James Abbott McNeill Whistler (July 11, 1834 – July 17, 1903) was an American-born, British-based artist. Averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, he was a leading proponent of the credo "art for art's sake". His famous signature for his paintings was in the shape of a stylized butterfly possessing a long stinger for a tail.
The symbol was apt, for it combined both aspects of his personality—his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, while his public persona was combative. Finding a parallel between painting and music, Whistler titled many of his paintings "arrangements", "harmonies", and "nocturnes", emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony.
His most famous painting is the iconic Whistler's Mother (1871), the revered and oft parodied portrait of motherhood. A wit, dandy, and shameless self-promoter, Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.
By 1871, Whistler returned to portraits and soon produced his most famous painting, the nearly monochromatic full-length figure titled Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Artist's Mother, but usually referred to as Whistler's Mother.
According to a letter from his mother, one day after a model failed to appear, Whistler turned to his mother and suggested he do her portrait. In his typically slow and experimental way, at first he had her stand but that proved too tiring so the famous profile pose was adopted. It took dozens of sittings to complete.
The austere portrait in his normally constrained palette is another Whistler exercise in tonal harmony and composition. The deceptively simple design is in fact a balancing act of differing shapes, particularly rectangles of the curtain, picture on the wall, wall and floor which stabilize the curve of her face, dress, and chair. Again, though his mother is the subject, Whistler commented that the narrative was of little importance. In reality, however, it was a homage to his pious mother.
Mostly due to its anti-Victorian simplicity during a time in England when sentimentality and fussy decoration were in vogue, the public reacted negatively. Critics thought the painting a failed "experiment" rather than art. The Royal Academy rejected it, then grudgingly accepted it after lobbying by Sir William Boxall—but then hung the painting in an unfavorable location at its exhibition.
From the start, Whistler's Mother sparked varying reactions, including parody, ridicule, and reverence, which have continued to today. He frequently exhibited it and authorized the early reproductions that made their way into thousands of homes.
The painting narrowly escaped being burnt in a fire aboard a train during shipping.
Later the painting was purchased by the French government, the first Whistler work in a public collection, and is now housed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
During the Depression, the picture was billed as "million dollar" painting and was a big hit at the Chicago World's Fair. It was accepted as a universal icon of motherhood by the worldwide public, which was not particularly aware or concerned with Whistler's aesthetic theories. In public recognition of its status and popularity, the United States issued a postage stamp in 1934 featuring an adaptation of the painting.