Sunday, April 23, 2017

Whistler's Mother

I  first saw an image of  "Whistler's Mother" as printed on a bubble gum wrapper when I was about ten years old.  Apparently that association seemed unlikely enough to have stayed in my memory ever since.

About fifteen years later I vaguely recall seeing the original in Paris -  but in a museum with so many exciting Impressionist  paintings, it was far less impressive and did not get much of my attention.

Now the original "Arrangement in Grey and Black" has finally followed me to Chicago - so I can contemplate it at greater length.

And as it turns out --  I really don't like it.

That may be the result of it being hung beneath protective glass whose reflections destroy most attempts to feel that careful arrangement in gray and black which the artist wanted us to appreciate.

But even without the glass -- it would still probably feel leaden and creepy to me.

This lonely, morose old woman is about to fall through the bottom of the canvas and sink beneath the floor.

Visually, all that keeps her afloat is the framed white print behind her -- announcing the brilliance of the talented print maker - her son.

As a gray and black abstract painting, it resembles the grim despair of Milton Resnick - but without the strength.  It just feels depressing.

That could be how the artist felt about his mom -- but looking around the room at his other work -- it's how he feels in general.  He savors melancholy.

Nocturne, 1878

That melancholy is most beautifully expressed in his nocturnal seascapes , like the print shown above - which also accompanied this exhibit.

While, as also demonstrated by another large painting in this show -  the  portrait of the great Chicago collector, Jerome Eddy -  Whistler did not have the temperament to portray other people.  He was too much into himself.

I also doubt that he had a sense of pictorial volume strong enough to handle close-ups of the human body.  His proper subject was landscape.

Charles Guerard – 1883

 The show also included three variations on Whistler's design - of which the above is my favorite.
This is an arrangement in gray and black that I actually find appealing.

 Richard Josey – 1879

Whereas this version - the one by an artist more closely associated with Whistler himself - shows the sentimental direction that will eventually take the image to a bubble gum wrapper.

Thomas Robert way – 1892  


Stephen F. Eisenman has also written about this show for New City - primarily focusing on the issue of form ("Grey and Black") versus content ("Whistler's Mother").

As an art historian he places the issue into the context of its time -- and details the content that he has observed himself - the handkerchief, gold ring, and ruddy cheeks - which, by the way , can be observed in an online reproduction.

What he does not discuss is the form of "Whistler's Mother",  except in contrast to the three printed variations where "the subtle harmonies of tone are sacrificed for the drama of black and white. Moreover, what is most emphasized in the prints is the face, not the surrounding forms or interplay of tonalities."

While I would say that if you go to see the actual painting - and  try to peer through the protective  glass - you might be hard pressed to conclude that those "subtle harmonies of tone" and "interplay of tonalities"  have been arranged all that well.


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