Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 31, 2016
Whistler’s Mother: Grey, Black, and White Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, July 4–September 27, 2015
James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother) (1871). Oil on canvas. 56 4/5 x 64 in. (144.3 x 162.5 cm). Musée d'Orsay, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizzi.

The exhibition Whistler’s Mother: Grey, Black, and White is as spare and elegant as the painting it celebrates. It presents James McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871), on loan from the Musée d’Orsay, isolated on a deep grey wall. Quotes from the eminently quotable Whistler and his critics punctuate adjacent walls, as does a copy of the artist’s etching Black Lion Wharf (1859), identified as the framed print in the portrait’s background. The simple installation hews to the painting’s logic, for as Whistler wrote in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (London, 1890), it “is what it is”: an arrangement of form and color on canvas. “To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother,” he observed, “but what can or ought the public do to care about the identity of the portrait?” The display—organized by Jay Clarke, the Clark Art Institute’s Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs—encourages visitors to approach the painting on its own terms rather than focus on its broader cultural context.

This context is not fully purged from the exhibition, however; two smaller galleries feature works on paper that explore Whistler’s formal and conceptual concerns, while a third examines the painting’s afterlife in the American imaginary. The first section features etchings from Whistler’s Thames Set (published 1871), impressions from his portfolio of Venetian scenes, as well as two woodblock prints by his Japanese contemporary Utagawa Hiroshige. Despite the section title, “Landscape and the River Thames,” the overarching theme that emerges here—and, more important, its connection to Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1—is Whistler’s use of compositional strategies derived from Japanese printmaking, particularly in his deployment of negative space.

The relationship emerges in such works as Whistler’s delicate Nocturne: Shipping (1879–80, etching and drypoint), in which he used a minimal number of thin vertical lines to depict cutters bobbing in a harbor but relied on the print’s unmarked areas to establish its misty, penumbral quality. In Nocturne: Furnace (1879–80, etching and drypoint), he achieved a similar atmospheric effect by leaving the center of the composition nearly empty, creating a void that becomes the glow of a furnace that expands centrifugally into the darkness. The pairing of his Rotherhithe (1860, etching) with Hiroshige’s View from Massaki of Suijin Shrine (1857, woodblock print) makes his Japonisme even more explicit: in both the etching and woodblock print, the compositions are constructed of geometric forms, with their ostensible subjects made secondary to blank stretches of sky. Such use of negative space and cropping is likewise at play in Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: the narrow slice of patterned curtain on the left is offset by the flat expanse of background wall, which is similarly separated from the floor by a heavy baseboard. To yoke together the disparate components of his painting, Whistler adopted a harmonious palette of creamy grays, deep blacks, and liquid whites.

The following section is intended to place Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 in the context of Whistler’s depictions of friends and family, described by the exhibition as uncannily nuanced character studies. Again, however, this is not quite what the section conveys; rather than surveying Whistler’s portraits, it instead challenges the very notion of portraiture in his oeuvre. The genre suggests something beyond mere visual likeness—more a document of a sitter’s interiority, of her or his ineffable individuality—yet the emphasis on “types” among the prints and drawings here indicates a different aim. Whistler’s renderings of sleepers and musicians are less records of specific people than of figures in space, of a body supine on a divan, or of a cellist’s muscular embrace of his instrument. He captured these contours with deft strokes but often left the sitters’ defining characteristics softened or obscured. In Firelight—Joseph Pennell, No. 1 (1896, transfer lithograph), for instance, the face of Whistler’s friend is as blurred as a smudge of smoke; in Reading by Lamplight (1859, etching and drypoint), his half-sister Deborah Haden turns from the viewer, her nose tucked in a book.

The wall texts in both galleries seem to struggle slightly in articulating the section themes, but this, perhaps, is unavoidable: the connections between subject, style, and execution are visual rather than literal, shifting rather than static. One can see this particularly in the way the objects function collectively. When scanned from the center of each room, they create a slow, pulsing rhythm through their repetition of simple shapes. The flat squares of doorways; the skewed triangles of sails, masts, and petticoats; and the smooth ovals of hands and faces help establish a dynamic formal unity in each section, much like that found in Whistler’s portrait of his mother.

The exhibition closes with an examination of Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 in the American imagination. It features neither prints nor paintings, but rather copies of magazines and periodicals, advertisements, and postal stamps, supplemented by large didactic panels. In a sense this is where the art ends, not least because it documents the transition of Whistler’s mother from the realm of high art to popular culture. The shift began with the painting’s 1932–34 American tour, organized by then director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. The canvas was purchased by the French state in 1891, and its extended tour through the United States was intended to raise spirits during the depths of the Great Depression. A subsidiary aim for Barr was to alert Americans to their cultural patrimony, their rightful place at the forefront of modernism. He understood the painting as a thoroughly modern artwork, approaching it much as Whistler conceived it: an “art for art’s sake” formal essay, as opposed to a sentimental character study.

American viewers, like Barr, did not necessarily see Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as a simple portrait, yet neither did they see it as an origin of modernism. They did, however, embrace it as part of their cultural patrimony. At a moment of great national upheaval, they interpreted the painting as a touchstone and moral anchor, a celebration of conservative American motherhood writ large. A 1934 postal stamp provides a case in point: it reproduced the painting in part, but added a bouquet of flowers and the inscription “In Memory and Honor of the Mothers of America.” Such interventions cast Whistler’s bold formalist endeavor as a monument to populist sensibilities, a prime example of T. J. Clark’s “bad dream of modernism.” The painting’s commodification continued to ricochet through the decades, and the exhibition highlights its use as both caricature and marketing ploy into the twenty-first century.

Still, even as the exhibition acknowledges the popular appropriation of Whistler’s portrait of his mother (indeed, it would be difficult to avoid), it successfully emphasizes a different point of entry. In separating Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 from the rest of the show, the display encourages visitors to consider the canvas outside of its elaborate cultural scaffolding. Likewise, the minimal interpretation, save for the last gallery, directs but does not overdetermine the viewing experience. In this sense, the exhibition provides a brilliant complement to a recent one at the Yale University Art Gallery, Whistler in Paris, London, and Venice (January 30–July 19, 2015), which traced the development of Whistler’s career through his various sets of etchings. The larger and more diverse Yale exhibition yielded a visually lush presentation, yet it followed a somewhat more traditional linear trajectory, from Whistler’s years as an art student to his recognition as a celebrated artist. The spare elegance of Whistler’s Mother: Grey, Black, and White, on the other hand, offers something quite different: a continually shifting constellation of formal and conceptual associations, centered on the artist’s most iconic painting.

Elizabeth Athens
Assistant Curator of American Art, Worcester Art Museum