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Whistler's Subjects

Tomorrow, for the first time in over 60 years, the painting famously known as "Whistler's Mother" will be on view at the Art Institute. We've paired this famous portrait with a selection of other paintings, prints, drawings, and ephemera in order to give you a more nuanced look at how this painting connects with others in Whistler's body of artistic work.

The title of "Whistler's Mother" is actually Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother). Whistler believed that the subject of the painting was not important and at the time, couldn't understand the public's fascination with the sitter, stating "what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?" Rather, he was much more interested in the arrangement of color and form. 

The painting immediately above, which he completed a year after "Whistler's Mother", continues this exploration. In fact, this iteration is titled Study for "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Thomas Carlyle". Although this is not the final version, Whistler remained much less interested in the subject—the face is devoid of detail—but continued to focus on harmony in color, form, and composition.

Compare these works in person during Whistler's Mother: An American Icon Returns to Chicago, open through May 21. 

Image Credits:

James McNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother), 1871. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, RF 699. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

James McNeill Whistler. Study for "Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Thomas Carlyle", 1872/73. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.