Why Did Whistler Paint His Mother Like That

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Portrait Lessons from James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a leading artist in his day. He was forward-thinking and unapologetic in his belief in art for art’s sake. Meanwhile he was a skillful and diverse painter who explored voraciously throughout his career. His legacy continues to inspire steer and inspire contemporary painters. Enjoy these painting lessons pulled directly from his writings and personal letters as he delves into the details of how to create a stirring portrait.

Portrait of a Mother

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (Whistler’s Mother) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

In a letter published in 1878 in the London periodical, The World, Whistler sounded off about his ideas about painting, art and specifically the famed portrait of his mother, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1.

On Art

Art should be independent of all clap-trap – should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works “arrangements” and “harmonies.”

On Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1

Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” Now that is what it is. 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?

The imitator is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this: in portrait painting to put on canvas something more than the face the model wears for that one day; to paint the man, in short, as well as his features; in arrangement of colours to treat a flower as his key, not as his model.

Paint Application

The reasons this portrait was never finished by Whistler are unknown but offer observers the opportunity to see his painting process at work. First take note of how the artist focused his attention. The figure’s dress is just a pencil sketch. The background is roughed in and the sitter’s face is sensitively modeled. Working out from the most important parts of the painting, Whistler created a work that, though unfinished, still has star power.

A Paris Model: An unfinished portrait by Whistler held in The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow.

A Paris Model: An unfinished portrait by Whistler held in The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow.

In a letter to a budding artist and nephew, Thomas Whistler, Whistler responded to questions about how to paint a portrait and here are the highlights.

On Drawing and First Brushmarks

Indicate the head with charcoal – that is find its place on the canvass – and then draw it lightly with a brush – you might use a little grey for this purpose made of Ivory black – white – venetian red & a little yellow ochre.

Rub this, as you draw, with a hog hair brush, into the shadow – and in short draw and model lightly your whole head with this warm grey or brown…

On Painting Fatigue and the Second Pass

If tired, then let this dry completely – that is put it away for 3 or 4 days – Put your canvass out in the open air – with its face to the wall and its back to the sun –

When you take it up again (You do not, you see, paint over the surface enclosed in your drawing with white or other preparation), you may work over the same places again with the same material only that now as your head is already found you will have less trouble – and in short this will to all intents & purposes be a first painting…

On Skin Tones

Continue now with your flesh color* – painting from the light into the shadow while the shadow is wet – so that you will really be covering the whole head in one sitting and indeed with one painting –

This Tom is the simplest and best way out of it all – You will mix your flesh tints of course with white – and as you get towards the shadow you will see how much darker the grey or brown looks than nature, and then you will percieve [sic] the color that there is in shadow and you will be enabled to reach that by a mixture of your grey with some of the flesh tone on your palette – and so my dear Tom you will proceed and finish…

*Whistler double underlined the word ‘color.’ This method of seeing color in shadows is related to the theories behind French impressionism. Some of Whistler’s precepts, such as the low tone of flesh colors, were later expanded and published as ‘Propositions’. Others he ignored in his own practice. For instance, he rubbed out unsatisfactory work immediately, which is why his portraits took so long to complete.

On Painting Mediums

Use if you like linseed oil and turpentine mixed – not meguilp…

On Whites in Shadows

Don’t be afraid of your shadows having white in them – You see I tell you the flesh colors will mix themselves with your shadows…

On Feeling Unsatisfied

If you are not quite satisfied the next day, don’t be disheartened – put away your canvass again for some few days and only take it up when completely dry…

Paint in (Mostly) Monochrome with Whistler in Mind

With Whistler’s teachings ringing in your ears, take your inspirations even further by painting along as you skim through Mostly Monochrome. A book devoted to the portrait practice similar to what Whistler was advising his nephew on. Start exploring how to create a moving portrait simply and elegantly, with just a few colors. Whistler would most definitely approve.

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