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
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

Original image
© Nintendo
arrow
fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES