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 was painted while she was staying with Whistler at 2 Lindsey Row over the summer of 1871, and took about three months to complete. 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." … 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 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[ober], Mrs Leyland writes me of the Portrait he is taking of her that it is as life like as all think mine!' 3

At Speke Hall, Whistler's portraits of the Leylands and of his mother hung in the company of The Corregidor of Madrid, a painting that was 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.' 4 Whistler apparently wrote in similar vein to his mother:

'Jemie sent me a sketch of mine as the centre Mr Leylands Portrait & a painting of Velasquez the two on either side of mine covering The wall one whole side of the great dining room called the banquetting [sic] hall & that the two Portraits bore the comparison with the painting of the famous Spanish Artist to his satisfaction.' 5


                Anna M. Whistler, photograph, GUL Whistler PH1/54
Anna M. Whistler, photograph, GUL Whistler PH1/54

The painting was nearly destroyed by fire on the train back from Liverpool: '3 cases of Portraits were preserved from fire on the R R train coming from Speke Hall, ... & yet the painting uninjured ... I hope it is a favorable omen that it may be hung properly in the Royal Academy for the Exhibition', reported Mrs Whistler, adding,

'Jemie is … 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 ...

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 exhibited at the 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'.

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: 29 November 1871, GUW #06547.

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

5: A. M. Whistler to Kate Palmer, 3-4 November 1871, GUW #10071.

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

Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret