Friday, May 19, 2017

Celebrity Mom

     I stepped onto the train on a bright, May morning with my hair looking like a birch broom in a fit. The frivolous winds had played tricks on me as I waited on the platform for the train to arrive. I was traveling into the city for a visit with Whistler’s Mother. Anna Whistler does not seem to be the sort of matron who would look kindly on a woman appearing in public all frowsy and blown. I combed my fingers through my hair and fluffed my artistically arranged scarf, even though I would have it to do all over again after walking from the train station to the Art Institute where Mrs. Whistler was staying.

     Nevertheless, it was a lovely spring morning with wooly white clouds grazing in blue meadows overhead and gray, feather-footed shadows skipping over the ground. The trees along the track tossed their green heads at me as I passed. I envy them. Trees never look frowsy with windblown tresses.

     I had a new book to read. My anticipation was palpable. Eleven stops later, I had only finished one chapter. The words in that chapter were like a May morning: bright and fresh above with shadows running along beneath. I had paused repeatedly to look at the beguiling, bittersweet words in the same way that I look out the window at each stop on the line to watch passengers board the train. Boisterous Cubs fans on their way to a game; college students freed from the constraint of study; a few old ladies like myself, alone and silent or in chatty pairs; a noticeable absence of commuters.

     Lunch came first because Anna Whistler is a genteel but frugal woman and would not be serving tea. I sat at a tiny marble-top bistro table in my favorite Belgian café eating tartine: thin, chewy brown bread; wholesome turkey; slices of avocado, cucumber and radish; a sprinkling of rocket; a drizzle of dressing and a triple cornichon garnish. Oh, so yummy without a gram of guilt. I paused between portions to read a paragraph or two from my book. No matter how tempting, one cannot hold a paperback and eat fully loaded slices of tartine at the same time.

     We met after lunch, Whistler’s Mother and I. She lives in France but American Gothic went on holiday to the Musée d’Orsay and Mrs. Whistler came to Chicago. I had done some pertinent reading before my visit, so I knew the painting was much larger than I had always imagined it to be. I am already fond of straight lines, order and neutral tones, but studying the piece has built in me an even greater appreciation for it. Whistler disliked the Victorian sentimentality portrayed in the art of his day and never meant for the painting to be viewed as a portrait. It is more an arrangement of items, perhaps as one would view them in a still life painting. He did, in fact, title the painting: Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. intending to reference the musical concept of arrangement.

     Whistler may have painted his sixty-seven-year-old mother without that sentimentality for either her age or widowhood that would make her seem other than she was, yet I cannot help but notice that the only colors in the painting are the warm flesh tones of her hands and face. And he gave her something to rest her feet on. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the painting has become an icon for motherhood and will always be remembered to the world as Whistler’s Mother.


  1. You win my prize for an art review! You had me every mile you travelled closer to her. And made her more real to me than she ever has been. (This should be published!)

    1. Thank you Dewena. It is the art that I can relate to in a three dimensional way that I enjoy the most.

  2. Dear Nib
    Thank you so much for leaving your kind message over on my blog - it is much appreciated - I do miss visiting here and of course writing my blog which gave me so much pleasure over the years. I felt a little bereft after making my decision to stop blogging but just felt it was time to move on and get my life back - I didn't want to spend hours staring at a computer screen when there is real life to be lived. If you should ever join Instagram (which is so much quicker and less time consuming) I am there as the rosebank diaries - thank you once again for contacting me