Whistler's 'Mother' Takes Scottish Vacation

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Whistler's 'Mother' Takes Scottish Vacation

Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor

She's an American icon, if ever there was one - even if she does live, like the Mona Lisa, in Paris.

She is one of those rare paintings that become indelible in popular mythology - images we all know, or think we know.

"Very few works of art have had such a career after they were made," says Pamela Robertson, art historian and curator of the Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow. It is "loved by cartoonists, filmmakers, and others."

She is talking about Whistler's "Mother."

Now the redoubtable old lady is about to take a summer vacation in Scotland. From June to October, Glasgow will host centennial celebrations of the American-born James McNeill Whistler, who died in 1903. The five-month celebration will include exhibitions, children's activities, and study days to highlight Whistler's delicate, sophisticated paintings.

The University of Glasgow's Whistler collection happens to be one of the two major collections in the world of the artist's works and archives. One reason Glasgow is the owner of this prominent collection is that Whistler, who had an impressive ability to hold grudges, felt ill-done by the English art world. He bequeathed the entire contents of his studio to his wife's sister, expressly requesting that "none of them should ever find a place in an English Gallery." His sister-in-law gradually gifted the trove to Glasgow.

The collection in Scotland's largest city is strong in images of women, in etchings and lithographs, in watercolors and pastels, in decorative works, in late and unfinished paintings, in letters, and even in the artist's materials.

These will be featured alongside the serious presence of Whistler's full-titled "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother" on loan from France's national collection.

So will the very first of his "Nocturnes," on loan from London. He painted it in August 1871, at the same time as he was working on his mother's portrait.

In a letter to her sister, Anna Matilda Whistler later described how she and her son had seen the River Thames "in a glow of rare transparency an hour before sunset" and how she had watched, fascinated, after he had "rushed upstairs to his studio" and painted what he was to call "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea."

Whistler's first "Nocturne" was an innovation. It was a way of escape from the weighty realism he had learned as a young artist in Paris. Now after many years, he had found an inspired way of suggesting transient and shadowy effects in fluid, translucent paint. It was performed with sophistication and an economy inspired by Japanese woodcuts and amounted to a personal form of "Impressionism."

Musical designations like "Nocturne," "Arrangement," and "Harmony" were Whistler's novel way of emphasizing the self- sufficiency of his paintings as art - "art for art's sake" - rather than only as realistic depictions of nature.

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