Whistler’s Mother: A Mother’s Day Gift of Earthly Immortality

By William McNeill |

Every genius has a mother. Sometimes a mother inspires genius. James McNeill Whistler’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, stimulated his artistic and intellectual genius and helped him become one of the most celebrated modern artists. In return, he inadvertently gave her the gift of earthly immortality.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother is the name Whistler gave this portrait, but the painting is known the world over as Whistler’s Mother, considered the symbol of American motherhood. In the portrait, many viewers see a stern matriarch or a dour Puritan, but AnnaWhistler's Mother painting Whistler was neither; she was deeply religious, but she was a warm, educated and indulgent mother who nourished her son’s talent and, for the most part, tolerated his eccentric behavior and bohemian friends.

Born in Wilmington, NC, on September 27, 1804, on the Southwest corner of Fourth and Orange, Anna McNeill lived here for the first ten years of her life. When yellow fever raged during summer, her father, Dr. Daniel McNeill, took the family upriver to Oak Forest, a plantation he owned jointly with his brother John McNeill, in the Brown Marsh community of Bladen County.

The days at Oak Forest were happy. She wrote in her diary of “stirring memories,” and she never tired of telling her children stories of plantation life. In 1938, the Elizabethtown Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution put up a marker near Oak Forest.

In 1814, Dr. McNeill moved his family to New York City. He returned to Oak Forest a few years later to visit his brother. He suffered a fatal stroke while sitting by the kitchen fire. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Brown Marsh Cemetery.

After Dr. McNeill’s death, Anna and her mother, Martha Kingsley McNeill, moved to Baltimore to live with Anna’s brother William Gibbs McNeill. There, Anna met her future husband, widower Major George Washington Whistler, who she married in 1831. He was internationally known as a railroad builder. Two of Whistler’s three children from his first marriage contracted illnesses and died soon after the wedding. Anna gave birth to two children: James McNeill Whistler in 1834, and two years later, William.

Major Whistler received an invitation from Czar Nicholas I to build a railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Anna and the children traveled by steamer to join him a year later. St. Petersburg in the 1840s was a barbaric fairyland; a place of shimmering glamour with squalor lurking underneath its gilded façade. Anna and the children settled in a large house not far from the Imperial Palace, with a cook, two maids, a governess, a coachman and a footman. Whistler’s annual salary of $12,000 – comparable to that of a corporate CEO today – allowed the familWhistlers Mother historic marker, Wilmington NCy to live in luxury.

Anna enjoyed entertaining American and English guests, sometimes serving gingerbread from her Oak Forest recipe. A frequent guest was Scottish painter Sir William Allen.  Young James had filled a sketchbook with drawings of soldiers, which Anna showed to Sir William, who declared the drawings showed “uncommon genius.” Anna immediately enrolled James in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, directly across the Neva River.

The Whistlers were happy, but Major Whistler contracted cholera and died. The Czar offered his royal barge to carry the body down the Neva, and told Anna that the boys could be educated in the Imperial School for the Pages of the Court. But Anna was ready to return to America.

She, James, and William, settled in Stonington, Connecticut. Deprived of her husband’s lavish salary, Anna could hardly make ends meet. The family rented half a farmhouse. Anna managed to pay tuition to a private Episcopal School. One day James, a mischievous child, was sent home from school for “irreverence during morning prayer,” and Anna was mortified. Keenly aware of his extraordinary intelligence, talent and rebellious temperament, she reprimanded him, knowing in her heart that her son did not share her religious beliefs. Later on in Paris and London, Whistler was notorious for standing on bars and café tables and singing wicked parodies of hymns and spirituals.

Just before his 17th birthday, Whistler entered West Point Military Academy where he ran up more demerits than any student in the history of the school. He never excelled in any subject except drawing, and he drew continuously. He even drew ribald caricatures of his teachers, the very ones that were going to grade his work. West Point had enough of his outrageous shenanigans, so he was expelled. Anna was devastated. She wrote letters to General Robert E. Lee, imploring him to get James reinstated, but to no avail.

After a brief job with the Coast and Geodetic Society in Washington, D.C., James quit his job and announced he was going to Paris to live the life of a bohemian. Anna, ever the indulgent mother, gave him her blessings and promised him $350 a year. The year was 1855.

Whistler settled in Paris’ Latin Quarter, and became romantically involved with a tempestuous model named Fumette, nicknamed “the Tigress.” One day in a fit of jealous rage, Fumette tore up Whistler’s drawings. His next love affair was a torrid romance with a sexy can-can dancer named Finette. Whistler was having a rollicking good time as a decadent bohemian. Anna, of course, knew nothing of his licentiousness, he wrote her only of his devotion to studies at Academy Glyre, and sometimes to warm his mother’s heart, he added a brief account – certainly fictitious – of a church service he had attended.

The Civil War was especially difficult for Anna. Her sympathies were with the Confederate States where the McNeills lived, but she was living in the North, and she had to be guarded around her Yankee friends. Her son William was a Confederate army surgeon, stationed in Richmond, and Anna made visits through the lines. Whistler was concerned for his mother’s safety, and asked her to come to England. In August 1863, Anna risked her life to run the Federal Blockade off the Port of Wilmington to join James in the heart of 19th Century Bohemian London.

According to her niece, Anna paid for her fare on the blockade runner, the Ad Vance, not with money, but with furs, giving the captain the beautiful sables her late husband had bought her in Russia.

One of the ship’s passengers, William Hill, a Wilmington businessman, described Anna as “a gentle, delicate, refined woman,” and he wrote that she was without fear as the ship slipped through the Federal Blockade. Mr. Hill quotes Anna speaking to his wife: “Well, my child, we are out upon a dark and stormy sea, but we are in our Father’s hands and just as safe as beneath our own house roof. I will lay me down in peace and sleep.”

When she arrived in bohemian London, her first shock was her 27-year-old son. The Andy Warhol of his day – and infamous in the London press as a rebellious artist and dandy – James greeted his mother wearing patent leather shoes, a yellow frock coat, and a monocle over his left eye.

Whistler escorted his astonished mother to his three-story house in Chelsea on Lindsey Row. The house looked nothing like a cluttered London Victorian. The floors were covered with straw matting, the stark white or soft yellow walls were almost bare, and ornaments were limited to blue and white Chinese porcelain and Japanese fans. Anna settled on the top floor so she could be, according to her, “nearer my maker.”

Whistler and his mother were surrounded by artists and writers with scandalous reputations. Next door was the outlandish poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who had a backyard zoo with a monkey, two kangaroos, a peacock and various other exotic animals. The dissolute poet Algernon Swinburne, who paraded around Rosetti’s house in the nude, befriended Anna. In a letter to a relative, Anna described Whistler’s bohemian friends: “The artistic circle in which he is only too popular is visionary and unreal, though so fascinating.”

Anna, well read and current on events, was not afraid of the sophisticated, secular world. She frequented museums and was exposed to all sorts of people. She could fit in anywhere. Anna managed Whistler’s house, often preparing “American” lunches for Whistler’s models, with strawberry tea, buttermilk biscuits, and salads featuring uncooked tomatoes, which some of the models refused to touch. Whistler learned to cook from his mother, but his menus were decidedly eccentric; he would often dye his butter bright green to complement the color of his china. Anna’s cookbook, which Whistler irreverently called “the Family Bible,” is a feast of old Southern-style cooking.

Anna acted as her son’s manager, communicating with clients in Europe and America. Whistler, a fashionista who styled himself as a Southern cavalier and haute couture fashion designer, designed the dresses for his models, and his mother shopped for the fabrics. Anna was not accustomed to entering his studio. One day she had returned early from church to find her parlor maid posing in the nude. In a letter to a relative, Anna wrote in a horrified tone that the maid was “posing for the all-over.” Anna didn’t know that her son would one day impregnate the parlor maid with the first of his three illegitimate children.

Anna lived in the Lindsey Row house longer than any house since her Wilmington residence. This is where James painted her portrait in the second floor studio, in the late summer of 1871. His intention was to paint her standing, but at age 67 and in frail health, the strain was too much, so she sat.

Whistler’s Mother is actually a form of modern abstraction. Whistler had no intention of painting a sentimental portrait of his mother. He abhorred sentimentality in art and scorned the Victorian taste for art that told stories. He loved his mother deeply, but in this portrait he wanted to bring attention to an arrangement of strong rectangular shapes, a composition of geometric regularity, straight lines, right angles, and harmonious colors.

James posed his mother in her everyday clothes—a black dress with a white cap. In her hands, she holds a white handkerchief. The only other decorative element is the curtain, which is actually a Japanese kimono. On the walls above Anna are Whistler’s etchings of the Thames. With the exception of a little pink and beige on the face and hands, the palette is mostly of black, white and shades of gray.

Whistler’s Mother has a fascinating history. The portrait nearly burned in a railway accident; flames singed the frame. Whistler pawned the painting and used it as security for his loans; it has been ridiculed by the public, treated as a sacred icon, and labeled a modern masterpiece by critics. The painting has been reproduced millions of times. In the thirties, it toured the United States under escort of armed guards, creating a sensation in every exhibiting city.

Whistlers Mother postage stampIn 1934, The United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp, outraging art lovers everywhere: the designer of the stamp evidently thought the portrait too bleak, so he added a vase of flowers. This touch of sentimentality elicited a furious response from the American Artists Professional League, which regarded the stamp as a poorly crafted cartoon.

Through the years, no other painting has suffered more at the hands of cartoonists and advertisers, and the painting is caricatured as much today as ever. One aspect of the portrait that is amusing to many people is that Whistler’s Mother seems to be staring into a void. They wonder what she could be thinking. They have no concept of quiet meditation. In today’s frenzied and noisy electronic environment, most people can no longer imagine sitting still in a state of meditation or contemplation.

For the last seven years of her life, Anna lived in Hastings, a seaside resort she moved to for health reasons. As her health declined, her religious faith comforted her. Near the end of her days, her vision improved, and she was able to read again. In one of her last letters she wrote: “In the evening there is light, how gracious is the Lord.”

She died on January 31, 1881. James was inconsolable, for he knew he had lost forever his kindest critic.

We do not know if Anna achieved her goal of everlasting life in heaven. We do know for sure that she has been granted immortality here on earth. For eternity, she will sit in profile gazing at something outside the frame, lost in thought. Her portrait will most likely hang for all time in the Musee d’Orsay.

Admirers wonder what she might have been thinking. They may envision a stream of fragmentary memories floating placidly through her mind: images of rivers she had lived beside—the Cape Fear, the Neva, and the Thames. Maybe she recalled the houses she had lived in. Perhaps the streets of Wilmington or her summers playing in the sandy fields of Oak Forest. Did gilded images of St. Petersburg, Russia, surface and dissolve?

As she sat waiting for her son to capture her likeness, did she hum the melody of one of her favorite hymns? Knowing how much she loved hymns, especially those of Charles Wesley, pieces of lyrics and melodies probably wove in and out of the multi-layered fabric of her consciousness as she sat in gracious, serene stillness to please her beloved but exacting son. Did she meditate sadly on the fact that James did not share her religious beliefs? In one of her journal entries, she comes to terms with his apathy toward formal religion with these words: “His is a natural religion; he thinks of God as the diffusive source of all he enjoys, in the glories of the firmament, the loveliness of flowers, and the noble studies of the human form.”

Whistler, through his genius, gave his mother the gift of earthly immortality. He created an enduring image for the ages: Whistler’s Mother, an American Icon.

What more could a mother ask?

About the author: William McNeill, a distant relative of Anna McNeill Whistler, lives in Bladen County during the week and his getaway in Downtown Wilmington on weekends. He grew up listening to his parents talk about Anna and her controversial son, James McNeill Whistler. He has read all of the Whistler biographies, attended International Whistler Exhibits in Washington, D.C., NYC, Glasgow, and London, and he has spent time at the Library of Congress poring over the private letters and journals of Mrs. Whistler. William is listed as a source in the 2003 British publication Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon. A musician who enjoys playing piano recitals of film, theater music, blues and classic tangos, he has performed in venues across the state.