CHICAGO— Widely regarded as the most important American painting residing abroad, James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait ofThe Artist’s Mother) returns to the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time in over 60 years. The portrait better known as “Whistler’s Mother”is on loan from Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and anchors a focused installation of approximately 25 objects, including paintings, prints, drawings, posters, and other ephemera. Whistler originally showed the painting at London’s Royal Academy and it later went on to become the first American painting acquired by the French state. When the composition made it to the Art Institute for the first time during the city’s World’s Fair of 1933, thousands lined up to pay a nickel for the privilege of viewing the painting, its status cemented as an icon of motherhood through a staggering quantity of critical responses, reproductions in various media, and references within popular culture. Championed by the museum during his lifetime, Whistler is one of the 19th-century artists whose work lies at the core of the Art Institute’s collection.
Both austere and ambitious, accurate and abstract, the painting serves as a quintessential expression of Whistler’s then-newly developed “art for art’s sake” aesthetic. In 1878, he said about his most famous painting, “Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ 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?” Painted in 1871, the portrait was intended to demonstrate Whistler’s recent focus on tonal harmonies over subject matter. Critics were sharply divided over Whistler’s rejection of art as a narrative vehicle, but speculation about the story behind the painting continues nearly 150 years later.
The presentation, running from March 4 through May 21, 2017, also explores Whistler’s use of family members as subjects, his abstract treatment of conventional genres such as portraiture and landscape, and the arc of his professional ambition. The return of “Whistler’s Mother” to the Art Institute of Chicago is especially meaningful given the museum’s deep holdings of Whistler’s paintings, prints, and drawings.