The painting best known as Whistler’s Mother had a tremendous impact on the art scene in general and on Hammershøi in particular. Whistler’s painting is characterised by a stringent composition based on an arrangement of colours, surfaces, lines, and atmosphere rather than on aiming for a depiction of reality.
Arrangement in Grey and Black – Whistler’s Mother
I the summer of 1871 the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler painted a portrait of his mother in his London studio. The painting was to have a tremendous impact on the art scene. Whistler arranged the pictorial elements in accordance with a stringent aesthetic that removed it from the realm of the real, thereby prefiguring the atmospheric scenes of Symbolism.
An arrangement first and a portrait second
The title of the painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother, tells us that it is an arrangement first and a portrait second. Whistler used concepts from the realm of music, designating his paintings as e.g. nocturnes, symphonies, and arrangements. He emphasised composition over verisimilitude. Whistler insisted that painting is first and foremost an arrangement of colour, surfaces, lines, and moods.
A web or grid of links and contrasts
The painting Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother evinces a pronounced interplay between the sitter and the interior in which she sits. A web or grid of links and contrasts arises – e.g. in the connections between the mother’s black-and-white clothes and the black-and-white curtains. The subtle, sophisticated arrangement takes centre stage, and even though the painting has no narrative in the proper sense of the term it nevertheless becomes dramatic due to the link between figure and setting. The stringent aesthetic evokes a psychological dimension.
Hammershøi and Whistler
After Whistler exhibited the painting at the 1883 Salon in Paris it became one of the most-discussed paintings of the time, and it is among the most influential works of art from the period.
That same year it was reproduced in the French magazine Gazette des beaux-arts, and it would appear that Hammershøi saw it there. Whatever the case may be, in 1886 he painted a small painting of his own mother seated in a similar fashion, viewed from the side up against a wall and wearing a dark dress.
Hammershøi presumably also saw works by Whistler at exhibitions in Paris (1889 and 1891-92) and Copenhagen (1897). He tried on numerous occasions to pay a visit to Whistler in London in 1897-98, but without success as Whistler was away.