Anna Matilda Whistler - that's her name. One might think that Anna may have been a quiet  woman, diminutive and restrained, if you judge her only by the portrait of her son. You might opine that she made primly tea, prayed daily, dressed only in black and did not notice her son's mistresses. But you’d be wrong. Anna Whistler was the wife of a brilliant engineer; she crossed the Atlantic several times to live on one side first, then on the other; she raised a son-artist and a son-doctor; she wrote hundreds of priceless letters. And in her 60's she was even an art agent of his son, James Abbot McNeill Whistler.

American icon


Americans are sure that "Whistler's Mother" is one of the most important American paintings.  And it does not matter much that it is stored in Paris, though painted in London. The painting was loudly received by TV men, journalists and visitors, when her solo exhibition was arranged in Chicago in March 2017. The portrait, the main exhibit, was supplemented with drawings, photographs and countless quotes from the mass art. The opening of the exhibition, they touchingly added in their reports, would take place just before Mother's Day. For America, "Whistler's Mother" is one of the most recognizable and replicable symbols of motherhood.


Whistler's Mother Statue, Ashland, Pennsylvania. Photо: www.panoramio.com


In 1937 a civic group in Ashland, Pennsylvania erected a monumental statue, transforming the flat image of Anne Whistler from James McNeil Whistler's famous painting into bronze and 3D. It seems to be the only monument to the painting and at the same time to mothers and motherhood. The 8-ft. tall statue on a three-ton granite slab was unveiled by two local mothers -- at 88 and 91 years, Ashland's oldest.

Anne Whistler was 67 years old when her son prepared a canvas to paint a portrait of a completely different person. But the customer flaked on Whistler, so James asked his mother to literally stand in.



Slaves, Tzar, husband and railway


Anna Matilda (McNeill) Whistler was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, to a physician's family. Her maternal grandfather was one of the seven founders of the University of New Brunswick, the oldest university in North America. Her uncle had also a famous and even scandalous name: being a southerner-planter, he married a dark-skinned slave, gave her freedom granting her unprecedented powers. She managed all the land and household issues, and eventually she acquired the land and twelve slaves. And after the death of her husband, she even won a long trial of his inheritance from his relatives.

Anna McNeil's parents were quiet, respectable people with no accounts of eccentric stories, unlike their famous relatives. But frankly speaking, in a way, they  provided their girl with a series of impressions and new acquaintances, and at the same time - instilled in her a free and independent character. First with his father, and after his death only with his mother, Anna changed many towns and houses, she even managed to live in England with at her distant relatives. She learned to easily accept changes, new orders and different people. Anna grew up beautiful (looking at her photo at the age of far beyond 50, this can be readily believed), and she married when she was 28.

1.1. Engineer George Washington Whistler. 1842. Photo: theamericanopus.com
1.2. Anna Matilda Whistler. 1850s. Photo: odysseymedia.org

A major and an engineer, George Washington Whistler was a prime match: he had excellent manners, received education in England, knew several languages. He was four years older, a widower with three children, but he has earned not only the reputation of a talented professional, but also a solid monthly remuneration and a big house as a gift from the government. He earned an enviable sum of three thousand US dollars, created the design and construction of the first locomotive and was one of the creators of the project of the first railway along the east coast of America - The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

When Russian Tsar Nicholas I invited George Whistler to build a railway in Russia, he was offered a salary of twelve thousand dollars. He took Anna and their children to Russia and signed a contract for 7 years. There he was studying the terrain, plotting a trajectory, designing a bridge and the road itself. Calculations of the track width and the number of sleepers per kilometer proposed by Whistler, were used throughout Russia since then.

Of the five common children who were born to Anna and George, only two sons survived to adult age. So when St. Petersburg approached the epidemic of cholera and George decided to protect the family, Anna had to give up rather secure and full of privilege living next to her husband. So she went (it seemed quite a while) to London with her two sons and two already grown-up adopted children from George`s first marriage. She would never see George again. He would die, exhausted by the work and weakened by cholera, in St. Petersburg in 1849, a year and a half after their departure.

And Anna with the children would return to America. She was 45 years old then. 

Anna's Children


Relatives remembered that Anna Whistler's character was independent and even stubborn: she acted confidently and only at her own discretion. As a sister-in-law complained, “Anna is so unshakable that sometimes I could shake her. And the way she will stand out even against people whose opinion mean the most to her. One can’t help admiring it but it seems so – well, so old!”

She was keenly class-conscious, and she could be overly protective. Had her children not inherited her self-reliance, she might have smothered them. Even her strengths, especially her independence, could work against her. But the boys were lucky - they knew what they wanted, and under independence have competed with their mother.

In Russia, all the roads were open for the children of the Tsar's engineer. For example, James, who showed artistic ability very early, was enrolled at the Academy of Arts at 12 years old, and his education was paid by the state.

1.1. Dr. William McNeill Whistler. 1866. Photo: opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com
1.2. James McNeill Whistler. 1865. Photo: neh.gov

Now, after the husband's death, Anna Whistler found herself almost impoverished; without her husband’s income, she was forced to depend on her modest savings, her own strengths and old ties at home. Other women might have retreated into a quiet, sedentary life, but that wasn’t in Anna’s nature. Being the widow of a famous and respected husband helped: it gave her an identity and credibility she would have otherwise lacked.

For instance, it allowed her to coax Robert E Lee, when he was superintendent at West Point, into giving her cadet son James a weekend pass. She later put her second son, William, through medical school and acted as unofficial business manager in America for James, who, upon being dismissed from West Point, had gone to Paris and London to become an artist. Anna promoted his work, sought commissions and acted as an adviser.




James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Nocturne: Blue and gold - Southampton water
Nocturne: Blue and gold - Southampton water
James Abbot McNeill Whistler
1872, 50.5×76.3 cm

North or South? London!


Then came the American Civil War, which presented Anna with a dilemma. Friends and relatives suggested her to go overseas until things blew over. As, on the one hand, she was a southern woman who still had relatives in the Confederate states. Further complicating matters, her youngest son William had married a southern cousin, and had enlisted as a surgeon in the Confederate army.

Yet Anna’s late husband had been a profoundly patriotic graduate of West Point who would have served the Union. So with failing eyesight and her children dispersed throughout the world, Anna slipped off to England, in a way absolving herself from having to pick a side.
House in Chelsea, where Whistler lived. Photo: hoocher.com


Anna was well-informed about James' life in detail: while he was making his way to London and Paris to the most prestigious exhibitions and received the most insulting critical reviews, she performed the functions of his secretary and art manager in America. She was responsible for his promotion, lead sales and gave valuable advice and conclusions about the American art market. In short, a pious mother, a keeper of the hearth and a submissive woman - all these indispensable virtues of Anna are concerned only if you judge her by her cloths and the cap from a famous painting.

It would be the eleventh time she crossed the ocean.
James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Symphony in white No. 1. The girl in white. Portrait Of Joanna Hiffernan
Symphony in white No. 1. The girl in white. Portrait Of Joanna Hiffernan
James Abbot McNeill Whistler
1862, 214.6×108 cm

On the eve of the arrival of his mother, the artist wrote to Fantin-Latour, “I had to empty my house and purify it from cellar to eaves". And not only from debris and dust. In anticipation of his mother, Whistler resolutely evicted from the house even his girlfriend, a red-haired Joanna Hiffernan (she was a remarkable model: she also had an affair with Gustave Courbet, and maybe it was her face we do not see in the famous painting "The Origin of the World").



But Anna did not come here to bake pies for her son and to embroider shirts for him. She was 60 years old, but in a couple of years she would be merrily communicating with his bohemian buddies-decadents, sincerely admiring their way of life and environment, "The artistic circle in which he is only too popular, is visionary and unreal tho so fascinating. God answered my prayers for his welfare by leading me here." The religiously pious Anna sighed at what she regarded as her son’s flaws, but she graciously hosted his friends and became positively fond of one of them, the decadent’s decadent, Algernon Swinburne.

Mother's Portrait instead of a portrait of a young Maggie


Finally, about the portrait. James Whistler was very busy, very demanded and a bit perplexed. He had received a commission from an important person, a member of Parliament, to paint his daughter, Maggie Graham. When several sittings failed to provide any form of a finished painting, Maggie flaked on Whistler after he had already prepared a canvas, so he asked his mother to literally stand in.

"If young Maggie did not refuse Jamie to pose for a picture, which I hope he would still paint, he would not have time for my portrait," Anna said in one of the countless London letters.

1.1. James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Artist's mother, sketch×A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? read more
. 1871
1.2. James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Portrait of the Painter (Self-Portrait), Arrangement in Grey, 1872

"I stood bravely, two or three days, whenever he was in the mood for studying me, as his pictures are studies, and at first, it was interesting to stand as a statue! But I realized it to be too great an effort, so my dear patient Artist who is gently patient as he is never wearying in his perseverance concluding to paint me sitting perfectly at my ease."



James Abbot McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in grey and black No. 1. The artist's mother
Arrangement in grey and black No. 1. The artist's mother
James Abbot McNeill Whistler
1871, 144.3×162.5 cm

Yes, one does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible,” Whistler allowed years later, answering friends who praised the speaking likeness of the portrayal. But he was exasperated by sentimental responses to the work. He regularly preached that subject matter should be regarded merely as a pretext for adventures in aestheticism. He said, “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?” 

He did not call the painting "Portrait of a Mother" and least expected that the viewer would look for a portrait resemblance here. Whistler cares about the form, subtle color variations, the veracity of the composition - optical, musical and mathematical harmony. It can be anything: a game, improvisation, arrangement, but not a family portrait tol remind the next generation of the legendary great-grandmother.

Anna stayed in London until her death. Very soon, her second son, a former surgeon-confederate, also moved here and would be very successful and famous. He is one of the founders of the London Throat Disease Clinic and President of the British Otolaryngology Association.

Obviously, Anna Whistler earned the title of the American symbol of motherhood. Her children could confirm this. Being already an independent adult, James added the mother's maiden name, McNeil, to his surname received from his father.

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Author: Anna Sydelnykova