PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia Museum of Art celebrates an exceptional loan from the Musee d’Orsay, Paris of Whistler’s 1871 portrait of his mother in a new exhibition that explores the portrait’s creation and its legacy in the city of Philadelphia. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s iconic portrayal of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, will be on view in Philadelphia for the first time in 142 years. This exhibition, The Artist’s Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia, will bring Whistler’s portrait into dialog with works by artists associated with Philadelphia — Cecilia Beaux, Henry Ossawa Tanner, John Sloan, Dox Thrash, Alice Neel and Sidney Goodman. The show opens on June 10 and continues through October 29.
When Whistler’s portrait of his mother, Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1881, it was only the second time Whistler’s work had been seen in the United States. As the exhibition organizers hoped, the artist’s celebrity and flair for publicity drew attention to the painting. Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother puzzled audiences as did its somber palette and sparse details. The work, however, exerted a powerful force, and just as Whistler was inspired by Rembrandt’s etchings of his own mother, so too Philadelphia artists have been spurred by Whistler and their own ambitions to depict their mothers. Models of motherhood unite this exhibition that includes paintings, etchings, charcoals and pastels.
Whistler was surprised by the degree to which the public engaged with the subject. Years later, he wrote: “To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother, but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” It turned out that the public cared greatly about the connection between child and parent as painter and sitter. The painting, known today informally as Whistler’s Mother, is one of the most recognizable in the world.
“The return of Whistler’s painting to Philadelphia is a rare chance to explore its extraordinary journey from influential first showing to American icon,” said the museum’s George D. Widener Director and CEO Sasha Suda. “But the show’s real opportunity is the subject of artists and their mothers, with a selection of works that should certainly be known better. PMA is proud to offer the visiting Whistler as catalyst and inspiration.”
The Artist’s Mother: Whistler and Philadelphia is organized by Jennifer Thompson, Gloria and Jack Drosdick curator of European painting & sculpture, and curator of the John G. Johnson collection.