May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
Whistler named his most famous
portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black . Here, for Mother’s Day,
are notable arrangements by various artists of their first loves.
An entire museum could be stocked with images of women who were loved by artists, and the first gallery might be reserved for portraits of the women whom painters loved before any others—their mothers.
I do not claim that artists are more devoted to their mothers than the rest of us are, but they are able to make their feelings visible, and some have succeeded in immortalizing these special models. A popular stereotype contends that mothers have always inspired their children with reverence for the “finer things in life”—truth, beauty, art. Unfortunately there is no evidence that this appealing bromide is in any way true. Some did encourage their children to become artists, and some did not.
The brilliant British historian James Laver wrote in 1955: “A generation ago it was the fashion to declare that we should not look for any meaning in a picture. We should be content with its ‘significant form.’ An artist was praised for painting his mother as if she had been a piece of cheese. But the human mind … persists in taking an interest in the subject of a picture.” Laver was alluding to Whistler’s mother and knew quite well that Whistler did not regard her “as if she had been a piece of cheese.” The painter was, however, a man with a marked flair for publicity and delighted in shocking the public with his deadpan title, Arrangement in Grey and Black .
The following portraits of artists’ mothers are superior arrangements of form, but they are also, I believe, labors of love—a child’s gift to Mother.