James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother, 1871, oil on canvas, 144.3 x 162.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source
Arrangement in Grey and Black has become an iconic piece of American art despite being executed whilst the artist and his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, were living in London. Little is known about how the painting came to be, but we do know that the piece was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872. This is surprising when one considers Whistler’s turbulent relationship with the English art world; the Academy disapproved of the word ‘arrangement’ being used to describe the painting, and so the second part of the title - The Artist’s Mother - was added before its public presentation.
Anna was in her late sixties when the portrait was painted. Though the piece is often read as a statement on motherhood and family values, I’ve always thought that Anna’s dress and particular positioning - how she faces the ominous-looking curtain - reference the inevitability of death in old age. Whether Whistler intended this or not, Arrangement in Grey and Black is a really beautiful composition. I hope the 1997 film Bean hasn’t ruined it for any of you!