For Americans, James McNeill Whistler’s portrait of his mother is surely his most recognizable painting. In fact, it’s often called an American icon, or the Victorian Mona Lisa, Dressed all in black and facing right instead of forward, Mom looks like she just returned from a funeral and is waiting for a shoe shine and wondering what her son, the painter, is doing in with his life. She was visiting him in London at the time.
Totally out of character, the French state bought it in 1891. I say this because French museums aren’t exactly full of American art. If you visit the Louvre, for example, take some time to look for an American painting, any American painting. Officially known as “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1”, Whistler’s Mom hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, not The Louvre.
Although he was American born, Whistler spent his childhood in England and Russia. Russia! As an adult, he divided his time between Paris and London. So how did the world’s largest public display of his art wind up in a Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, Scotland?
The Hunterian is fairly small as museums go, only 14 rooms. Its collection sprang from the vibrant Scottish Enlightenment and University of Glasgow acquisitions. Among the Hunterian Art Gallery’s displays is founder William Hunter’s picture cabinet. The rest is mostly local art with a scattering of recognizable names like Rembrandt and Reynolds. This particular museum was established by William’s bequest in 1783, making it the oldest public museum in Scotland. However, it didn’t open to the public until 1807.
As early as 1891, some local painters persuaded the City of Glasgow to obtain Whistler’s portrait of Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher and wit (“Endurance is patience concentrated”). So the Hunterian became the first public collection in the world to own a Whistler. JMW’s Mother and his wife’s family were of Scottish extraction. His wife, Beatrice Philip, was the daughter of a noted sculptor. More commonly called Beatrix, she married Whistler in 1888 after her first husband died. He called her Chinkie, or Trixie. She posed for him several times. Beatrix was a fine artist too and specialized in bird studies. She completed 30, from pencil sketches to completed oils, and the Hunterian has a couple of them. They are exceedingly lovely. It was a happy marriage, but after only 6 years Beatrix developed cancer and died 2 years later. Her younger sister, Rosalind Birnie Philip, became Whistler’s ward. When he died in 1903, Rosalind inherited his estate and bequeathed it to the University of Glasgow. At the time it contained more than 50 oil paintings, furniture, his art materials, personal correspondence, etc. The Hunterian collection now has more than 80 of his oil paintings, over 1,500 etchings and lithographs, etc.
I was surprised to find the Whistler collection in The Hunterian and liked it a lot, but Ruth loved it. Usually she’s dragging me out of museums, but this time It was me tugging at her. She agrees with Glasgow resident and wordplay fan P. Smith who says in a Hunterian handout about this collection, “Simply marvelous. I’ll be “Whistling” a new tune now.” Groan.
Whistler painting above from Hunterian Collection–Grey & Silver: la petite souris