Exhibition: Whistler’s Mother

Before attending the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition, Whistler’s Mother, I knew little about the artist or his iconic work.

James McNeill Whistler American 1834–1903, worked in France 1855–59, England 1859–1903, Arrangement in grey and black no. 1 (Portrait of the artist's mother) 1871 oil on canvas. 144.3 x 162.5 cm Musée d'Orsay, Paris (RF 699)

James McNeill Whistler American 1834–1903, worked in France 1855–59, England 1859–1903, Arrangement in grey and black no. 1 (Portrait of the artist’s mother) 1871 oil on canvas. 144.3 x 162.5 cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 699)

Now I feel I’m almost an expert on  James McNeill Whistler and his painting – Portrait of the artist’s mother.
Together with the painting the exhibition features images, objects and extensive information, including a specially prepared audio visual about the artist, his mother, the times and the impact of the painting. My favourite line from comes from the painter. When he completed the work he said – Oh Mother it is mastered, it is beautiful!”

Whistler's Mother exhibition NGV. Pictures by Brooke Holm.

Whistler’s Mother exhibition NGV. Pictures by Brooke Holm.

I learned that the painting was originally titled  Arrangement in grey and black no. 1 in a conscious attempt by Whistler to downplay its narrative content. I also discovered James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in America and lived in St Petersburg, Russia, France and London. While Whistler was renowned for his flamboyant dress and famous social gatherings, his mother (as the painting suggests) was stoic and pious.
He was influenced by Japanese art and design and his art style often wasn’t appreciated. Indeed the painting was criticised for its abstract and non-narrative qualities when it first exhibited in 1872 at the Royal Academy of London.

Whistler's Mother exhibition NGV. Pictures by Brooke Holm.

Whistler’s Mother exhibition NGV. Pictures by Brooke Holm.

However by the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century the painting had become a household name and drew crowds across Europe and the United States.
In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt was so taken with the austere portrait that he devised a design of it for a Mother’s Day stamp. Controversially, the stamp designer altered the image so that the mother was staring at a pot of flowers rather than into empty space, as in the original composition.

Whistler’s Mother exhibition NGV. Pictures by Brooke Holm.

Whistler’s Mother exhibition NGV. Pictures by Brooke Holm.

The exhibition also reveals the profound influence Whistler had on some of Australia’s most prominent artists including John Longstaff, Tom Roberts, E. Phillips Fox and Hugh Ramsay.
As a result Whistler’s Mother offers the chance to see an iconic picture and to learn more about Whistler the man and his legacy.
Whistler’s Mother is on at the National Gallery of Victoria, St Kilda Road Melbourne,  until June 16. For more information and tickets visit ngv.vic.gov.au or ring 03 8620 2222.

*Jenny Burns visited the exhibition as a guest of the gallery.

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