Portrait of the Artist as a Devoted Son: Two Studies in Maternal Immortalization

May. 11, 2014
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As Mother's Day 2014 winds down, here's hoping that all you sons and daughters did your due diligence and that all you mothers have been lavished with chocolates, roses, and assurances of undying filial devotion.

For our part, we here at MKEart thought it seemly to dedicate a post to mothers in art - a quick look at two cases of maternal immortalization.

The most iconic matriarch in a museum may well be James McNeill Whistler's 1871 composition entitled, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1". Perhaps you know it by its nickname, "Whistler's Mother." Defying the common expectation that the artist be also a sentimentalist, Whistler was bewildered that the public was so interested in the identity of the woman wearing the black dress in front of the grey wall, which Whistler had so studiously arranged: "Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an "Arrangement in Grey and Black." Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public do to care about the identity of the portrait?" Despite his frustration, Whistler would return to arranging in grey and black for a second time, but instead of his mother, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No.2" featured Scottish philosopher, historian, and all-around man of letters Thomas Carlyle.

A less conventional treatment of mother dearest comes in the form of Juan Gris's 1912 "Portrait of the Artist's Mother." Gris' style is decidedly cubist, but not that of his better-known peers such as Picasso or Braque. The right adjective eludes me. Gris is perhaps more accessible, but that might be construed as denigration when applied to a member of the avant-garde. What I mean is this. With fewer 'cubes,' the viewer perceives the handful of perspectives that the artist has suggested fairly quickly and feeling assured that one has done so completely. For example, in terms of the mother portrait, focus on the left side of the head. The upper two 'cubes,' to be specific. Defined in this way, Gris' mother throws her head back in merriment. Her eye glistens and echoes the smiling curve of her mouth...

Okay, now cleanse your visual palate. This time around thematize the first and third 'cubes.' Viewed in this way, Gris' mother takes on a different attitude. Now her sharp, triangular mouth, jutting and capped with a piercing point, gives her a profile like Beaker from the Muppets. This seems to be Gris' mother nagging, carping, henpecking and generally giving him a hard time. "Why don't you call more? Why don't you find a nice girl and settle down? Why don't you sell as many canvasses as Picasso?" she presses.

It seems Gris, like Whistler, was no sentimentalist.

Happy Mother's Day, Mumsy!


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