Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother

Museé d’Orsay, Paris

Date 1871

Oil on canvas
144.3 cm x 162.5 cm
Signed with a butterfly at the upper left

This portrait was reputedly executed on the back of an old canvas, and was begun when a model fell ill and could not pose. Whistler’s mother initially stood for the painting, but had to sit because of her frailty. This is the first painting by Whistler to be called an “arrangement” of colours, a daring statement considering this was a portrait of his own mother. However, Whistler also succeeded in conveying something of her strong Protestant character in the sombre pose, expression and colouring. Look at how sensitively Whistler painted her face, lace cap, hands and handkerchief. Contrast this with the bolder shapes of her dress, the curtain and the wall. Whistler used a variety of techniques in this painting. The curtain is painted thinly, but the pattern is picked up with thicker spots of coloured paint. Notice that Whistler’s etchingBlack Lion Wharf is hung on the wall in the background.


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