portraiture 19th

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!


“Naval and military uniform during this same period (the Romantic period) was admirably suited to the rather sexually emphatic display of men’s bodies. Military trousers where white or buff, coats were dark and brilliant with braid and buttons, boots were black and shiny. Between the gleaming short-waisted coat (or breastplate) and the glittering boots was a soft, creamy expanse of pale, tight-fitting doeskin. Paintings of Napoleonic heroes in action display this costume, which has the effect of riveting the eye on the male crotch in a way not customary in art since the prevalence of the sixteenth-century codpiece.” - Seeing Through Clothes, Anne Hollander [click image for details]