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The other day, I posted about artist Ben Shahn, who was as American an artist as I can imagine even though he was born in Lithuania. Today, I’m going to talk about James Abbott McNeil Whistler, who was born on this day in 1834. Whistler’s trajectory was exactly the opposite of Shahn’s; he was born in Massachusetts but acquired most of his training and lived most of his life in France and England, even going to the extreme of denying his American birth, preferring instead to claim that he was born in Russia. His influences were European, his patrons were European, nevertheless, we claim Whistler as an American artist and count his most famous painting, Whistler’s Mother (more accurately known as Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), among America’s iconic paintings.

Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (James Abbot McNeil Whistler - 1871)

The painting is seen by many as stirring and timeless representation of motherhood. I’m not seeing it. Were it not for the title, I would challenge anyone to point out what, if anything, is motherly about this image. It’s an old women sitting in a chair, painted in profile. She could as easily be a spinster or the mother of 10. Nothing about this image sorts this out for us. That didn’t stop anyone from assigning whatever meaning they wanted, and Motherhood was the meaning they liked best. When the US Postal Service (then known as the Post Office Department) went looking for an image to commemorate Motherhood in 1934, this is the one they chose.

Motherhood Commemorative Stamp of 1934

The bigger question, in my mind, is why have we been so quick to to embrace Whistler as an AMERICAN painter. It’s true that in Whistler’s day there was arguably no truly American art. Just about every notable American artist of the period, and well up into the 20th Century, went overseas for training, most often to Paris, and returned home afterwards. Even the most “American” art of the 19th Century, like the Hudson River School, was a hybrid of American and European influences, with the visual part decidedly European. The American art of the early 20th century, like the Ashcan School and the constellation of painters that coalesced around Alfred Stieglitz, maintained those strong ties to Europe, with Georgia O’Keeffe being a notable exception to the rule.

Conventions of Art History aside, Whistler was no American artist. The same can be said of Mary Cassatt, who’s path was remarkably similar to Whistler’s but who is also frequently cited as an “American”. This is not to denigrate the work of either artist or minimize our debt to our European cousins, but the very best things about American art are borne of the American Experience. I mean only to suggest that our art heritage might be better served if we spent more time celebrating people like Shahn, or photographers Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, or painters like O’Keeffe, John Sloan, and Edward Hopper. They are among those truly American artists who, regardless of where the came from or where they were trained, brought the quintessence of America into our visual consciousness.


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  1. […] had some difficulty getting my head around this (and have written so in posts before, here and here and maybe a few other places, too) – her art experience, her style, her influences, they were […]

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