CLOSE
Original image
Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images

14 Things You Might Not Know About Whistler's Mother

Original image
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.

Original image
Ape Meets Girl
arrow
Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
Original image
Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

Original image
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
presidents
Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
Original image
Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios