A famous resident of St Mary’s Terrace, Hastings, was Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of the artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and the subject of his most famous artwork. Gill Metcalfe explains more about the painting and its reception in 1871.

When Whistler painted his mother, he didn’t intend it to be a portrait. It was, he insisted, an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black’. It was to be seen as simply an assortment of colours like a series of harmonious musical notes, and the fact that his mother was the model, sitting for him in place of a patron who had failed to turn up, was neither here nor there.

Arrangement in Grey and Black by James McNeill Whistler

As he put it in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, “To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public care about the identity of the portrait? It is for the artist to do something beyond this … to put on canvas something more than the face.”

In fact, Mrs Anna McNeill Whistler had found the sitting an irksome business. She had already refused to stand, which was how her son wanted the figure to pose. Now she rebelled. She marched into the house next door in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, and asked whether the elder daughter, Christina, would take her place. The girl’s mother refused to allow this – perhaps Whistler’s rather unpredictable reputation had something to do with it. His mother returned home empty-handed, as it were. However, the recalcitrant younger daughter, Helena, had overheard the conversation and now crept in to offer her own services as model. Whistler was enchanted by the girl’s hands, but other than that, he was far more interested in his harmonious arrangement, balancing the shapes and forms, lights and darks, blacks, whites and greys of the composition. It is doubtful whether he saw his two job-share models as sentient beings – just props.

The Royal Academy came within a whisker of rejecting the ‘arrangement

The Royal Academy came within a whisker of rejecting the ‘arrangement’; they only accepted it on condition that the painting was labelled Portrait of the Artist’s Mother. Whistler, a controversial figure on the London art scene, was furious, insisting that it was not a portrait. He had already suffered at the hands of John Ruskin who had insulted his Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, accusing Whistler of “throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public”. He later took Ruskin to court for libel and won the case, being awarded one farthing in compensation. 

It was victory of sorts, but his greatest triumph came with the purchase of the ‘arrangement’ by the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris. This was a slap in the face for the Royal Academy, and Whistler never approached them again. Now, he was free to paint as many harmonious ‘nocturnes’, ‘symphonies’, and ‘arrangements’ as he liked. Later the painting of his mother became an icon and symbol of motherhood, appearing as a postage stamp and even as a recruiting poster for World War I.

Did Anna object to being called an ‘arrangement’? Apparently, she took it in her stride, even when, at a hard-up moment before the Musee du Luxembourg stepped in, her son pawned the painting. It seems that black and grey were entirely synonymous with her personality, and that as long as she was seated comfortably, with her feet up, hands resting on a piece of lace, she was contented. What more should a mother ask for her old age than to be a harmonious arrangement? Finally, her other, more reliable son, William, saw her safely tucked away in St. Mary’s Terrace in Hastings, where she lived happily until her death on 3rd January 1881.

Acknowledgements: J.M.Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890.

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