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this image shows the painting Whistler's mother alongside a recretation of the painting by the author of this article.

Left: Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (completed in 1871) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Source: Wikimedia Commons.  Right: A recreation of this painting by Joan Taylor-Rowan. Source: Peter King

The mother of all portraits

One of the world’s most iconic mothers, her image immortalised in paint by her famous son, James, is buried in Hastings Cemetery. And what’s more, this woman, known to the world as ‘Whistler’s Mother’, was a DFL. Joan Taylor-Rowan finds out more about Anna Whistler and how she came to be buried in our East Sussex coastal town.

During the first lockdown, I dressed-up as iconic feisty females using only materials I already had at home and posted the images on Hastings’ Frock-up Friday page on Facebook. The discovery that Anna McNeill Whistler had been a Hastings’ resident prompted me to do one more.

Perhaps ‘feisty’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind when looking at James Whistler’s famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, also called Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, now found hanging in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Completed in 1871, it finds the elderly Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler sitting in profile, toying with a lace handkerchief. In her austere black dress and modest white cap, she appears traditional, even puritanical, but don’t be deceived: she’d been living in Chelsea with her decadent Bohemian son and I’m sure there were more fascinating things running through her mind than piety or penance.

It wasn’t the flamboyant parties that drove Anna to leave London in 1874 though; it was the foul atmosphere and the dreaded winter months by the River Thames. After a close brush with death, her physician son, William, suggested the move to Hastings for the sun and sea air.

Plaque on the house in St Mary's Terrace, Hastings occupied by Anna McNeill Whistler from 1876-1881

A place by the sea for Anna McNeill Whistler. source: Peter King

William had found her a house in St Mary’s Terrace, up on the hillside facing west over the town towards the Channel and Beachy Head.  Anna felt restored, as she sat in the Hastings sun – ‘like a frayed garment put out on the line on washday’ she wrote in her diary. She was unable to walk, but had frequent visitors to entertain her, people she’d known in London, her native America and St Petersburg, Russia. Anna was an avid letter writer and diarist, and I like to imagine her sitting by the upstairs window of the pretty house staring out to sea, reflecting on her extraordinary life.

A life of change

Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1804 to a middle-class, cultured family, Anna was brought up to aspire to motherhood and embrace piety and virtue. But the fates were to demand resilience and fortitude of her. Family circumstances required frequent relocations. She coped with the deaths of three of her five sons in their infancy. Later, she suffered the tragic death, from cholera, of her adored husband, George Whistler, a renowned railway engineer. They were living in St Petersburg at the time, George six years into a prestigious commission; unable to maintain the life that she’d become used to there, Anna was forced to return home.

A wayward son

Without her husband’s income, life in America, even a middle-class one, was a financial struggle. Drawing on her Episcopalian faith, Anna found the strength so evident in her famous portrait. She certainly needed it. James, the eldest of her surviving two sons, was proving quite a handful. Anna had nurtured his artistic talent at an early age but now a defiant teenager, James insisted on joining the military academy of West Point, like his father had. He was expelled – feckless and lazy was the verdict. Anna used all her social connections to find him other positions, but James was having none of it. He took himself to Paris in 1855, then to London to study art. Despite Anna’s traditional outlook, she embraced James’s move abroad, even becoming an agent for his work.

 The London reunion

In 1861, civil war broke out in America. Anna was conflicted; although she lived in the North her roots were in the South and many of her family still lived there. The highs and lows of James’s life in Europe were perhaps a welcome distraction for her over the next turbulent years. However, in 1863, with money still tight and the war reaching its climax, Anna, encouraged by her family, braved the Union’s naval blockade to sail to England and join James in London. As it turned out, Anna’s pious presence gave James’s life a gloss of gentility and reined him in a little. I can imagine the panicking James hiding his mistress’s lingerie in the cupboards of his Chelsea home just before his mother’s arrival!

Anna clearly adored James despite his flamboyance and caustic wit. She even tolerated his dubious friends, including the desperately decadent poet Algernon Swinburne, who tried to shock with tales of depravity that included bestiality and cannibalism. But Anna, contrary to social expectations, became very fond of him. My mother struggled to cope when a boyfriend of mine joined The Green Party; I think she would have had a seizure if he’d confessed to bestiality!

That famous portrait

Anna would have been no more than a footnote in the life of her famous son had it not been for the painting, now better known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’. It marked a change in James’s work. The almost life-size painting, with its limited colour palette and horizontal and vertical elements, suggest abstraction. Although James claimed that the composition was more important than the nature of the sitter, I don’t believe him. I think the muted tones and subtle brushwork actually mirrored something he admired in his mother, a quiet depth, unshowy but powerful. He described Anna as ‘grace wedded to dignity … strength enhancing sweetness’.

James’s painting quickly received great acclaim, but it was President Roosevelt’s decision in 1934 to commission a Mother’s Day postage stamp featuring it that led to its iconic status. This image of the enduring and steadfast mother seemed to speak to the hearts of the American populace enduring the Great Depression. It’s a position that the loving and resilient Anna deserves, and a tribute to her son’s talent that he was able to capture it.

Anna McNeill Whistler's gravestone in Hastings Cemetery

A place to rest: Anna McNeill Whistler’s gravestone in Hastings Cemetery. Source: Peter king.

Alas, Anna never did make it back to Connecticut. She died instead in Hastings in 1881, aged 76.

Today, if you walk through Hastings Cemetery to The Garden of Rest, you’ll find two stones, patterned with lichens laid into the ground.

One marks Anna’s grave but it is William, Anna’s attentive and reliable son, and his wife, Helen, who are buried alongside her.

It’s a trip worth making.

For further information, see: Friends of Hastings Cemetery; and Arrangement in Black and Grey No.1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), Musée d’Orsay

 

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Posted 12:27 Thursday, Jan 14, 2021 In: Visual Arts

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