James Whistler—Portrait of the Artist’s Mother

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the American painter who chose to live abroad most of his adult life, was a skilled portrait artist and printmaker.  Whistler’s fame is derived from many chance happenings which were all bound by the artist’s unconventional studio process and his seemingly driven desire to magnify his vision and create.  Six years after the cessation of hostilities known as the American Civil War, the American artist living abroad succeeded in painting a masterpiece.  The artist himself was quite pleased with his vision of his ailing mother and deeply satisfied with his effort directed to her portrait.  When he finished with his labors on the portrait, Whistler set his brushes down, turned toward this mother and said, “Oh mother,  it is masterful and beautiful”.

It is admirable that Whistler was pleased with his effort of capturing more than just his mother’s likeness—after all the artist’s gaze had to overcome a lot of challenges as she was ailing while she posed for three months seated for her son— which is due in no small degree to the artist’s driven skill-set and his driven personality to work so diligently.  Whistler tells us quiet clearly about his work ethic and vision in his journals and diaries with comments such as the following:  “To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano…Work alone will efface the footsteps of work…An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”

What are your thoughts on the artist’s 1871 vision of his mother?  Does this painting deserve being iconic and globally famous?

James Whistler, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.


6 thoughts on “James Whistler—Portrait of the Artist’s Mother”

  1. Whistler’s painting of his mother served a much greater purpose than one being displayed in an art gallery. As discussed in class, this was one of Whistlers best pieces, however, it didn’t get him much recognition at first. It was looked at as dreary and unconventional for its time. Even though Whistler only intended it to be a study in tone and form, it was his mother’s portraiture that ended up becoming an iconic symbol for the American people during the harsh times of the Great Depression.

    When you analyze the painting, you get almost this sense of suffering. Suffering is what many had to endure in order to survive the brutal conditions of the economy during the Great Depression. This applied to both men and women. But to see your own mother hurt, is the worst feeling ever. For those who had no choice but to live out those excruciating years, it motivated them to not give up — To keep fighting — To fight for your loved ones.


It’s a good, strong message. (At least how I interpreted it)
    One that associates itself with a reputable painting — So why wouldn’t it be symbolic?


  2. I think when we are talking about “deserving” to become globally or internationally famous, we start treading into subjective waters. Of course there will be some that will say “Yes! Absolutely” and there will be others who will say “Of course not”, because they do not understand the piece. But who truly is to say whether or not a piece “deserves” to be recognized? Art is subjective.

    Personally, I think the work is incredibly strong and quite moving. I agree with Elham’s observation that the work does convey a feeling of suffering; Whistler’s personal situations were translated through his brush. He was close enough and invested enough to properly express his mother in the best way he knew how (which I think goes back to the idea couple of blog posts ago about having to be a “gentleman of sound mind” to paint an accurate portrait). The piece is obviously striking, with it’s muted color tones and strong approach to capturing a realist view of his mother. I definitely think Whistler was effective in capturing his mother’s portrait.


  3. Throughout history, paintings have been used to convey feelings of wonder, splendor, and excitement. Rarely, at the time, was art used to show something dark and emotionally heavy. Whistler’s painting of his mother conveys her at her worst time. Her husband had passed many years prior, and she still wore mourning clothes because of her pain towards her loss. Whistler paints her anyway, not afraid to shy away from the darkness that his mother feels. Everything from the colors to her positioning are used to convey her sense of loneliness and loss.

    I think it is a remarkable piece, especially given the context that it was created in. At the time of its creation, it was almost not allowed in an exhibition because it went against the norm of portraiture. Because of its historical significance, I do believe it deserves its iconic status/fame.


  4. I feel like he portrayed his mother very well. She was a women who didn’t change, especially after her husbands death. It seemed like she was in a constant stage of mourning over the loss of her husband. I believe that it is great and worth being iconic. It gives us all the information we need without having to delve into the details. It deserves to be known as one of his best pieces because it works extremely well. You can tell the attention to detail he put in it probably just as much as he cared for his actual mother.


  5. James Whistler’s piece titled “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” did not gain a lot of popularity because of his idealistic style of painting. This woman posed for this painting numerous times over the span of three months. Talk about artist and model dedication. The attention to detail and mood is there which adds a sense of ‘realism’, something that was not in-style at the time. His mother also appears to look frail and cold, the result of ailment. I believe that James Whistler did a great job at capturing this very moment with his mother. It is delicate and beautiful.


  6. I think that it is a picture worth being iconic, this is not a traditional portrait or pose and I believe that those unique qualities are what helps this soft color painting be so strong. When I look at this painting I can see the strength of this woman that sits alone in a room and fills it up with her presence, one can tell she is the subject yet it is so human and emotional because one can feel how vulnerable she is and how solemn the moment is. Although she cannot stand we know that this woman was someone strong in her life and that that strength does not come from her physical body but rather her mind and will that drive her to be that iconic image.


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