James Whistler - Arrangement in gray and black

by Laura Gerstmann


Arrangement in gray and black: Portrait of the artist's mother No. 1 is one of the most famous works of the American artist James Whistler outside the USA. His mother sat for him while visiting her son in London. Completely calm and with an alert gaze, Anna McNeil Whistler sits on a simple chair. Mindfully, she has folded her hands in her lap and is clutching a handkerchief. Mrs. Whistler is seen in an absolute side view. Besides the person, the room features only a curtain and a framed picture. The work radiates calm and intimacy. 

However, besides the carefully and flatteringly rendered face of the mother, Whistler was not only interested in the positive portrayal of his mother. The double title is reminiscent of a stylization of realistic aesthetics. The psychological significance is reinforced by the simple composition of form and color. He contrasts the mother's black robe with the linear gray wall. Neutral tones dominate. His linear and chromatic composition further illustrate his interest in printmaking. Thus, the painting in the black frame represents a view of the Thames, part of a series of sixteen etchings of scenes on the Thames: Black Lion Wharf of 1859.


Here Whistler created a painting in which the person portrayed stands alone in a seemingly effortlessly created sparse but aesthetic composition. He created a work with a similar formal structure when he portrayed the writer Thomas Carlyle. 


James Whistler - Arrangement in gray and black

Oil on canvas, 1872, 143.3 × 162.4 cm, Musée d'Orsay in Paris