The Real Deal: “Whistler’s Mother”

Drawing and painting have always been a part of my life. My older brother’s high school art book was around the house and I remember poring over it with great enthusiasm at a very young age. I was in awe of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, George Bellows’s “Stag at Sharkey’s”, John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X”, Mary Cassatt’s “The Child’s Bath (The Bath”), Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother)” to name a few. I knew these paintings were telling a story but was too young to fully comprehend the subtleties of these narratives. Nonetheless, gazing at the work was still exhilartating. 

I loved to hear my brother talk about these paintings—referring to them as masterpieces. “Masterpieces”… it sounded so important and regal. Mind you, I was staring at small reproductions (mostly in black and white) in a modest paperback. 

At that same time I started drawing. I copied comic strip figures, sports figures—typical childhood stuff. As I got older I experimented more with drawing and painting and fully realized in my late teens that this is what I wanted to do with my life.

I’ve had the privilege to see a lot of the paintings that were in that art book in person over the years. And each time the pieces stop me in my tracks. Not only for the shear pleasure of seeing these masterful works but for the flood of memories that abound me every time.

Last year the Art Institute of Chicago had the exhibition “Whistler’s Mother: An American Icon Returns to Chicago.” The show featured James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s most famous painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother”)—better known today as “Whistler’s Mother.”

No doubt it’s the real deal. Volumes have been written about it. For me, this particular piece keenly represents the zeitgeist of my early memory—it’s a “masterpiece.” I was over the moon to see it in person.