It’s the birthday of the artist best known for a painting of his mother: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, born in Lowell, Massachusetts (1834). Whistler himself later decided he would have preferred to come from St. Petersburg, Russia. He said, “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell.” He did live in St. Petersburg for a while, when he was nine and his father got a job as a civil engineer for the railroad. He took private art lessons, enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and later spent some time in London with relatives. The family moved back to America after the death of Whistler’s father.
Whistler’s mother wanted him to be a minister, but he enrolled in the West Point Military Academy instead. He didn’t distinguish himself by his academic performance, and he had a rebellious streak, wearing his curly hair longer than was allowed. The superintendent — Robert E. Lee — gave him several chances to reform, but eventually was forced to kick him out. He took a job as a mapmaker, drawing mermaids and sea monsters in the maps’ oceans, and in 1855, with some help from a wealthy friend, he left for Paris to study art. He never returned to the United States, and eventually settled in London.
In 1885, Whistler gave his famous “Ten O’clock Lecture” to general acclaim. One reviewer wrote, “[T]he Prince’s Hall was crowded […] There were lords and ladies, beauties and their attendant ‘beasts,’ painters and poets, all who know about Art, and all who thought that they did […] all seemed delighted with ‘Jimmy.'” In the hourlong lecture, Whistler talked about his philosophy of “art for art’s sake.” Unlike most Victorians, he didn’t believe art or artists had a responsibility to convey a moral message. His most famous painting was titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), but it’s more commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother.” It’s a portrait of Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler in a black dress, seated in profile against a gray wall. When Whistler’s scheduled model didn’t show up for a sitting, he decided to paint his mother instead.