Actually Not Named "Whistler's Mother"

James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Gray and Black, 1871, 56.8 x 63.9 in.

One of the most famous paintings in the world, "Whistler's Mother" was actually named by the artist "Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother." This name suggests that composition mattered more here to Whistler than did the portrait aspect, which is what the colloquial name erroneously suggests is the main point of the piece. All painting is built on composition, but here the geometry is more upfront, as in many abstract works. Actually this is like a Mondrian with a human figure imposed on top.

What we see is a configuration of rectangles with the only true curves happening with the female form, especially in the upper body and head, which rises into the implied rectangle between the two picture frames. The sedentary woman is actually the most active form in the painting, when considered abstractly. One thing I like is that the top of the head is exactly in line with the vertical center of the painting to her left, a nice mathematical touch. The drapery forms an imperfect rectangle, and the white touches on it are more abstracted than the other elements of the painting.

The grays and blacks are handled beautifully and are not at all a bummer. He loved darker or more muted palettes, as many of his celebrated night and fogbound water scenes show. His paintings in these modes were also sometimes given abstract titles, such as "Variations in Violet and Green," or "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor."

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor, 1870s, 19.8 x 31.6 in.

Variations in Violet and Green, 1871


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