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