Art history

Whistler’s Mother: Does this classic American painting have a ‘racist backstory’?

The famed “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1″ has become the symbol of American motherhood, but one expert says there’s more to it

James Abbott McNeill Whistler via Wikimedia

James McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1” — the iconic 1871 portrait of the artist’s elderly mother — is one of the most beloved paintings in American history. An austere, solid presence in black offset by white lace, this 19th-century Mona Lisa has been immortalized on postage stamps, used as Allied propaganda, and skewered by both The New Yorker and Mad Magazine. Purchased by the French state in 1891, the portrait is now held by the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris. During the Great Depression — when the French government loaned the painting to the US. for a whirlwind 13-city tour — Americans marched on the street carrying Anna Whistler’s visage, says Daniel Sutherland, author of Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake. “It was then that she became not just a symbol of motherhood, but also a reminder of the need for sacrifice, thrift, faith, and hard work,” he says. “Good old American values in a time of crisis.”

Now, “Whistler’s Mother” is back in the U.S., making a stop at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass., where it will be exhibited through Sept. 27, before returning to the d’Orsay. Yet, its “homecoming” — it was actually painted in London by an American expat — is tinged with a dark history, says Mario Valdes, a producer for PBS, the BBC, and other networks whose research deals with black representations in art. Valdes sent an email to Women in the World calling attention to the painting’s “atrociously racist backstory.”

“I’ve been trying to tell this story, but it’s become clear that the art world won’t go near this icon,” says Valdes in a conversation over the phone. “But it’s a very stunning example of how much in our national DNA racism is.”

The truth is: well, it’s complicated. Yes, Anna McNeill Whistler was born in the South to a slave-holding, plantation-owning family. Yes, she tried to prevent her uncle’s black wife and their mixed children from inheriting the family’s land. And yes, her other son served as a doctor to the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But the painting also obscures other facets of Anna’s life and personality: her adventurous spirit (she crossed the Atlantic 11 times in her life), the way she upped and moved her children to remote, unknown Russia after her engineer husband got a job working for the tsar, and her hustling skills, which she used to get her artist son commissions and money from wealthy families and patrons in the U.S. while he lived in Europe.

“She was a fascinating person,” says Justin McCann, a Whistler scholar and curatorial fellow at Colby College. “And she had a strong influence on her son, not only because she practically raised him on her own after her husband died when Whistler was 14, but because she offered him tremendous support and encouragement in his art.”


Anna McNeill Whistler was born in Wilmington, N.C., the daughter of a wealthy physician and a prominent Southern Belle. She spent her childhood and adolescence moving between North Carolina, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Georgetown, and even Great Britain, where she had two half-sisters. She married George Washington Whistler, a brilliant engineer and widower with three children, in 1831, when she was 27 years old. Anna had two sons — James and William — and suffered two miscarriages before George was offered a job by Tsar Nicholas I to build a railroad in Russia and the entire brood moved to St. Petersburg.

It was in Russia that Anna instilled in her sons a love of their Southern heritage. “They learned all the plantation ballads from her, relished her Southern recipes, and grew up with a romantic vision of life in the Old South,” says Sutherland. “James, especially, considered genteel gentlemanly behavior a Southern ideal.” Paul G. Marks — who co-edited Whistler’s papers — says that the painter identified with the South for another reason: “Whistler believed he was an outsider, and the Southern aspect of his life story is based on that.”


Anna — who was constantly shuttling the children between St. Petersburg and London or Paris to avoid the brutal Russian winters — finally moved her family back to the United States after her husband died of cholera. Due to her connections — she was friendly with Robert E. Lee, for example — she could send her elder, difficult, and impetuous son James to West Point. (He was eventually expelled). But she had no money left.

Which partly explains why, in 1841, she joined several other family members in filing a suit challenging the terms of her uncle’s will, which gave his plantation holdings and enormous wealth to his black wife and their mixed-race children. “Anna believed in slavery from a so-called ‘moral standpoint,’ like many Southerners at the time,” says McCann. “But James really felt that he was entitled to that money his mixed-race cousins got. He already was enamored with the South, but I think this decision about his uncle’s will really fueled his racism.” (Whistler was, by all accounts, not a nice guy — to anyone — but he displayed particular antipathy toward blacks, hurling epithets and punches for no reason when one would cross his path.)

By the time the Civil War erupted, James had been living as a painter in Europe for several years; his brother William had married a Southern cousin, and so served as a surgeon for the Confederate Army. Anna, however, was torn between the Northern and Southern sides of her family and left for England, where she would eventually spend nine years living with her bohemian son.


Anna was living with James in London when he finally painted her. “He had kicked his gorgeous red-headed girlfriend out so she could move in,” says Jay Clarke, a curator at the Clark Institute. “The story goes that one day a model did not show up for an appointment when James turned to his mother and said, ‘I always wanted to paint a portrait of you.’ The rest is history.”

It’s ironic, in a way, that “Arrangement in Gray and Black” has become a symbol of American motherhood. Not because Anna McNeill wasn’t a wonderful mother — she was, even if she could be stubborn and overly indulgent toward her son (“she was not a disciplinarian,” says Sutherland). But because Whistler himself wanted his portraits not to be seen as paintings of people but as “arrangements” of color and lines and light. It’s perhaps a testament to Anna’s outsize presence in his life, or the awe and reverence she commanded — that the subject herself comes to life. “When you see the portrait in person, it’s monumental,” says McCann. “It is full of devotion and respect.”

And like almost every artifact of American history, and indeed every human narrative, the painting and its subject are full of ambiguities and contradictions. Indeed, probe deep enough into any American family that’s been here for a couple centuries, and you’re likely to find some shameful episodes and traits. Which perhaps makes this portrait even more quintessentially American than before.

“Knowing all this about Whistler and his mother and their family is important and interesting and instructive,” says Marks. “But it doesn’t change the fact that it is an excellent painting.”


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