Whistler’s Mother has seen better days

Emsworth has read a lot of biographies, but never, till now, a biography of a painting. That’s the best way to describe Whistler and His Mother (An Unexpected Relationship), authored by Sarah Walden, an expert in fine art restoration who was hired by the Louvre a few years ago to “restore” Whistler’s best-known painting.

This very well written book, published in 2003, is a boon to art museum junkies like Emsworth, who love to hear what goes on behind the scenes at museums, such as curators and restorers agonizing over what to do with masterpieces that have seen better days.

Everybody knows it as Whistler’s Mother, but the painter James McNeill Whistler gave it a much longer and more pretentious title: Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother. He painted the picture in London in 1871, with his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, as model. Walden’s book, which is just the right length at 229 pages, gives us a sketch of Whistler’s career before and after 1971, as well as his life as a self-promoting aesthete and London dandy. (To the left, an 1895 self-portrait of the artist that can be found in a Glasgow museum.)

The painting wasn’t much admired when Whistler first exhibited it, but its reputation soon grew. Whistler had to pawn it when he fell on hard times; in 1891 he schemed and maneuvered to have it purchased by the French government for the Luxembourg Museum in Paris for 4,000 francs (less than $1,000). This was undoubtedly much less than a private collector might have paid, but Whistler desperately wanted to have one of his paintings in the Louvre, and the Luxembourg was seen as a waystation for new works that would ultimately go there.

The picture did in fact eventually go to the Louvre; many Americans probably don’t realize that the most famous painting by any American artist belongs to the French. In 1933 and 1934, after reproductions had made it famous, Whistler’s Mother went on tour in the United States and was seen by millions. In 1934 it was the subject of the three-cent American stamp shown at the beginning of this post. (Whistler’s painting has no vase and flowers at its lower left corner, as the stamp engraving does.)

In 1986, when the Musée d’Orsay opened to house the Louvre’s collection of art from 1848 to 1915, Whistler’s Mother moved there. The painting now usually hangs in one of the Musée d’Orsay’s fourth-floor galleries, not far from Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone and Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette. I missed it on my first trip to Paris in 2002; it wasn’t on display. I saw it for the first time in 2006, quite by surprise, as part of an exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

Now that Sarah Walden has “restored” it, the painting is now, in fact, mostly grey and black, as the image toward the beginning of this post shows. But before restoration, it was just brown, as the image to the right shows.

We learn from Sarah Walden that Whistler actually looked forward to his picture’s changing its appearance as the years went on; in those days completed paintings were varnished, and Whistler fully expected the varnishes he put on the painting to give it a golden tint. But surely he didn’t mean for it to change this much!

The trouble is, Walden tells us, that Whistler used inferior materials and didn’t prepare his canvases properly. So while an Ingres, say, might be restored simply by removing old varnish or accumulated dirt, with Whistler’s Mother and other Whistler paintings the old varnish came to be embedded in the paint, so that it’s physically impossible to restore a Whistler to its original appearance, assuming we could figure out how it what it was.

Walden was able to clean some parts of the painting, like Mrs. Whistler’s face and her handkerchief, better than others — but doing that to the fullest extent possible would have destroyed the balance between the dark and light parts of the painting. She exercised restraint so that “Arrangement in Grey and Black” would reflect Whistler’s original “arrangement” as well as possible.

Ms. Walden’s explanation answered for Emsworth questions he had long had about Whistler paintings that seemed unnaturally dark and indistinct. The Frick Collection, in New York City, has several notable Whistlers. The Frick’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, for example, still seems reasonably vivid. But with the Frick’s Arrangement in Black and Gold: Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, a portrait of the man who was the model for Baron de Charlus in Proust, it’s truly hard to make out much of anything besides the Count’s face, collar, and gloves.

At the Met a week or so ago, Emsworth gloomily observed the same about a couple of Whistlers in the stacks among other American paintings that can be examined in open storage. (The American galleries at the Met are temporarily closed; Emsworth comments on the ones that can be seen in the stacks in this post.) The Met’s Whistler’s Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Gold Girl, painted five years after Whistler’s Mother, a portrait of a girl in fancy dress, was reduced to unattractive, undifferentiated browns. Its aesthetic appeal is lost, apparently forever. I can’t imagine that the Met curators will exhibit it anymore.

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