all think mine!' 3

The portrait was shown to his family and friends, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), who wrote, 'Such a picture as you have now finished of your Mother must make you happy for life and ought to do good to the times we are living in.' 4 It was taken to Liverpool in October 1871 to show to the Leylands at Speke Hall and hung in the company of a painting, The Corregidor of Madrid, then thought to be by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), and, as Whistler told Walter Greaves (1846-1930), 'it is saying a great deal when I am able to feel not ashamed of their bearing under such trying conditions.' 5

Anna M. Whistler, photograph, GUL Whistler PH1/56
Anna M. Whistler, photograph, GUL Whistler PH1/56

Anna Whistler reported that the painting was nearly destroyed by fire on the train back from Liverpool, before it went to the Royal Academy:

'Jemie is quite well, & in good spirits about his work. he had some Artistic friends on Easter Tuesday to see my Portrait especially, as that was sent that evening to the Royal Academy ...

[T]he 3 cases of Portraits were preserved from fire on the R R train coming from Speke Hall, ... & yet the painting uninjured. you will know my thankfulness for the Interposition that my dear Jemie was spared the loss of his favorite work. I hope it is a favorable omen that it may be hung properly in the Royal Academy for the Exhibition. ...

Sat 20th. ... A cheering report has come about Jemies picture of his Mother, it is considered a fine work & is well hung at the Royal Academy for the Exhibition.' 6

Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, Musée d'Orsay
Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, Musée d'Orsay

It was shown at 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1872 (cat. no. 941) as 'Arrangement in grey and black: portrait of the painter's mother'.

Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, photograph, 1872, New York Public Library
Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, photograph, 1872, New York Public Library

It was photographed in 1872 by Alfred William Parsons (1847-1920). 7

Notes:

1: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 101).

2: A. M. Whistler to Kate Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071. The MP was William Graham (1817-1885).

3: A. M. Whistler to Gamble, 29 November 1871, GUW #06547.

4: D. G. Rossetti to Whistler, [October/November 1871], GUW #09415.

5: Whistler to W. Greaves, [October/November 1871]. GUW #11469.

6: A. M. Whistler to J. H. Gamble, 10-20 April 1872, GUW #06549.

7: Whistler to C. W. Deschamps, [11/13 December 1872], [20 December 1872], and [December 1872], GUW #07906, #11438, and #07905; H. Gee to C. W. Deschamps, 3 September 1873, GUW #11974. A photograph sent to S. P. Avery, signed by Whistler and dated '72', and signed by the sitter on 22 June 1873, is in New York Public Library.

Last updated: 1st October 2018 by Margaret