When James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1881, few could have predicted that it would one day be an iconic American painting.
When James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1881, few could have predicted that it would one day be an iconic American painting. Philadelphia newspapers initially paid little attention to the painting, the second work by the Lowell, Massachusetts-born artist (1834–1903) to be shown in the United States. Its title, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Mother puzzled viewers, as did its somber palette and sparse details. The painting, however, exerted a powerful force on local artists, and Whistler was surprised by the degree to which the public engaged with the subject. Years later, he wrote: “to me it is interesting as a picture of my mother, but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” It turned out that the public cared greatly about the connection between painter and sitter, and the painting, known today as Whistler’s Mother, is among the most recognizable in the world.
To celebrate this exceptional loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art—the first time in 142 years that it will be seen in this city—the exhibition will explore the circumstances surrounding the portrait’s creation and its legacy in Philadelphia. Just as Whistler was inspired by Rembrandt’s etchings of his own mother, so too were local artists spurred by Whistler and their own ambitions to make depictions of their mothers. Some would respond directly to Whistler’s Mother while others took an entirely different approach. The installation will bring Whistler’s iconic portrait into dialogue with paintings, drawings, and etchings by artists associated with Philadelphia—Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), Dox Thrash (1893–1965), Alice Neel (1900–1984), and others—and invite consideration of the individual women represented and the relationship between artist and sitter, child and parent.
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