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"Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black, and White" 

click to enlarge Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) (detail), James McNeill Whistler, oil on canvas,1871. - Museé d'Orsay, Paris. Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.
  • Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) (detail), James McNeill Whistler, oil on canvas,1871. Museé d'Orsay, Paris. Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

Did you know that the most iconic American portrait is not (usually) on American soil? It hangs at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, and its actual title isn't in English. A small bronze plaque on the frame bears the phrase "Portrait de la mère de l'auteur" [Portrait of the artist's mother]. This was the first American painting ever to hang in the Louvre. But now it's at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, until September 27, part of a larger show including 20 of James McNeill Whistler's prints and sketches, and Japanese woodcuts that inspired him.

"Whistler's Mother" became renowned partly because it is in Europe. When the painting was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, it was wildly popular. MOMA sent the canvas on an 11-city tour of America, where it was received by saluting Boy Scouts and admiring throngs. Whistler retroactively became a proto-Norman Rockwell. If his mom's portrait had been sitting idly in the Metropolitan Museum for decades, it might have been forgotten. And another thing: It's not really named "Whistler's Mother."

"We had a big meeting about the title of the show," admitted Jay A. Clarke, a curator at the Clark Institute. Whistler titled his painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother). He had an affinity for music, which is reflected in his titles. Another question: Which spelling of "grey" to use—the British or the American? The Clark stuck with the original (the English). The curators' final decision was to call the exhibition "Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black, and White."

Whistler was the Andy Warhol of his time—a bohemian eccentric who lived with his mother. When a model failed to show up in his London studio in 1871, the artist asked his mom to pose, standing. For three days she persevered, then asked to sit. Her son agreed, and Whistler's mother remained seated for the next three months of painting. Anna Mathilda Whistler came from that generation of women who dressed in mourning after their husbands died, and remained in their "widow's weeds" the rest of their lives. (You can see her gold wedding ring on her left hand.)

What makes a painting iconic? If you think about the Mona Lisa, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, each has one central figure against a neutral background. Canvases depicting 37 people aren't usually world famous (Rembrandt's The Night Watch a notable exception). Also, an image must reproduce well. (One reason new paintings don't become iconic is that we live in an age of video, not newspapers and magazines. On Facebook we share two-minute clips of funny cats, not reproductions of Damien Hirst paintings.)

The Clark Art Institute, which is always good for a startling aesthetic insight, points out the connection between "Whistler's Mother" and the River Thames. The artist's studio was on the river, and the composition includes a small picture of the waterway, hanging on the wall behind Mrs. Whistler. It's James McNeill's own etching, Black Lion Wharf, from a series depicting the Thames. (The original is in this show.)

But why bother seeing "Whistler's Mother" for yourself? "There's a strange quality to the paint surface which you never get in reproduction," noted Clarke. "It's actually like you're looking at it through a fog or a haze." Whistler himself once said: "Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass."

"Whistler's Mother: Grey, Black, and White" will remain at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, until September 27. (413) 458-2303; Clarkart.edu.

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