Portrait of the Painter's Mother: Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, by James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). 1870-71. Oil on Canvas. H. 144.3; W. 162.5 cm. Collection: Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source: The Athenaeum (see also Pennell, facing p. 168). [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Whistler's Nocturnes were not the only works that occupied him in the early 1870s. The first of his large portraits of this period was that of his mother, which was completed in 1871, but not shown until the following year. Despite his off-hand way of talking about it, and his preoccupation with colour, it is instinct with Whistler's feeling for her. As is clear from this reproduction, he used very little paint on it, the canvas (actually the back of a canvas) "being simply rubbed over to get the dress, and, as at first the dado had been painted all across the canvas, it even now shows through the black of the skirt. The wonderful handkerchief in the tired old hands, according to his friend and assistant Walter Greaves who saw it in the studio, being 'nothing but a bit of white and oil'" (Pennell 168). The pattern "of colour and of line" was extremely important to him:

No painter since Hals and Velasquez ever thought so much of placing his figure on the canvas inside the frame; not only do the long straight lines of the dado give the figure its proper place, but the upright lines are repeated in the hangings, and the two framed prints continue the square quiet pattern. Better than any painter since Velasquez, he understood the value of restrained line and restrained colour. The long, vertical and horizontal lines of the background, even of the footstool and the matting, even the brushwork on the wall, give quietness and peace to the portrait, and the pose, that could be kept for ever, is more dignified than the frenzied action preferred by certain of his predecessors..... If Whistler found [the pose] anywhere except in his own studio, it could only have been at Haarlem, where Franz Hals' old ladies sit together with something of the same serenity and dignity expressed in much the same scheme of colour. Whistler had been to Holland, he must then have known the beautiful group, and memories of it may have haunted him. [Pennell 168-69]

The Pennells add that "Swinburne has not been alone in seeing its 'intense pathos of significance and tender depth of expression.' But this is not what Whistler intended any one, save himself, to see" (169).

Related Material

Image acquisition, commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use the image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the source and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


"James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Portrait of the Artist's Mother." Musée d'Orsay. Web. 1 February 2018.

Pennell, Elizabeth Robins and Joseph. Life of James McNeill Whistler. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Lippincott / London: Heinemann, 1908. Contributed by Whitney Museum of American Art, Frances Mulhall Achilles Library. Web. 1 February 2018.

Spencer, Robin. Whistler. Rev. ed. London: Studio Editions, 1993.

Created 1 February 2018