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250 Shades of Gray

josey bw

As you stroll through Burnishing the Night, the atmospheric Prints and Drawings exhibition of mezzotint engravings currently on view in Galleries 125-127, you might notice a cameo appearance by one of art history’s most famous moms, Whistler’s mother. But what you’re looking at isn’t the larger-scale painting by James McNeill Whistler meant for public exhibition; rather, it’s a smaller black and white mezzotint created by the lesser-known Richard Josey (under Whistler’s supervision) intended for display in private homes.

You might be surprised to discover that the expatriate American painter and printmaker extraordinaire James McNeill Whistler did not even consider his 1871 painting of his mother to be a portrait. He thought of it as a study of tone, and gave it the title Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 as an allusion to musical terminology. The word “mother” doesn’t appear anywhere. Indeed, to him, public interest in its sitter and literal subject, rather than the way it was painted seemed irrelevant:

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?

            Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, p. 128.

While Whistler pretended not to comprehend why the painting’s identity as a simple picture of his mother would interest the public more than its artistry, he was also a consummate businessman. He was closely involved in the production of this mezzotint about eight years after he produced the original oil on canvas. Josey's plate may in fact have been steel-plated after it was engraved, allowing for hundreds, or even thousands of impressions of the same quality to be pulled from it. In fact, the medium of mezzotint was especially prized for its usefulness in reproductions of paintings, and the painterly quality of this print does not disappoint. Nowhere is the lack of color and its subtle gradations between values more intentional.

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Here’s a closer look at the color range in engraver Richard Josey’s rendition, a mezzotint entirely printed from a single kind of black ink. Far more than the proverbial 50 shades of gray, these include up to the maximum of 256 different shades shown in the Photoshop-generated color table above.

Whistler built up the muted tones of his original composition through brushstrokes on canvas. In contrast, Josey reductively made the printing matrix by burnishing light effects into a previously roughened plate that would otherwise print in solid black. In addition to the color table mentioned above, the following diagram also pinpoints the amount of black present in several areas of the print—from a near 100% black for the shadows of the skirt (point nr. 1) to the 59% black, grayed-out midtone of the wall (point nr. 3). The brightest highlight within the print at 10% appears in the fold of the handkerchief in the sitter’s hand (point nr. 4), but the 4% tone of the paper support is even brighter (point nr. 2).

gray details

Perhaps in part due to the proliferation of Josey's print, the painting known as Whistler's Mother has now been considered the Victorian Mona Lisa, and may well be one of the best-known (and parodied) paintings by an American artist, much like the Art Institute’s own American Gothic. Now that's a fancy bit of printing, even one in monochrome.

Image Credit: Richard Josey, after James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Mezzotint, 1879. Clarence Buckingham Collection.

Many thanks to Liana Jegers for her help in troubleshooting the Photoshop color mapping.