The Clark’s exhibition on James McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s Mother: Grey, Black, and White, is aptly named. Lithographs, etchings and drawings rendered in somber grayscale are tightly grouped through four rooms. The largest of the rooms is dominated by the titular work, the only painting in the exhibition. One of the most iconic – and, consequently, one of the most often parodied – pieces by an American artist, “Whistler’s Mother” is a prime example of the irony that dominated Whistler’s life and legacy.
An ardent proponent of the idea of art for art’s sake, Whistler thought of his own pictures first as studies in composition, as arrangements of form, line and color.
“Whistler’s Mother” – or, as it was known to the artist himself, “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1” – draws the eye first toward the point of highest contrast, the frame of a rectangular lithograph in the back center, itself another work by Whistler, displayed nearby. It’s only after the eye is led downward by the folds of the curtain, another rectangular mass, that the viewer arrives at the form of the sitter, shown in the profile, the soft, organic silhouette that contrasts sharply with the orthogonal lines dividing the rest of the painting.
“Whistler’s Mother,” however successful a study in harmony and balance, took on a radically different meaning within the American consciousness. As it first toured the country during the Great Depression, the painting ignited a sense of patriotism and nostalgia. Eventually, it came to symbolize motherhood, an interpretation that was propagated in the distribution of stamps, immortalized in monuments and referenced and parodied in advertisements.
Whistler himself recoiled at this – or any other – interpretation, saying, “The vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story it may be supposed to tell … The subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color.”
But Whistler’s insistence on the unimportance of the human interest in his works is all but impossible to reconcile with the manner in which he renders them, a sort of tenderness made all the more powerful by its economy. As in “Whistler’s Mother,” the eye tends to be drawn first to some other element in the picture, whether it be the intricate grating of a building or the dark scrawl of a shadow; rarely does the focus of the picture appear, at least initially, to be the sitter itself.
In the etching “The Doorway,” the deep contrast and detail of the architecture leads the viewer clockwise around the outside of a doorway before the haze at the center of the piece manifests into a pair of figures peering out at us, curious and ethereal.
In “La Belle Endormie” (“The Beautiful Sleeping Lady”), Whistler depicts his wife asleep in an armchair, while the rest of her body is almost violently hatched in with quick, horizontal lines. Her face, nestled in the crook of her shoulder, is sweet and vulnerable, shaded carefully in by an instrument that just barely grazes the surface of the picture.
This piece – one imagines Whistler gazing quietly across the room at his sleeping wife – is doubly poignant with the knowledge that its subject died of cancer a mere two years after the work’s creation. Her sleeping figure, so peaceful here, takes on the ominous cast of death and deterioration.
In fact, once the viewer becomes attuned to it, the note of melancholy never quite recedes from Whistler’s work in the exhibit. In “Figure Study,” the only work of the exhibition with any hint of color in it, the red – either intentionally or as a result of deprecation through time – has become something like the color of rust, as if the figure it depicts were decaying upon creation.
The exhibit Whistler’s Mother: Grey, Black, and White, which will close this Sunday, is curated in the same spirit as Whistler’s work. It’s spare and tightly composed, with clusters of works grouped together in themes that prove subtler than simple chronology. Proper due is given to both the artist’s intent and the public’s strong subsequent interpretation – with enough space left over for the viewer to make his or her own judgments on the work.