The Magazine

Whistler’s Mother’s Son

A portrait of the artist as a self-invented man.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By AMY HENDERSON
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Using new research drawn from Whistler’s letters, Sutherland describes how the artist invented a new manner of painting that captured motion. To give the impression, in his nocturnes, that boats and men were moving, Whistler created “sketchy, unfocused, sparsely shaded, ‘unfinished’ images that implied motion.” Sutherland also chronicles how Whistler’s work was influenced by both the fad for Orientalism and the rise of photography. He describes how japonisme led Whistler to adopt the flattened, two-dimensional perspective and compartmentalized space of Eastern art. The advent of photography convinced Whistler to focus the viewer’s eye on a selected part of a composition, while, as with a camera’s lens, his artist’s brush blurred other areas in the middle or far distance.

By the 1870s, Whistler had become a central figure in the Aesthetic Movement, which was renowned for its belief in “art for art’s sake.” He now signed his works with a stylized butterfly adaptation of his initial “W” and painted his most famous portrait. His Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: The Artist’s Mother was completed in the summer of 1871 and caused much critical consternation when it was exhibited. The London Times sniffed about how “vacant” the canvas seemed, with a “lady in mournful garb” situated in front of a flat, gray wall; another critic complained that it was “not a picture” but an “experiment.”

However, Whistler’s colleagues were thrilled. His friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, exclaimed: “Such a picture .  .  . must make you happy for life, & ought to do good to the time we are now living in.” Whistler himself was pleased: “Yes, one does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible!” 

Sutherland also relates the remarkable story of how Whistler created the Peacock Room, his over-the-top masterpiece of interior decoration. An unsuspecting patron, Frederick Leyland, commissioned Whistler in 1876 to decorate some leather panels in his house; but one thing led to another, and (while Leyland was away for several months) Whistler immersed the entire room in a stunning palette of over-glazed peacock blue-greens and metallic gold leaf. Upon his return, Leyland was horrified, but the splendid result—known as Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room—is today a showpiece of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Whistler lived his life as an ongoing melodrama, and in the same years that he was involved in the peacock flap, he became embroiled in the era’s most sensational art trial. John Ruskin castigated Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket when it was exhibited at Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. Ruskin ridiculed this abstract night scene of fireworks bursting over the Thames, sneering that it was as if the artist were “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and, after a lengthy and greatly ballyhooed trial, won—but the award was a mere farthing for nominal damages. The trial left Whistler bankrupt, and to recoup, he worked feverishly on a new series of Venetian paintings, pastels, and etchings. He ultimately restored his finances and lived out his life in relative comfort, maintaining studios in both Paris and London.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s deep dive into archival resources has enriched this new study with revealing detail, and, as such, it makes an important contribution to Whistler scholarship. But for the general reader, it will not replace Stanley Weintraub’s delightful 1974 biography, which evokes the colorful Whistler with unsurpassed savoir-faire.

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and critic in Washington.