Famous Mothers: Whistler's Mother Anna McNeill Whistler

About the famous Whistler's Mother from the painting of the same name, Anna McNeill Whistler history and biography.

Whistler's Mother, Anna McNeill Whistler (1804-1881)

Her parents were North Carolina slaveholders, and she was raised strictly in the Episcopalian faith. At 15, she met an Indiana-born West Point cadet named George Washington Whistler, and fell in love with him. However, he married Anna's best friend the following year. In 1831, after George Whistler had been a widower for 4 years, he remarried, taking Anna McNeill as his 2nd wife. Anna inherited 3 stepchildren, but in 1834 she gave her husband their 1st of 5 children, and the 1st proved to be James McNeill Whistler, who would become the celebrated painter and do the world-renowned portrait of his mother.

Incidentally, while it was Whistler's mother who became famous, it was actually Whistler's father who was considered a genius in his time. The father, George Washington Whistler, an assistant professor of mathematics at West Point, a surveyor and engineer, constructed the 1st mile of passenger railroad track in the U.S. for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, invented the locomotive steam whistle (which was not named after him), surveyed part of the U.S.-Canada border, went to Russia at the request of Czar Nicholas I to build the Moscow-St. Petersburg railroad at an eventual cost of $40 million.

When the elder Whistler died in 1849, his widow, Anna, took their son James Whistler, then 15, back to Connecticut, there to resume his schooling. James became the family black sheep. He was thrown out of West Point in his 3rd year for having both an excess of demerits and poor grades, and he later quit his job with the War Department's Coast and Geodetic Survey section. In 1855, rebelling against convention, James left America to live as an expatriate abroad, mostly in Paris and London, where he became a painter. After the Civil War, Anna, a Confederate sympathizer, went to live with her son, James, in London. Hastily, her son moved his Irish model-mistress, Jo Heffernan, out of his flat, to make way for his prim, religious mother.

Although frequently at odds with his straitlaced mother, James Whistler respected her for her goodness and compassion. During her lifetime, she had devoted herself to nursing 20 members of her family and circle of friends before their deaths. James Whistler was also enchanted by his mother's face, in which he saw "grace wedded to dignity, strength enhancing sweetness." One day in 1870, when his mother was 65, James decided to paint her in his London flat. Wearing her lace bonnet and black dress, she sat in an ebony dining room chair, using a footstool because of her age, as he did his classic portrait of her. Completing it in 1871, he called it, "Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1." The world would come to call it "Whistler's Mother."

Anna Whistler died in Hastings, England. Her artist son arranged for her burial in the Borough Cemetery. On her white gravestone was inscribed: "Blessed are they who have/not seen/And yet have believed." After the funeral, James Whistler borrowed pound 50 to get his mother's portrait out of hock. Later, he tried to sell the portrait in New York for $500, but there were no takers. When Degas arranged to have the painting compete in an exhibit of the French Salon, it won the 3rd-class medal, and that proved to be the turning point for Whistler. He wanted the painting to be accepted by a French museum. Through the efforts of the poet Mallarme, and the lobbying of future Premier Clemenceau, the National Museum of the Luxembourg Palace bought the masterpiece for the equivalent of $625. Today it hangs in the Louvre. In 1934, the U.S. Postmaster issued a commemorative Mother's Day stamp bearing the painting of Whistler's mother.

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