Deborah Solomon at The New York Times:
Of all the American artists of the 19th century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was probably the talkiest. In the 1870s, when he painted his famous portrait of his mother, he was living in London, a high-strung expatriate who saw fit to issue mission statements on what seemed like an hourly basis. “Art should be independent of all claptrap,” he declared, believing he had stripped painting of sentimentality and moral uplift and the other trademarks of Victorian culture.
Yet “Whistler’s Mother” — or “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” as the painting is actually titled — would come to be celebrated as just the opposite. Today, it is viewed less as an audacious art-for-art’s-sake experiment than as an apotheosis of American motherhood. As most everyone is aware, it portrays Anna Whistler in stark profile, sitting on a hardwood chair in her long black dress. Her face appears somber and a little tense beneath her white lace bonnet.