Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

14 Things You Might Not Know About Whistler's Mother

Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

American artist James McNeill Whistler is best remembered for his portrait of his beloved mother, fittingly known as Whistler's Mother. But while affection grew for this painting, which is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 21, its true intentions—and even its real name—got lost. 

1. IT WAS PAINTED ON A WHIM. 

In 1871, the Massachusetts-born painter had received a commission from a Member of Parliament to paint his daughter, Maggie Graham. When several sittings failed to provide any form of a finished painting, Maggie flaked on Whistler after he had already prepared a canvas, so he asked his mother to literally stand in. Or, as his mother explained in one of many letters that unintentionally wrote the history of this piece, "If the youthful Maggie had not failed Jemie," as she called her son, "in the picture which I trust he may yet finish from Mr. Grahame [sic], he would have had no time for my portrait." 

2. WHISTLER’S MOTHER ORIGINALLY STOOD. 

Standing still for long stretches proved difficult for the aging lady, and she later wrote to her sister, "I stood bravely, two or three days, whenever he was in the mood for studying me as his pictures are studies, and I so interested stood as a statue! But realized it to be too great an effort, so my dear patient Artist who is gently patient as he is never wearying in his perseverance concluding to paint me sitting perfectly at my ease." 

3. IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK. 

Measuring in at 56.8 inches by 64.2 inches, Whistler's mother is almost life-size within the frame. 

4. WHISTLER DIDN’T CALL THE PIECE WHISTLER’S MOTHER. 

Following in a theme of naming his paintings like musical compositions, Whistler dubbed this portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black - Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Eventually, it became known as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. Whistler’s Mother is a nickname popularized by the public.

5. WHISTLER’S MOTHER WAS ONE OF HIS BIGGEST FANS. 

A true Victorian, Anna McNeill Whistler was religious and always tried to be a good housewife and mother. Widowed at 45, she was deeply devoted to her surviving children. In 1864, she moved to London to be closer to them, eventually becoming aware of James's bohemian lifestyle. Though we might assume the debauchery of that life would fluster the devout mum, she supported her son by being his model, his caretaker, and even on occasion his art agent. Anna once wrote of him, "The artistic circle in which he is only too popular, is visionary and unreal tho so fascinating. God answered my prayers for his welfare by leading me here." 

6. AMERICAN VIEWERS GOT A GOOD LOOK AT THE PIECE DURING THE DEPRESSION. 

During the Great Depression, the piece traveled America in a 13-city tour, which included a stop at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. From this exposure, America fell hard for Whistler's Mother. She was not only featured on a 1934 stamp, but also inspired an 8-foot-tall bronze statue erected high on a hill overlooking Ashland, Pennsylvania. Built by the Ashland Boys’ Association in 1938 as an ode to mothers everywhere, the pedestal of this monument quotes the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, reading "A Mother is the Holiest Thing Alive." 

7. THE PAINTING GOT POLITICAL DURING WORLD WAR I. 

In 1915, the painting was co-opted by the Irish Canadian Rangers 199th Overseas Battalion to encourage volunteers to enlist. 

8. IT RECEIVED MIXED REVIEWS. 

Debuting in London when flamboyance and romanticism were all the rage, Whistler's Mother was not what the art world wanted. The London Times sneered, "An artist who could deal with large masses so grandly might have shown a little less severity, and thrown in a few details of interest without offence." 

Conversely, a Paris critic was modestly impressed, writing, "It was disturbing, mysterious, of a different color from those we are accustomed to seeing. Also the canvas was scarcely covered, its grain almost invisible; the compatibility of the grey and the truly inky black was a joy to the eye, surprised by these unusual harmonies." 

9. THE ROYAL ACADEMY INITIALLY REJECTED IT. 

The members of the Academy couldn’t wrap their heads around the painting's perceived severity. But Whistler had an ally in English artist and director of the National Gallery William Boxall, who pushed the Academy to reconsider, and the Academy ultimately accepted Whistler's Mother, albeit begrudgingly. While the portrait hung in their esteemed halls, it was tucked away in a poor location. Whistler felt this burn so much that he never submitted another work to the Academy.

10. AN ICONIC MUSEUM REDEEMED ITS REPUTATION. 

In 1891, the prestigious Parisian museum Musée du Luxembourg purchased the work. Whistler was elated, writing, "Just think—to go and look at one’s own picture hanging on the walls of Luxembourg—remembering how it was treated in England—to be met everywhere with deference and treated with respect…and to know that all this is…a tremendous slap in the face to the Academy and the rest! Really it is like a dream." He was right. Following the Luxembourg's acquisition, his reputation improved, as did his popularity among patrons. 

11. IT HAS BOUNCED AROUND A BIT SINCE THEN. 

Though it has occasionally crossed the sea for American exhibitions, Whistler's Mother has been the property of the French Government for over a century. But its home within France has shifted. In 1922, the painting moved from the Luxembourg to the Louvre. Sixty four years later, the popular portrait settled in the Musée d'Orsay, which is still its permanent home (when it's not touring to other museums around the world.)

12. IT’S ALSO WHISTLER’S FRAME. 

The artist designed the frame himself. Its golden hue reflects the modest gold wedding band on his mother's finger. 

13. WHISTLER’S MOTHER HAS A SISTER PIECE. 

Scottish philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle was one of the few instantly taken by Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. So he sat for the lesser known, but similarly staged Arrangement in Grey and Black No 2. As Whistler later recounted, "He liked the simplicity of it, the old lady sitting with her hands in her lap, and said he would be painted. And he came one morning soon, and he sat down, and I had the canvas ready, and my brushes and palette, and Carlyle said, 'And now, mon, fire away!'" 

14. IT HAS BECOME ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS AMERICAN WORKS ABROAD. 

Described as the Victorian Mona Lisa, Whistler's Mother has become so iconic and so ubiquitous in global culture that it has been favorably compared to The Scream, Mona Lisa, and American Gothic.

This post originally appeared in 2015.

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John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz
Murdered

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

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Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
60 Years Later, a Lost Stanley Kubrick Script Has Been Found
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images

A “lost” screenplay co-written by famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been found after 60 years, Vulture reports.

The screenplay is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret, which Vulture describes as a reverse Lolita (plot summary for those who forgot high school English class: a man enters a relationship with a woman because of his obsession with her 12-year-old daughter). In Burning Secret, a man befriends an adolescent boy in order to seduce his mother. Zweig’s other works have inspired films like Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (which the director claims he "stole" from Zweig's novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl).

Kubrick’s screenplay adaptation is co-written by novelist Calder Willingham and dated October 24, 1956. Although the screenplay bears a stamp from MGM’s screenwriting department, Nathan Abrams—the Bangor University professor who discovered the script—thinks it’s likely the studio found it too risqué for mass audiences.

“The child acts as an unwitting go-between for his mother and her would-be lover, making for a disturbing story with sexuality and child abuse churning beneath its surface,” Abrams told The Guardian. It's worth noting, however, that Kubrick directed an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1962, which MGM distributed, and it was also met with a fair share of controversy.

Abrams said the screenplay for Burning Secret is complete enough that it could be created by filmmakers today. He noted that the discovery is particularly exciting because it confirms speculations Kubrick scholars have had for decades.

“Kubrick aficionados knew he wanted to do it, [but] no one ever thought it was completed,” Abrams told The Guardian.

The Guardian reports that Abrams found the screenplay while researching his book Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. The screenplay is owned by the family of one of Kubrick’s colleagues.

[h/t Vulture]

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