The Strange Tale of Whistler’s Mother

I love writing about Art, and in recent times, I’ve also written about my adopted home of Hastings and St. Leonards and when the two subjects combine, that’s icing on the cake for me, as I recently discovered, when I heard that the mother of the famous artist, James Whistler, spent the last five years of her life in Hastings.

Normally the mother of a famous artist would be of little consequence, but she has become something of a cult figure in her own right. Everyone knows or has heard of the painting ‘Whistler’s Mother’, even those who know very little of art and have only vaguely heard of the artist himself, James Whistler. It is one of the most famous pictures in the world, not quite on a par with the ‘Mona Lisa’ but not far off. Cole Porter included it in one of his most famous songs ‘You’re the Top’, she has been the subject of numerous advertising campaigns, Mr. Bean has even used her in one of his sketches, and she reached the pinnacle of her fame by becoming the ultimate symbol of American Motherhood, being honoured with a rather pompous statue, together with the ultimate accolade of appearing on a U.S. postage stamp.

It seems strange to think that this supposed paean to Motherhood, was part of an ongoing artistic experiment by James Whistler and his mother was only a bit player in this process. The official name of the painting was ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1’, where Whistler’s intention was to arrange colours in a formal, almost abstract way, the subject matter being of lesser importance. I’m not sure if Mrs. Whistler was aware of this, as she patiently sat for her son, day after day, over several weeks.

However, on closer inspection of the painting, whatever the original intentions of the artist, the end result was a memorable image of his Mother, looking rather severe, slightly prudish and rather disapproving with a pursed lips expression. The accuracy of the image can be seen in comparison to a photograph of Anne Whistler taken over 10 years earlier and the likeness is uncanny, although it obviously helps with the same severe hairstyle and a rather fetching line in head shawls. How the painting came to be regarded as an archetypal representation of motherhood is altogether another question.

Close up of Anne McNeill Whistler’s head from painting
Photograph of Anne taken circa 1850s

In Art, James Whistler had always followed his own path, mainly distancing himself from the main movements of the 19th century, always passionate and always experimenting. He started by aligning himself with the realist school, and then moving on to the fringes of the aesthetic movement, the symbolists and the Pre-Raphaelites. He was very influenced by the link between Music and Painting, the stylisation of Japanese art and was a leading proponent of ‘art for art’s sake’, not aligning his art to any school, philosophy or theory. In other words, he was a maverick, ploughing his own solitary furrow.

The critics hate nothing more than an artist, who does not play by the rules and John Ruskin, the greatest art critic of his day, was no exception. To add to this, Whistler was also a difficult and acerbic human being, who seemed to go out of his way to make enemies. The scene was set for a confrontation, so when John Ruskin decided to antagonise Whistler by declaring that his painting ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, Whistler felt that he had no option other than to sue Ruskin for libel in 1878. Although Whistler won the case, he was only awarded a farthing damages and, as a result, he was financially ruined and was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Nocturne in Black and Gold (Falling Rocket) – James Whistler 1875

Whistler has had the last laugh, as his paintings, such as ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ are now seen as forerunners of modern abstract art, with their idea of art being used to convey feelings and emotions, as opposed to a purely realistic representation of a scene.

But how did a genteel Southern Belle from North Carolina, daughter of a slave owner, end up living firstly in Chelsea, London, before finally ending her days in the seaside town of Hastings? In her earlier life, she had moved to St. Petersburg with her husband, where he worked as a railway engineer, but when he died of Cholera in 1849, she moved back to the United States.

By 1864, both her sons had moved to London, William working as a respected throat surgeon and James, who was trying to make his name in the British art establishment. They persuaded Anne, at the age of 59 to take a risk and move to England, where she was to live with James in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea.

James at that time was living the life of a scandalous celebrity, moving in very bohemian circles and friendly with many artists and writers, of whom the pious and rather stiff Anne would have highly disapproved. He managed to move his mistress out of the house, just in time before Mummy arrived, but was still visited by his friend and neighbour, the outrageous poet, Algernon Swinburne, who was notorious for his decadent and deviant behaviour. Somehow, Anne and Swinburne became firm friends, which is one of life’s mysteries; he must have really have been on his best behaviour on his visits to Anne.

Early Photograph of Whistler in 1863, looking every inch the disreputable libertine
Algernon Charles Swinburne, 1862, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

After 12 years in London, in 1876 Anne Whistler moved to Hastings, on the urgings of her physician son, William and his wife Helen. The London air was causing serious health problems to Anne and it was thought by William that the fresh sea air in Hastings, would be beneficial for her. She found an appealing terraced house with a balcony at No.43, St. Mary’s Terrace, on the West Hill, where she had an uninterrupted view over the water towards Beachy Head. From her letters and diaries we are told that this move from London to Hastings had a restorative effect on her health and humour.

St. Mary’s Terrace is a charming and secluded narrow street, well away from the hubbub down below, in Hastings Old town. In Victorian times it was a quiet and tranquil corner of Hastings, even today it still has that special feeling of solitude. It is no wonder that Anne felt at home in this charming area, far removed from the grime and smog of London.

St. Mary’s Terrace, full of Victorian charm

In the early 20th century, a few doors down in No. 31, a certain Archibald Stansfeld Delaney later known as ‘Grey Owl’ , was being brought up by his two Aunts. However, he couldn’t wait to get away from this genteel road and experience something a bit wilder and more primitive over in Canada. But that is another story for another time.

It is not known how often James Whistler visited his mother, but visit he certainly did and according to reports he was seen enjoying the company and the beer in ‘The Plough’, which is still thriving to this day, the only remaining pub on top of West Hill.

A recently restored Plough on the West Hill

As his Mother came to the end of her life, James Whistler’s art began to move in another direction. From about 1880, he started working in watercolour, on a smaller scale, including many pictures from Hastings. Gradually, in his later life, these watercolours became of increasing importance and like all his work were often highly experimental. Below is a watercolour looking from West Hill towards Hastings Old Town with the East Hill in the background. The artist would have painted this picture only a few hundred metres from Anne’s house in St. Mary’s Terrace in 1880/81, either just before or after the death of his mother.

View from West Hill over Hastings towards the East Hill (1881) – Private Collection

Anne McNeill Whistler died in 1881 at the age of 77 and was buried in Hastings Cemetery , together with her less famous son, William and his wife Helen. Their modest headstones are in sharp contrast to the grand memorial in Old Chiswick Cemetery for her more famous artist son, James.

Interestingly, another great artistic iconoclast, from a previous century, William Hogarth is also buried in the same cemetery as James. It left me wondering whether the churchyard is big enough to accommodate these two, undoubtedly great, but irascible and egotistical artists?

As a result of Whistler’s dire financial situation, his Mummy’s picture had to be pawned soon after Anne’s death. Luckily for posterity, he was able to rescue it after a few years and it was eventually sold to the ‘Musée du Luxembourg’ in Paris, the French having recognised his genius, well before the rest of the world. Today, this world famous picture is safe for the future and can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

However, a mystery remains. How did this painting, by no means Whistler’s best, not just my opinion, but in many others more knowledgable than me, become one of the most famous paintings in the world, revered and ridiculed in equal measure? I think it taps into an archetype of what a typical mother should be.

The art historian, Martha Tedeschi has summed this up very well, when she stated that:-

“Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”

However much we let ourselves and others down, with our bad and inconsiderate behaviour, our mothers are always there for us, come what may. They maybe shocked and disapproving of our lifestyle, but in the end they will always forgive. A Mother’s love is unconditional and always will be.

Dedicated to Long Suffering Mothers Everywhere

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

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