The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

5 Things to Know About Whistler Exhibit (Like, Who Was Whistler's Father?)

By DNAinfo Staff | March 13, 2017 5:47am
"Whistler's Mother" by James McNeill Whistler
View Full Caption
Art Institute of Chicago

DOWNTOWN — The Art Institute of Chicago is exhibiting the 19th Century masterpiece "Whistler's Mother" through May 21 leading, quite naturally, to the question, what about Whistler's dad?

For that answer and other Whistler wonderings read on:

1. What's the big deal? The painting's actual title is "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" and depicts artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler's mother, Anna, who was 67 at the time. (The original portrait model backed out.)

Painted in 1871 in London, it became an iconic image in the United States in the early 1930s when it was on a tour of the country and came to symbolize, in the words of one critic, "Protestant fortitude, resilience and reserve."

2. Who was mom? 

Devoutly religious, highly literate and, some say, domineering, Anna clashed with her son, who was once described as a "proto-Bohemian genius beatnik, a serial lover of women and wit and art for art's sake."

When Anna moved into his home after her husband died, she reportedly made her son's mistress — Joanna Hiffernan of his White Girl paintings — and a servant girl whom he impregnated — move out.

Whistler is said to have been very close to his mother. When Anna died, in 1881, he added her maiden name, McNeill, to his own.

3. Who gets the credit?

"One does like to make one's mummy as nice as possible," Whistler reportedly said about the painting. His work is praised for its innovative style — but the mother suggested she had something to do with the success of the painting, too.

In a letter to her sister, Anna wrote that while she was posing, she prayed for her son and that “it was a mother’s unceasing prayer while being the artist’s model which makes the attractive charm.”


4. What's the Chicago angle?

 George Washington Whistler, father of  James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The son painted
George Washington Whistler, father of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The son painted "Whistler's Mother."
View Full Caption

The painting was a big hit as part of an exhibit at the 1933 World's Fair, Chicago's Century of Progress Exhibition. Newspaper stories of the time describe how thousands paid 25 cents to see it.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a stamp using "Whistler's Mother" and even sketched an early idea for it.

One wealthy Chicagoan was so enamored with Whistler's talent that he hired the artist to paint his portrait: Chicago attorney Arthur J. Eddy traveled to Paris to have it done, Daniel E. Sutherland wrote in "Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake."

Friends and family of Eddy, who lived at 4152 N. Sheridan Road, were unimpressed, saying it was "an unconvincing likeness," according to Linda Merrill of "After Whistler."

Replied Eddy: "The quality of a picture is inversely related to the number of people who propose to admire it."

The exhibit that replaced "Whistler's Mother" after the World's Fair at the Art Institute was a series of Disney images — 50 original black-and-white cartoons of Mickey Mouse and 50 watercolors of  "Silly Symphones."

"The world wags on and we must wag with it," wrote the Tribune's Eleanor Jewett.

The Art Institute reportedly secured the painting for temporary display by allowing one of its own famous works, "American Gothic," to go on tour.

5. OK, so who was Whistler's father?

George Washington Whistler was a Fort Wayne, Ind.-born West Point grad and civil engineer and is credited with bringing the steam whistle to American locomotives. Anna was his second wife.

He died in 1849 in Russia, where he was overseeing the construction of the Moscow-to-St. Petersburg railway.

"Where the father sought precision in the clean angles of a surveyor’s elevation and found permanence and beauty in iron and in the brightwork of steel and brass, his son set out after something more ephemeral and imprecise," wrote Jeff MacGrego in Smithsonian.