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Mothers in art: Mother Whistler made it happen in the art world

The depiction of mothers in art is usually limited to religious Madonna and child altar pieces, or mothers bath-ing babies in a domestic scene. A wo-man usually needs to be connected to some preconceived category depicting the proverbial saint or sinner. But few managed to include their mom as an artistic element in a work more shockingly than West Point dropout James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

The Massachusetts-born, British-based Pre-Raphaelite artist was cantankerous, self-absorbed and rebellious … but quite the dandy of his time and a talented artist and visionary.

He was inspired by an increasing worldwide interest in Japanese prints. Born in 1834, he was well-known for paintings of beautiful young women (“A Woman in White”) and scenery done in the Art Nouveau manner of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He did interior designs (The Peacock Room also known as “Harmony in Blue and Gold”) and his paintings were shown throughout western Europe.

But the artist criticized his critics, saying in his book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.”

“Take the picture of my mother…” Whistler said, “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?”

When he painted “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” it was during Anna McNeill Whistler’s visit with him in London in 1871. It has been chided as sentimental, depressing and sad. But it, like so few other works, is immediately recognized the world over, and it sparks a universal reaction. It says “Mother.” Not mother and child, or saint … not sinner or lover … it says “Mother.”

In 1934, “Whistler’s Mother” made it onto a U.S. 3-cent postage stamp. It included these words: “In memory and honoring the mothers of America.”

So someone in President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet thought highly of it … highly enough to dedicate that image to this country’s relatively new Mother’s Day holiday, established 20 years before, by President Woodrow Wilson.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” “Whistler’s Mother” are forever imprinted in our memory, according to Martha Tedeschi, author of “The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler.” Like the others, “Arrangement in Grey and Black” is symbolic of something bigger than the work of art itself: it says motherhood.

With Mother’s Day just around the corner, perhaps Whistler’s Mother will be seen once again, as a symbol of something greater than a work of art. Perhaps her image will once again represent what next Sunday has come to mean in this country: Women fill the role of “everywoman.”

On Sunday, we honor women who gave birth to us, who guided and led us in the direction that gave us strength. And mother is not only Whistler’s “arrangement in grey and black,” but also an arrangement in leopard-print, polka-dots or hot-pink stripes over black leather pants, or in modest skirt and bonnet…

She’s every kid’s mom who has led us to where we are in life today. Way to go mothers … regardless of attire or time-period, whether seated in rocking chair, sofa or recliner. We honor you on Sunday and every other day of the week, year ‘round. Happy Mama’s Day.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.