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Histories
Whistler's mother and the West Coast
A bohemian Hebridean connection is revealed.

Whistler's portrait of Thomas Carlyle

2003 marks the centenary of the death of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, one of the most influential painters of the Victorian era, and this year Glasgow is host to the world's largest retrospectives of his work. Whistler was, in his own words, a "painter, gentleman and critic", and he was one of the leading lights of the late 19th century bohemian life, with a reputation for witty sayings to rival Oscar Wilde. But what links a Massachusetts-born Victorian dandy with Scotland?

The answer lies in Whistler's painting "Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother". This unconventional portrait of a grey-garbed matron, commonly knows as "Whistler's Mother", patiently sitting for her artistic son became an American icon and an emblem of motherhood. The subject of the painting, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, was born in North Carolina in 1804 to a middle class family of Scots descent.

Anna led a remarkable life for a 19th century housewife; moving from the United States, via Tsarist Russia and sudden widowhood at a young age, to London with her son 'Jemsie', where she recorded in her diaries visits to the Whistler household from such literary and artistic luminaries as Algernon Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A traditional woman with a strong sense of morality, Anna Whistler upheld the conventional family values of the time, turning a blind eye to her artistic son's bohemian amorous involvements in favour of encouraging his genius.

Thanks to correspondence from the Centre for Whistler Studies at Glasgow University, it appears that Anna was descended from the McNeills of Barra, as Whistler himself stated in a letter replying to a query about his Scottish heritage: "Our MacNeills are those of Bar[r]a-the Highland McNeills….-though I fear I have rather neglected my cousinships, having lived so much away from my own people."

A group of Glasgow artists who called Whistler 'The Master' reinforced the links between the artist and Scotland. Artists such as James Guthrie and John Lavery, known as 'The Glasgow boys', lobbied the Corporation of Glasgow to buy Whistler's portrait of Thomas Carlyle, a similar composition to "Whistler's Mother". So in 1891 the corporation became the first public body to purchase Whistler's work. Although Whistler visited Scotland only once, at the age of 15, he forged strong Glaswegian connections with the art dealer Alexander Reid and the collector William.

He was awarded an honorary degree by Glasgow University in 1905, and Whistler's sister-in-law, Rosalind Phillip, bequeathed the artist's book, papers, photos and letters to the Hunterian museum. As a result, Glasgow is now a world centre of Whistleriana. The portrait of Whistler's mother was lent to the Hunterian Museum by the Musée D'Orsay in Paris where it is usually on permanent display. So it seems a portrait of a Barra descendant, which displayed the first hints of abstraction in modern art, has enjoyed a kind of emigrant homecoming, as Anna McNeill Whistler sits stoically in the land of her ancestors, captured in her son's muted representation.

Next in the Histories series here.

Thanks to Edinburgh University Press - all rights reserved

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