Whistler’s Mother by Daniel E Suther­land & Ge­or­gia Toutziari

The Guardian - Review - - News - Kathryn Hughes

Over the last cen­tury and a half Whistler’s mother has been hav­ing a high old time. Per­haps 1934 was the gid­di­est year: Cole Porter name-checked her in “You’re the Top” while the US gov­ern­ment put her on a postage stamp to cel­e­brate Mother’s Day.

More re­cently the play­wright Ed­ward Bond turned her into the devil in a wheelchair in Grandma Faust, while in 1997 Rowan Atkin­son gurned in front of her as Mr Bean. When­ever Whistler’s Mother (its of­fi­cial ti­tle is Ar­range­ment in Grey and Black No 1) tours the world, gallery crowds flock to stare at the el­derly, seated fig­ure star­ing enig­mat­i­cally into the mid­dle dis­tance.

Along with the Mona Lisa and Girl With a Pearl

Ear­ring, she has be­come an in­stantly quotable pin-up of pop­u­lar art. Which is odd be­cause “Whistler’s mother” doesn’t ex­ist, not re­ally. The fact that the woman in the pic­ture was in­deed the artist’s mother was not, at least for James McNeill Whistler, the point at all. The Lon­don-based Amer­i­can painter had no in­ter­est in do­ing fam­ily por­traits – Anna Whistler was a stand-in for some­one who hadn’t turned up – nor was he con­cerned with con­jur­ing up “wis­dom”, “age” or even “moth­ers” in gen­eral. As the pic­ture’s real ti­tle sug­gests, what ac­tu­ally drove him was the tech­ni­cal chal­lenge of mod­u­lat­ing tones of black and grey in a way that made them leg­i­ble in half-light.

He had done some­thing sim­i­lar nearly 10 years ear­lier in The White Girl when he’d painted his mis­tress Jo Hif­fer­nan in a froth of white on more white. Now here was another aes­thetic ex­per­i­ment, this time at the op­po­site end of the colour spec­trum.

For a painter who said he wasn’t in­ter­ested in mimetic por­trai­ture, il­lus­tra­tive anec­dote or sym­bolic sig­nalling, it’s ironic that Whistler is now best re­mem­bered for a paint­ing that ap­pears to do all three. There’s some­thing telling, too, in the fact that Anna Whistler her­self never seemed to grasp that she was only there as a use­ful ar­range­ment of shape and vol­ume rather than as a sub­ject who ac­tu­ally mat­tered.

When Whistler fin­ished the pic­ture and mur­mured “Oh Mother … it is beau­ti­ful,” it was his hand­i­work he was ad­mir­ing, not her bone struc­ture. And there’s no get­ting away from the odd fact that, while ev­ery­one

Anna Whistler never grasped that she was only there as a use­ful ar­range­ment of shape and vol­ume rather than as a sub­ject who mat­tered

agreed that the pic­ture was the very spit of Anna, they quickly spot­ted one de­lib­er­ate dis­tor­tion. In­stead of an ac­cu­rate ren­der­ing of her neat lit­tle slip­pers, Whistler had given his mother “sprawl­ing, flat peas­ant feet”.

Daniel E Suther­land and Ge­or­gia Toutziari are adamant that we shouldn’t try to read any­thing into this. Yet they pro­ceed to of­fer such a trea­sure trove of odd in­for­ma­tion about Whistler mère et fils that it seems a dere­lic­tion of cu­rios­ity, duty even, not to probe fur­ther.

You can’t help notic­ing, for in­stance, how strangely the flesh-and-blood Anna was po­si­tioned in her adult son’s life, man­ag­ing to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously at its cen­tre and en­tirely to one side. Liv­ing around the cor­ner from his stu­dio in Chelsea, the Amer­i­can-born widow acted as “Jemie’s” amanu­en­sis, agent, cheer­leader and chief scold. She pre­pared lunch for visi­tors at his stu­dio, nagged him to num­ber his en­grav­ings in or­der to boost their mar­ket value, and told him to make friends with im­por­tant peo­ple who might buy his work. She re­mained hugely proud of what she called “my paint­ing”, claim­ing it not just as a por­trait but as an em­blem of the con­tri­bu­tion she had made to her dar­ling son’s ca­reer.

“He al­ways con­fides in his mother,” Anna ap­prov­ingly told her friends which, un­sur­pris­ingly, turns out to be the op­po­site of true. Whistler was in­stead care­ful to present his mother with a tightly edited ver­sion of his ex­tremely rack­ety life. When­ever she met his dis­rep­utable male friends, they were in­structed to be on their best be­hav­iour. How else can one ex­plain the fact that this deeply re­li­gious woman be­lieved the bois­ter­ously drunk and gay Al­ger­non Swin­burne to be a de­light­ful young man fit to be her hon­orary son?

And as for Hif­fer­nan, Jemie’s Ir­ish mis­tress, Anna seems to have thought that she was noth­ing more than his favourite model. When in 1870 the girl-mad Whistler had an il­le­git­i­mate son by a lo­cal cham­ber­maid, the news was kept from Anna, who sailed on obliv­i­ous, of­fer­ing prayers and tracts to any­one she thought looked spir­i­tu­ally peaky.

While Suther­land and Toutziari are metic­u­lous in ren­der­ing the busy life of Anna Whistler – she crossed the At­lantic 11 times as she fol­lowed her peri­patetic hus­band and sons around the world – they re­main un­in­ter­ested in teas­ing out the emo­tional res­o­nances of these con­stant dis­lo­ca­tions. What we get in­stead is a re­spect­ful por­trait of a woman who prided her­self on her moral re­straint and good breed­ing, yet whom, for some un­ac­count­able rea­son, her son de­cided to paint with cum­ber­some feet that ap­pear poised to step on other peo­ple’s toes.

To buy Whistler’s Mother go to guardian­book­shop.com.

Whistler’s Mother: Por­trait of an Ex­tra­or­di­nary Life by Daniel E Suther­land & Ge­or­gia Toutziari, Yale, £18.99

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