James McNeill Whistler<br/>
American 1834–1903<br/>
"Arrangement in grey and black no. 1:<br/>
Portrait of the artist’s mother" 1871<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
144.3 x 162.5 cm<br/>
Musée d’Orsay, Paris (RF 699)<br/>
Photo : © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Jean Schormans<br/>
Photo : © RMN-Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay) / Jean Schormans
back to Media Releases
James McNeill Whistler
American 1834–1903
Media Release • 23 Mar 16

Whistler’s Mother

One of the world’s most iconic paintings, James McNeill Whistler’s Portrait of the artist’s mother, 1871, has been unveiled at the National Gallery of Victoria in its Australian debut. On loan from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and exhibited exclusively at the NGV in association with Art Exhibitions Australia, Whistler’s Mother explores the complex work from multiple perspectives to reveal the artist, the sitter, and the work’s immense artistic, social and historical impact.

Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV, said, ‘Alongside da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Munch’s The Scream sits Whistler’s Portrait of the artist’s mother as one of a handful of artworks which enjoy universal recognition and admiration. We are grateful to the Musée d’Orsay for loaning us this most treasured item as part of a cultural exchange between the two institutions which will see the NGV’s renowned painting, Pierre Bonnard’s Siesta (La Sieste), 1900, loaned in return.’

Dr Isobel Crombie, exhibition curator and Assistant Director, NGV, commented, ‘Whistler’s Mother marks the first time that this large and imposing artwork has been exhibited in Australia, offering a unique opportunity for audiences to see a true masterpiece here in Melbourne. This focused exhibition takes viewers on a journey through the history of the work, uncovering the life and career of Whistler; the life of the sitter, Anna Whistler; the artwork’s volatile reception; its conservation story; the influences that informed its production; and, its until now unexplored Australian connections, before viewers encounter the painting in a dedicated room.’

Born in Massachusetts in 1834, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born painter, printmaker and designer during the Aesthetic movement, which celebrated ‘art for art’s sake’. Portrait of the artist’s mother was a pivotal moment in Whistler’s development as an artist and is today considered the most important American artwork to reside outside of the United States.

Regarded as a potent symbol of motherhood the atmospheric work depicts Whistler’s mother, Anna, sitting in profile clutching a white handkerchief, and is painted in tonal shades of grey and black. Anna’s stoic and pious personality can be read in contrast to her son, who was renowned for his flamboyant dress and famous social gatherings.

The painting drew criticism when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1872, with its abstract and non-narrative qualities confronting tastes of the time. By the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, however, the painting had become a household name and drew crowds across Europe and the United States. In 1934 Franklin Roosevelt, thirty-second President of the United States, was so taken with the austere portrait that he devised a design of it for a Mother’s Day stamp. Controversially, the stamp designer altered the image so that the mother was staring at a pot of flowers rather than into empty space, as in the original composition.

The NGV has its own associations with Portrait of the artist’s mother and holds an edition of the etching Black Lion Wharf, 1859, which is depicted in the background of the famous painting, and a similar Goodwin chair to the one which Anna Whistler sits on. The exhibition also reveals the profound influence Whistler has had on some of Australia’s most prominent artists including John Longstaff, E. Phillips Fox and Hugh Ramsay.

Whistler’s Mother explores the conservation story behind the work’s making and includes a short film, produced by the NGV, to further decode the significance of the work.

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated, 88-page hardcover publication, available at the NGV design store for $24.95. A range of public programs are being presented including a ‘Redefining Whistler’ floor talk series with contemporary insights about the artist and artwork, and a Mother’s Day High Tea featuring exquisite creations by Darren Purchese of the renowned sweet studio Burch & Purchese, inspired by Anna Whistler’s own recipes.

The National Gallery of Victoria is delighted to lend Pierre Bonnard’s Siesta (La Sieste), 1900, to the Musée d’Orsay in 2016 to acknowledge the Museum’s 30th anniversary. The exchange of these important paintings between the NGV and the Musée d’Orsay will occur under the program of the Australia-France Agreement on Cultural and Scientific Cooperation.

Whistler’s Mother is on display at NGV International from 25 March – 19 June 2016. Open daily, 10am–5pm.

Tickets on sale from ngv.vic.gov.au. Adult $12 | Concession $10 | Child (5-15 years) Free entry

The NGV is pleased to offer children free entry to Whistler’s Mother with any ticket purchase. Children under 5 years of age receive free entry to all NGV exhibitions.

The exhibition is organised by the National Gallery of Victoria, Musée d’Orsay and Art Exhibitions Australia.

Facilitated by: Australian Government Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Scheme