Egremont couple recreates 'Whistler's Mother' worthy of Musee d'Orsay

Local couple's take on 'Whistler's Mother' gains international attention

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EGREMONT — Retired art teacher Jude Harrigan has little doubt that her husband of 40 years, Michael, knew "when he married me, he'd be in for a wild ride," she said by telephone from her studio at their South County home.

Little could either of them know, however, that that "wild ride" would lead straight from the Berkshires to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. They owe it all to 19th century American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, his mother ... and the coronavirus.

It all began with a challenge. With art museums around the world closed in response to COVID-19 health concerns, those venues are looking for ways to engage stay-at-homes. Reportedly inspired by an Instagram account from Amsterdam, one of those museums, The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, challenged first its staff and then art lovers to recreate famous works of art at home — using everyday objects, people, pets — and then send photos of those recreations to the museum for posting on its Facebook and Instagram accounts.

According to Bored Panda — an online art, photography and design site — the Getty has been receiving more than 100 submissions a day; clever recreations of works by, among others, Klimt; da Vinci; Dali; van Gogh; Dutch and Renaissance masters; Munch; Picasso; Boticelli; Goya; Picasso; Kahlo. With a cat as its model, Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" turns up as "Girl With a Purrl Earring." One home-bound artist has a go at Norman Rockwell's devilish May 23, 1953, Saturday Evening Post cover, "The Girl With the Black Eye."

Neither the 64-year-old Harrigan — who retired last year after 35 years teaching high school art in Chatham, N.Y. — nor her adult daughter, Caitlin, who lives in West Stockbridge, could resist. They began challenging each other. Mom turned to one of Whistler's most famous paintings for inspiration and her husband for her model.

"He's been my muse," Harrigan said. At 65, Michael is a retired inspector with the Pittsfield office of the state Department of Children and Families. "We're happy retirees."

Harrigan playfully described her husband as "an eighth-degree black belt who revels in his tough-guy role, so he has no concerns about his masculine image."

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Harrigan had seen the actual 1871 painting — its actual title is "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother)" — in 2015 in a touring exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.

She did the painting in the living room of their Egremont house. "My daughter sent it to The Clark. They loved it so much," Harrigan said, "they asked if they could post it on their Instagram and Facebook pages and it went viral; so viral that the famed Musee d'Orsay in Paris contacted The Clark and arranged to post it on their Facebook and Instagram pages as part of a grouping of nine whimsical recreations of Whistler's most famous painting.

"The Musee had received about 1,000 recreations of the painting [among the more celebrated in the museum's prized collection]. They chose nine to post. Mine was among those nine."

While Harrigan says she has a certain admiration for Whistler's work, her own paintings focus exclusively on landscapes because, she said, "They are quiet. There are no people in my paintings. I think that's because as a teacher I was always surrounded by people, by noise."

And yet, for all the absence of humans in her paintings, for Jude Harrigan art is about people; community; connection; never more so, perhaps, than a time when people are hunkering down at home.

"I think the popularity of these recreations shows just how much people are connecting to and through art," Harrigan said. "I think people are taking time to look at beautiful art and learn about art."

There is something else; something more fundamental at a time that is disquieting and fraught.

"These recreations lead us to find humor and delight (at a dark time)," Harrigan said. "They carry us through when the chips are down."


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