It’s a good thing that James Abbott McNeill Whistler isn’t around to see the art review in this week’s New Yorker about his painting popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother” at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl compared the love he has for his 98-year old mother to Whistler’s love for his mother, seemingly determined to ignore what he must surely know: that the painting isn’t about the artist’s mother. (More about that in a moment).
Schjeldahl went on and on about Mrs. Whistler history, from her given name (Anna) down to the fact that she was the niece of a slave owner, as if any of those things matters to the painting. And there was this added irrelevancy from Schjeldahl: “The length of Anna’s concealed legs, angled and descending to an upholstered footstool, suggests the anatomy of an N.B.A. draft pick.”
Perhaps oddest of all, Schjeldahl appears to pay more attention to what Mrs. Whistler is doing in the painting and less on what Whistler is doing in the painting: “Anna’s blank forbearance speaks of capitulation. She will do anything for him. She is his. Such exclusive devotion is the primal dream of every mother’s son, isn’t it?”
Is that art criticism or cheeky assumption? After all, Whistler made abundantly clear what he was doing. And in an article he wrote for “The Rag,” a Boston publication in 1878, he practically led us by the nose:
“The vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell”. Art should stand alone, he said, and appeal to one’s aesthetic sense without mixing it up with emotions that are foreign to it, like devotion and love. “These have no kind of concern with it; and that is why I insist on calling my works arrangements and harmonies.”
Of course, no one is obliged to see an artist’s work as he sees it. Interpretation is an individual thing, dependent on what the viewer brings to the work. But even if you never read a word of Whistler’s writing, a mere glance at the portrait of his mother tells you that it’s not about a son’s love for his mother as Schjeldahl contends. The lack of detail is so extreme that it comes close to abstract.
Whistler was so adamant that his pictures be seen as abstract that he sued art critic John Ruskin for damages when the critic mocked him for reducing art to mechanics. In his defense, Whistler told the court that the content of a painting wasn’t important, only the arrangement of line, form and color.
The jury agreed – well, sort of – by awarding him damages of one farthing (about a quarter of a penny).