Whistler Sans Mother

Self Portrait - WhistlerAnother day, another birthday. Lots of interesting birthdays. But do you ever just wake up in a foul mood? (One morning my wife woke up in a fowl mood and flew away!) If it weren’t for caffeine, I don’t know what I’d do. But it hasn’t helped thus far today. So I specifically picked a birthday that would allow me to write as little about the person as possible and just rant. Are you ready?

On this day in 1834, the great artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born. He is best known for the painting he titled, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1. But everyone knows it as simply, Whistler’s Mother. The reason that everyone knows it by that name is because it is a painting of Anna Whistler, also know as James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s mother, or if you prefer, Whistler’s mother. In some circles, it’s known as “Jim’s mum.” (It is not know as “Jim’s mum” in any circles.)

The original title of it is accurate. Basically, Whistler was trying to show what he could do with a very limited palette. And to me, it’s very clear: not much. Arrangement in Grey and Black, No 2 is actually a lot more interesting. What I think is most interesting about Whistler’s Mother is that it was the displayed in the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London. But they were not keen on it. A short time later, he pawned it while in Paris. About twenty years later, someone from the Musée du Luxembourg acquired it and it became a big deal.

It rather reminds me of Moby-Dick. That book was widely panned when it was first published. It wasn’t until almost 70 years later that Carl Van Doren decided that it was a work of genius that it became the “great book” that it is today. And let’s be honest, in a standard sense, is Moby-Dick great? I don’t think so. That’s not to say that I think Moby-Dick isn’t a great book. I think it is a very great book. It is Melville. It is the book that Melville was meant to write. If you look at his other works, you can tell the man has talent, but he isn’t baring his soul the way he is in Moby-Dick and to a lesser extent The Confidence-Man. But the point is it little more than an accident than anyone outside of academia even knows who Melville is.

Having said what I have about Whistler, you might think I don’t like his work. That’s not true at all! He was a brilliant artist. I’m just not fond of Whistler’s Mother. Just take a look at a collection of his work and you will see: Google Image Search. What’s more, he was a master at the use of a limited palette. Here is one painting I very much admire, Symphony in White, No 2—generally known as The Little White Girl (Whistler was very annoying about naming paintings):

The Little White Girl - Whistler

But the man could do color too. Here is Caprice in Purple and Gold No 2—generally known as The Golden Screen:

The Golden Screen - Whistler

Happy birthday James Abbott McNeill Whistler!

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