WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. >> Whistler's Mother is coming to visit, and her son too.
Rembrandt-like, her face shines clear against a dark and grey background, said Jay A. Clarke, Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark Art Institute.
Whistler painted her in 1871 and kept her portrait for 20 years before he sold it to the French government, she said — it was the first contemporary painting the French state had ever bought. In the 1930s, a tour brought it across the U.S., and Whistler's mother in her black dress and bonnet, became one of the best-known images in Western art.
"She's one of a handful of works like Munch's 'Scream' and the Mona Lisa," Clarke said — people recognize her.
Visitors can meet the original "Whister's Mother" this summer at the Clark Art Institute and get to know James Abbott MacNeil Whistler in a pair of shows at the Clark and the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass.
He and his mother both have ties to New England. He was born in Lowell, Mass., but as a child he lived in St. Petersburg, Russia, and studied at the Imperial Academy of Fine Art. When his father died of illness, Whistler's mother, left in a country where she did not speak the language, brought the family back to a small farming town in Northeastern Connecticut.
Whistler got through a Protestant high school as a rebellious and charming teenager, resisted his mother's attempts to interest him in the church, got thrown out of West Point and failed as a cartographer — he kept drawing mermaids in the margins.
He returned to Europe, to Paris on the eve of the Impressionists. But through his painting career in Paris and London he stayed close to his mother, and she later came to live with him in London. Clarke saw her as a loving mother who supported him even when she did not agree with his choices — he was the eldest son, and she a widow with children to support, and his early career nearly left him broke. She called him a butterfly. When they lived together, Clarke said, he told his mother not to come into his studio because he was painting nude models — and judging by the work at WCMA, he may have meant it.
WCMA will show a collection of controversial small paintings in lighter colors and fine brushstrokes, including the reclining woman on a red couch in "The Siesta," on loan from the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The Clark will trace Whistler's influences and the continued importance of his best-known work.
His mother wears black because she was still in mourning for his father, and she sits because she she was elderly and not well and felt too tired and sore to stand for long. But he often painted in dusky colors. He described his paintings in musical terms — "Noc–turnes" for studies of the River Thames at night, "arrangements" for portraits. Even his mother's he called "Arrangement in Grey and Black #2."
"Black fascinated him," Clarke said. "In the studio he didn't want natural light — he wanted shade."
She sees the influence of Japanese artists in his use of light, and the Clark will show prints by some of the artists he knew of and collected — Katsushika Hokusai, best known in the West for "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," his print of a foaming crest of water, and Utagawa Hiroshige, who caught moonscapes and fields in the rain.
Like many artists of his time, Whistler became familiar with Japanese woodblock prints in Paris. Dealers caried them, Clarke said, and many French Impressionists — Manet, De La Tour, Degas — studied them.
She finds their influence in "Whistler's Mother," in its composition, its flattened space and spareness and the shadow in the background.