By James McNeill Whistler
Commonly known as the Victorian Mona Lisa, ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’, (the original title), it has its rightful place in the world of famous paintings. In 1871, using oil on canvas, James McNeill Whistler painted a picture of his mother Anna McNeill Whistler. However, it was not his original idea.
It has been said that the original model was not able to make the appointment and after having prepared all the materials, James McNeill Whistler asked his mother to stand in for her. The idea was to paint the model in a standing position but Whistler’s mother, who was 67 at that time, felt that she would not be able to stand for long periods and chose to sit instead.
The work was done in London when Whistler’s mother was living with her son at 96 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and the painting was exhibited at the 104th Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art in London in 1872. The academy originally wanted to reject the work causing a rift between Whistler and the British art world; therefore Arrangement was the last painting he submitted for the Academy’s approval.
The painting is 56.81 by 63.94 inches (144,3 cm × 162,4 cm) and is typical of the ‘Realism’ movement during that year. It can be viewed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and has been owned by the French state since 1891.
I find the picture a little bit odd with the seating position facing nothing in particular. The side view would have been better with just the head and shoulders but to include the whole room leaves the viewer wondering if something is missing or hiding on the left. The viewer tends to be drawn more to the picture of Black Lion Wharf (1859) that is hanging on the wall rather than the subject itself. On a positive note, the lacework and the facial complexion are of outstanding quality and the attention to the details on the curtains is exceptional. Typical of the realism style, it could easily be seen as a photographic image, and at the time it was a piece that was popular and in demand. Whistler was so proud of his work that he designed a frame that would present the painting perfectly.