You know the image: Seen from side on, a severe-looking woman in black with a white lacy cap sits in a chair and stares into space.
If it is not the most famous painting by an American, period, it is certainly the most famous painting by an American that doesn’t actually reside here. It has been featured on Mother’s Day postage stamps, on war propaganda posters, and in countless cartoons, parodies, television shows, and movies.
So it’s big news when “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” by James McNeill Whistler — usually displayed in Paris’s Musee d’Orsay — returns to Massachusetts, the state in which Whistler was born.
This July 4 — the date Whistler patriotically, if erroneously, claimed as his birth date (it was actually July 11, 1834) — the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown will open a small Whistler show centered on “Whistler’s Mother,” as the painting is known.
The work, an icon of American motherhood, is coming to Williamstown after a stint at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., where it is one of three masterpieces on loan from the Musee d’Orsay in a show that opens on March 27.
Whistler was born in Lowell. (Asked how that came to be, he quipped: “I wanted to be near my mother”). But he spent most of his life outside the US — in Russia, France, and the UK.
After making a name for himself in Paris, befriending the likes of Courbet, Manet, and Degas, he was living in London and experiencing a prolonged crisis of confidence when one of his portrait sitters — the 15-year-old daughter of an English Member of Parliament — suddenly quit on him, prompting him to turn to his widowed mother.
A deeply religious woman, Mrs. Whistler had moved in with her firstborn son, whom she called “Jemie,” in 1863, after fleeing the American Civil War. She had lived with him intermittently ever since, supplanting his live-in mistress, the red-haired Irishwoman Jo Hiffernan.
Despite her piety — the black mourning dress and white coif she wears in the portrait were her daily uniform — she was not as forbidding as Whistler’s painting suggests. She was affectionate and indulgent toward her son, who, although he was dedicated to his art, was also lazy and narcissistic. She gave him the kind of help he sorely needed when it came to managing his affairs, both professional and social.
By the late summer or early fall of 1871, she was 67 and ailing. She had lost three children in infancy, and her husband, an engineer named George Washington Whistler, to typhoid fever while living in Russia.
“Mother, I want you to stand for me,” Mrs. Whistler recalled Whistler telling her after his teenage model pulled out, in a subsequent account . “It is what I have long intended and desired to do, to take your portrait.”
When he said “stand,” he meant it. For the first few days, she posed standing in the studio at 2 Lindsay Row. It was a stark room with bare gray walls, black wainscoting, a black door, Chinese matting, and a few black-rimmed prints on the walls.
Whistler only settled on the picture’s memorable seated pose after it became clear that standing would be too arduous for his mother. The footstool, which elevates her lower half and lends the whole carefully balanced composition a slight floating effect, was introduced to prevent her feet getting cold from the floor.
It was probably completed in less than a week. But the picture gave Whistler, who was known for destroying many of his most ambitious canvases, considerable trouble.
Increasingly obsessed with subtle gradations of tone and with producing a kind of unified envelope of light (1871 was also the year he painted his first “Nocturne”), Whistler had been experimenting with his materials.
But, according to the British restorer Sarah Walden, who was hired by the Louvre to restore and preserve the picture, Whistler lacked the technical training to pull off his ambitious intentions for the picture.
Seeking a subtle interplay of tones, he painted on the back of a virtually unprimed canvas with paints that were extremely diluted. Whistler, writes Walden in “Whistler and His Mother: An Unexpected Relationship” (2003), was “an American in a hurry.”
His biggest problem was getting the darks to behave just as he wanted them. He thinned his dark pigments with too much turpentine, which the barely primed back of the canvas greedily absorbed.
As a consequence, the original painting’s rich blacks and grays either sank into the canvas with the turpentine or were left stranded, unprotected, on the picture’s surface — in both cases, dulling the original effect.
Whistler’s only way of bringing back the painting’s rich tones was to lavish the whole surface with varnish. Over time, however, the varnish yellowed, as varnish does, and it became increasingly difficult to remove and reapply without compromising the unstable surfaces below.
Overall, as a result, the picture has lost much of the original subtlety of color and tone that made it so arresting, harmonious, and coherent — all because Whistler didn’t know what he was doing.
But sometimes art triumphs in spite of technique.
Although it is a very different picture 144 years after it was painted, “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” remains a work of genius — astonishing in both the stark simplicity of its design and its inexhaustible susceptibility to compelling interpretations.
When the painting was purchased by the French state, it marked the high point of Whistler’s career, and confirmed what he surely already knew — that, although it had marked the beginning of a new way of painting for him, he had never surpassed it.
The work somehow unites Mrs. Whistler’s formidable Yankee self-possession, her psychologically rich reticence, with Whistler’s own elaborately cultivated decadent worldview, which was inspired not only by his belief in art for art’s sake but by his feelings for Japanese aesthetics, classical composition, and the aristocratic dignity of Velazquez’s royal portraits.
Whistler’s dream, in line with his burgeoning view of himself as a dandy, was to elevate a quivering hothouse aestheticism over psychology, history, politics, and virtually all else. His mother’s presence somehow harnessed this unrealistic reverie, pulling it back toward the grit and the grip of specific truth.
When the painting came to Boston in 1934 on a tour of the US, its status as an icon of American motherhood was sealed. It was deemed so valuable that it was insured for $1 million and assigned a police motorcycle escort on its way to the Museum of Fine Arts. Eleven thousand Bostonians lined up to see it one day in May.
When it came to the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004, the museum’s director, Graham Beal, assigned a special guard exclusively to this painting.
The last time “Whistler’s Mother” came to these parts was in 2006, when it was displayed at the MFA in a major show, “Americans in Paris 1860-1900.”
At the Clark, the painting will be at the center of a selection of other Whistler works, many from the collection of the Colby College Museum of Art. Colby, which owns the Lunder Collection of James McNeill Whistler, is a member of the Lunder Consortium for Whistler Studies, along with the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Glasgow.
According to the Clark, which will show the painting in its Lunder Center at Stone Hill, the current loan is a reciprocal arrangement, an expression of thanks by the Musee d’Orsay’s director, Guy Cogeval, for previous loans by the Clark to Paris.
Whistler might have claimed his famous painting was also an act of reciprocity — a thank you for his mother’s years of devotion: “One does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible,” he said.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.