A Look Back at Whistler’s Mother

A crowd of visitors in front of Whistler's Mother

A crowd of visitors in front of Whistler's Mother, June 2015

Mother’s Day is always an exciting time at the Norton Simon Museum, but especially six years ago, when we hosted one of the most famous mothers in art history, James McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, known to most as simply Whistler’s Mother. On loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, along with Manet’s Portrait of Émile Zola and Cézanne’s The Card Players, Whistler’s Mother graced our galleries throughout the spring of 2015, creating a buzz for visitors and staff alike.

In this short essay written for our Spring 2015 newsletter, former Associate Curator Emily Beeny looks further back in time to the painting’s first visit to Los Angeles in 1933, and recounts the stir it caused in the city and beyond. While it may be some time before museums can host throngs of visitors, it is a delight to recall how a work of art can inspire such excitement, curiosity and joy to so many.

Whistler Portrait’s Return to Los Angeles
By Emily Beeny, Spring 2015

Orsay's Whistler's Mother 600

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871, © Musée d'Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

This season, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, the painting better known as “Whistler’s Mother,” returns to Southern California for the first time since 1933. We are very pleased to welcome it, alongside masterpieces by Manet and Cézanne, as part of an exchange with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where the portrait has hung since the Museum’s inception. The first American picture to join the collections of the Musée du Louvre in 1925, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 was transferred along with other 19th-century holdings to the newly created Orsay in 1986. The painting last visited Southern California eighty-two years ago as part of a whirlwind tour of the United States, organized to promote Franco-American friendship. Heralded by the Los Angeles Times in February of that year as “a world symbol for the ideal of mother,” the painting attracted some 80,000 visitors to the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park (predecessor to both LACMA and the Natural History Museum) between March 18 and April 5, 1933.

“What is generally regarded as the greatest canvas ever painted by an American artist, Whistler’s Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, will be shown at the County Museum in Exposition Park,” one reporter wrote, detailing the painting’s then-state-of-the-art protection and display, which apparently included an iron railing, a rotating team of guards and “a device . . . which rings a bell in the offices if the canvas is so much as touched.” Further stops on the tour included Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Kansas City, New York, Saint Louis, Toledo and San Francisco, where an astonishing 145,000 visitors flocked to see the painting during its month-long stay.

US Postage stamp with Whistler's Mother

US Postage stamp with Whistler's Mother

Famous upon its arrival in American soil in the fall of 1932, the picture had become an icon by the time it returned to France a year and a half later. It was featured in May 1934 on a three-cent commemorative stamp issued in honor of Mother’s Day. Though many objected to the liberties taken with Whistler’s design by the U.S. Postal Service, which cropped the composition and added a vase of flowers at lower left, the printing of 200 million stamps allowed this image to reach an audience of unprecedented size.

2015 installation

Installation of Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, 2015

A somewhat smaller audience will visit the Museum to see Arrangement in Grey and Black, which is on view for three months (March 27–June 22, 2015) beside Manet’s Émile Zola, Cézanne’s The Card Players and a selection of works from the Norton Simon collections.