Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. – James Whistler

Why does James Whistler not even mention his mother in the painting title Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. ?

  • Rebellion in grey and black planes
  • Whistler inherited her cold manner
  • He only cared for form and composition

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Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. portrays an iconic mother and a Victorian Mona Lisa. These are only two of the many takes on this ultra famous painting. It’s more well known by the colloquial name Whistler’s Mother. That’s because he did this portrait of his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler. Though many say Anna looks much older in this portrayal, she was only 67 when he painted this. At the time she was living with her son and adjusting to his bohemian lifestyle. Anna called it “flamboyant” and made a weak attempt to tolerate it. We can see how adept she was at tolerance from the look on her strident face.

Whistler painted Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. in 1871. By that time he’d developed quite a reputation as a dandy with great wit and a bit of a character. Best buddies with Oscar Wilde, Whistler was more persona than gentleman. He put on a show and people often labeled him as “difficult”. This wasn’t mere gossip. Whistler took one critic to court for a bad review and he wrote a book entitled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. It’s almost as if he relished the role of misanthrope.

The artist was confident and leaned into his personality. It’s not evident that his mother felt the same way about him. Whistler painted her with a stoic and unyielding countenance. He also boxed her in and washed Anna out in muted tones. Even the way he titled this painting nearly obliterates her identity. Notice how the name focused on his composition and color usage rather than her qualities. From the title alone, it’s hard to even imagine a woman in this masterpiece. But she’s his mother. So, despite his best efforts at erasing her, Anna owns Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.  by James Abbott Whistler

Scandalous Whistler Keeps his Mother out of It

You may know this painting by the name Whistler’s Mother. But the painter refused to include her in the title. It wasn’t an emotional omission. Rather, Whistler was making an artistic choice when he selected this title. He was a revolutionary painter. He put portrait conventions aside. Instead of telling a narrative story, he kept his figures flat, expressive, and simplified. Whistler was fond of fluid gray pigments. We see that preference reach a spectacular peak with Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.

The painter forced us to see his particular point of view with this title. He made it clear what the painting was about for him. Planes of color compose this story in his eyes. When Whistler titled this, it was a scandalous move. The art community took offense at the title. In the 1800s, art critics weren’t as open to new ways of seeing. Unfortunately for Whistler, that was his whole point with this piece. He named this painting as an arrangement of dispassionate colors. This was an effective reduction of this woman into a formality of composition. The art world labeled it unfeeling and renamed the painting after his mother. Thus, they missed Whistler’s point.

That’s one irony to Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. But it also leads into another that we still see today. No matter Whistler’s intention, he created a distinct and memorable image of his mother in this portrait. In fact, this painting stands out as so singular it’s become iconic to the point that it epitomizes motherhood. That’s an odd irony too. After all, what’s maternal about this woman? She’s stiff, aloof, and seems to ignore the painter. This translates into a cool and detached woman – not exactly an ideal mother. Her dour profile coupled with Whistler’s dismissive title seem to depict a distant relationship between painter and subject. So, why does she also become a visual icon of motherhood?

We get one clue from the other common take on Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. Of course, it’s first and foremost thought to be an iconic portrait of motherhood. Strange but true. Second to that, people love to compare this portrait to the Mona Lisa. It’s often called the Victorian version of the famous Da Vinci painting. Mona Lisa gazes in our direction while Whistler’s mother looks away. But these women are both mysterious. Da Vinci’s lady has a one-of-a-kind smile. It’s the enigma that keeps us all guessing through centuries. Anna Matilda (née McNeill) Whistler also seems like more mystery than mother here. She’s void of expression, a stoic shadow figure.

Whistler portrays his mother in one dimensional profile similar to traditional shadow portraits. These were dark silhouette cutouts on a white background. The painter simulates this in the depiction of his mother with Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. He creates containers for her with a boxed-in background. Whistler drains her blood into planes of grey and black. Her stern composure thus takes on the bloodless, stone-fleshed statue. She’s not happy to be here. So, Whistler takes her out of the scene. Set on the canvas as a representation of black and grey forms, she doesn’t look happy. But Anna Matilda (née McNeill) Whistler does seem right at home.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. – FAQs

What was James Abbott Whistler’s intent when he painted Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.?

Most portraits seek to portray a particular person. But Whistler focused instead on his radical composition method of modulating color tones and planes. This scandalized the art world at the time. In fact, the painting still carries the colloquial name Whistler’s Mother. The art community labeled it thus in offended reaction to what they saw as Whistler’s “diss” to his mother.

Why did Whistler not put his mother in the title of the iconic painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.?

In many ways Whistler depicts his mother’s true countenance with Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. She was a critical, and remote mother in his opined experience. This comes through in the portrait. But certainly not in the title. That’s because Whistler’s title highlights his obsession at the time. He was an art world rebel of 1871. Whistler cared most about shifting planes of neutral colors like black and grey. That was his focus and thus, what he titles the painting as well.

Where can I see Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. in person?

Whistler’s masterpiece lives in Paris. You can visit it at the glorious Musée d’Orsay. It’s a wonderful museum holding mostly French art. So, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. stands out in this context. In fact, this Whistler painting made history in 1891, when it was twenty years old. It was the first American painting the French state purchased. Whistler’s masterpiece still holds high esteem as one of the most famous artworks by an American outside of the U.S.

Enjoyed this Arrangement

in Grey and Black No. 1. analysis?

Check out these other essays on American painters.

Whistler’s Mother at the Musée d’Orsay

Margaret F. MacDonald, ed., Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon, Lund Humphries, Burlington, Vt., 2003

MacDonald, Margaret (2003). Whistler’s Mother: an American icon. Aldershot, Hampshire: Lund Humphries.

Weintraub, Stanley. 2001. Whistler: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press).Weintraub, Stanley. 2001. Whistler: A Biography (New York: Da Capo Press).

Whistler, James McNeil (1967). The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Dover Publications.

Hall, Dennis; Hall, Susan (2006). American Icons [Three Volumes]: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things that Have Shaped Our Culture. San Diego, California: Harcourt.