Frances Spalding

Art and Maternity

Whistler and His Mother: An Unexpected Relationship


Gibson Square Books 304pp £17.99 order from our bookshop

SARAH WALDEN IS accustomed to looking at things in minute detail. She often wears magnifying glasses to remove, with the use of a scalpel, caked varnish fiom the crevices of a painting. As one of the world’s leading restorers, her work sometimes confines her attention, for days on end, to an area of only a few square centimetres. Yet this close-up activity, peering through what she calls ‘windows’ opened up on the surface of a canvas. does not prevent her fiom simultaneously asking large questions. Her previous book, The Ravished Image, carried Ernst Gombrich’s imprimatur and criticised excessive restoration of paintings. lust what she meant was made d apparent at the recent Titian exhibition: enjoyment of his colour alternated with an awareness that its varying clarity and brightness owed much to different styles of conservation.

Walden is also wary of relying too much on technology. Ultimately, she insists, science can only add interesting footnotes to Walden our understanding of painting. This new book upholds her claim. Specialist knowledge of a painting’s material properties is combined with extensive scholarship. It was stimulated by a commission Walden received from the Louvre to restore Whistler’s portrait of his mother. An American visitor to the museum overheard her, in fiont of the actual picture, dscussing its condition with others. Unable to restrain himself, he expressed incredulity at the idea of this icon being restored. How could anyone take on such a responsibhty?

For a work of art to be caricatured is always an index of its greatness, and Whistler’s Mother, like Manet’s Olympia, has been frequently lampooned and parodied. In Whistler’s own lifetime, the painting nourished the cult of dandyism in France. When it entered a French museum (it was bought by the Luxembourg in 1891 and moved to the Louvre in 1926), it acted as an indictment of British philistinism. Later still, the painting came to be seen in America as a symbol of plain, puritanical homeliness and was appropriated for a Mother’s Day postage stamp. Yet, despite its fame, Whistler’s Mother hung for many years hidden away in an obscure upstairs room in the Louvre. When she began restoring the painting, Walden was surprised to discover how few of her friends and acquaintances were aware that it had spent the last hundred years in a French rather than an American museum; and fewer still had seen it. ‘The painting’, she writes, ‘turned out to be what most people’s lives are: an accumulation of ambivalences’. But the more she studied it, the more convinced she became that Whistler’s portrait of his mother, which he executed in 1871, was the resolution of an artistic crisis; and that the picture sits at the centre not only of his career but also of his emotional life.

She is not alone in arguing that mtler had a rough ride in the 1860s. He was restless and rootless in London. His mother had arrived in 1863, after the outbreak of the American Civil War, and was followed three years later by his brother, who had played an important part in the war as a surgeon in the Southern army. This may explain why, in 1866, Whistler suddenly and inexplicably agreed to take part in the war being fought by Chile and Peru against Spain. He had no commitment to Chile, nor was the war one that raised important issues of social rights. It is most likely that he went simply because he needed to get away. On his arrival at Val~araiso. he witnessed Whistler a minor s&sh idim mediately rode out of town as fast as his horse would carry him. He was evidently living on his nerves and prone to violent behaviour, for on his journey home he was confined to his cabin &er attacking a fellow traveller and kiclung him down a fight of stairs. But the extent to which this personal crisis is tied in with an artistic one is less clear. It is true that on his return fiom Chile Whistler denounced Courbet and publicly regretted not having been a pupil of Ingres. But he had now uncovered his bent towards a more timeless, classical approach; and the year before he painted hls mother he began his series of ‘Nocturnes’, which were the perfect vehicle for many of his ideas about art, including the analogy between art and music.

The Mother was begun without any clear artistic strategy. The decision that proved so original -to paint her side view, seated and in profile – came about by chance: she was originally standing, but the effects of a recent illness caused her to abandon that pose after the first two or three days. And the trigger for this painting was simply the fdure of another model to show up. Whlstler then turned to his mother, who was sharing his house, and told her that now was the time to do something he had ‘long intended and desired to do’. The portrait, therefore, was begun on impulse and completed in response to a private need. It is, Walden argues, hls least self-conscious work: ‘the painting had simply happened to him’.

Walden takes us inside the room where it was painted, at 2 Lindsey Row (today, 97 Cheyne Walk), which had bare grey walls and black wainscoting and doors. She discusses the way in which the deliberate aridity of the setting and the careful positioning of every element of the portrait contributed to the mood of the whole and deepened what Whistler called ‘the aroma of personality’. Anna Mathilda Whistler was a devout woman, who wisely recognised that her son’s ‘natural religion’ was art. Whistler, in turn, habitually escorted his mother to Chelsea Old Church, but at the church gate always took his leave with a little bow. It seems likely that he gained something from her inner quietness. When Walden asks, ‘How was it that this absurdly vain, self-centred and self-indulgent man, this Beau Brummell of art, could have produced a painting of the rigour and integrity of the Mother?’, the answer may lie in the complex weave of emotional threads that bound Whistler to his mother.

He was so proud of the picture that when it was completed he took it with him on the train to Liverpool, to show his patron, F R Leyland, who lived at Speke Hall. He had no intention of selling the portrait and turned down offers for it. But the situation changed after he successfully took Ruskin to court for libel: awarded a farthing in damages, he was bankrupted by the legal costs. He apparently shielded his mother fiom his bankruptcy, impossible though ths seems, and also kept hidden &om her hs illegitimate son by his former mistress Jo Hiffernan. He did not marry und after hs mother hed. In her final chapter Walden offers her readers a fascinating glimpse into some of the problems she encountered when cleaning the picture. Whistler apparently used so much hlutent that the pigment is left stranded like dust on the picture surface. But he achieved what he wanted: a combination of richness and transparency, thinness and vibrancy; also, as Walden neatly observes, ‘a fine and rare balance between enduring nobility of content and fragile evanescence of form’.

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