In 1851, a new novel by an American author was met with mixed reviews and a smattering of scorn. Its unconventional, digressive narrative style, perplexing subject matter, and backstory-less narrator baffled many contemporary critics and readers. Except for prescient reviewers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, the book—the long, meandering, heavily allusive work, which was scarcely thought to be a “novel”—was largely neglected. Its lack of popular success made the author despondent; his subsequent novels were likewise not warmly received, and he was compelled to support himself by working as a customs inspector.
He died in 1891, thinking of Moby-Dick: or, The Whale as a failure. But in the early 1920s, Herman Melville’s monumental magnum opus was rediscovered and appreciated for what it was: nothing less than one of the first truly “modern” novels, and one of the greatest works of literature of all time. The same attributes that, in the 19th century, smeared the novel with the dyes of failure, coalesced in the 20th century—thanks to the flowering of modernism—to elevate Moby-Dick to the canon.
It is thus fitting that James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871)—or Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, and better known as “Whistler’s Mother”—spent this summer in the same western Massachusetts where Melville wrote Moby-Dick. Whistler’s painting, accompanied by a small, exceptional exhibit about the artistic influences that contributed to its creation, was on view at Clark Art Institute in Williamstown—a short car ride away from Pittsfield, where Melville completed Moby-Dick.
“Whistler’s Mother” is often thought of as a traditional painting—a Rothko or Pollock it is not—which makes it hard for us, in the 21st century, to imagine that “Whistler’s Mother” was once regarded as a nontraditional, radically unconventional, work of art. Like Moby-Dick, its perplexing subject matter, unconventional pose, and general mysteriousness baffled many 19th-century critics and viewers. The seated posture of the mother—Whistler intended to paint her standing, but she became tired—disturbed purists; its virtually monochromatic palette disappointed viewers accustomed to the vivid colors of classical art. The unconventional geometric arrangement of the composition unsettled art connoisseurs. Critics bemoaned the “severity” of the composition and stated that the painting gives “offense.”
“Whistler’s Mother,” and his other commercially unsuccessful paintings, did not allow the artist to escape his financial difficulties; he was forced to sell the painting, and he later declared bankruptcy. Whistler died in London in 1903, and never lived to see how his modest portrait came to be regarded as a quintessential example of early modern art.
“Whistler’s Mother” was visiting us in New England from her home at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where she has been since 1986. She has been in France since the early 1900s—“Whistler’s Mother” was the first American painting to enter the Louvre—but seeing her surrounded by the green mountains and verdant valleys of northwestern Massachusetts made it seem as if this artistically historic region were her true home.
Her son James was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1834, and even though his mother Anna Matilda sat for her portrait in England, the spirit of the painting is inextricably linked to literary New England. Anna’s austerity embodies the sternness of Starkfield, the setting for Ethan Fromme, which Edith Wharton created in nearby Lee. Anna’s indomitable spirit harks back to Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter, which Hawthorne wrote in nearby Salem. And Anna’s impenetrable mysteriousness evokes Emily Dickinson, whose aura still radiates outwards from nearby Amherst. Even the framed etching hanging on the wall behind the seated Anna evokes literary New England: The print, entitled Black Lion Wharf, depicts a bearded man in a boat on a busy dock, conjuring the whaling wharf of New Bedford that Melville immortalized in Moby-Dick.
There are few paintings more recognizable than “Whistler’s Mother.” Indeed, if any painting merits the term “iconic,” this is it, for “Whistler’s Mother” was literally used as a symbol in early-20th-century America. During the Depression, it was reproduced on postage stamps, and she came to symbolize American resilience, strength, and stability. “Whistler’s Mother” became such an enduring source of national pride that one wonders how it came to be in France.