Arrangement in Grey And Black No.1

Whistler and ?art for art’s sake’

James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), the American-born artist, was based in London for most of his life, although he also spent some time in Paris and Venice, and much of his childhood was spent in Russia. He was a larger than life character and developed his own very individual style of painting. He was part of the Aesthetic Movement ‘art for art’s sake’ and, contrary to the Victorian liking for paintings with a moral message, his paintings concentrated on harmonies of colour.

Mother and son

His most famous painting is Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, popularly known as ‘Whistler’s Mother’. In real life, the contrast between mother and son couldn’t be more stark: the religious and pious woman who had once upon a time hoped her son would be a clergyman and the notorious artist with the bohemian lifestyle who was the talk of the town. The contrast between mother and son is the subject of the following verses. I imagine what they might be thinking as he is painting her.
The translation is from the original Gaelic in the CLAR publication Tro Chloich na Sùla.

Arrangement in Grey and Black:
Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871)
(by James McNeill Whistler)

A dark and grey painting
Of the painter’s own mother,
In a long black dress
And with a piercing look

And with perfect patience
Thinking about what’s happening,
As if she was saying:
“Is this the fruit of my womb

Now living like this –
‘Art for art’s sake’ – one
Whom I often prayed for
Before God in his merry youth?

But he went his own way,
Stubborn, dogmatic:
Now he sees me as one
Who is dour and disregards pleasure.

I in my trustworthy world,
Eating at the saviour’s table:
He like the prodigal son,
A glutton for vanity.”

But the son says to himself:
“The arts are my strength,
I’m enclosed with colour;
I’m a great painter

With status and a reputation,
Who creates true beauty
With a harmony of smooth colours
Like magical music.

She’s in her own world,
Closed in grey and black:
The distance between us as great
As between the land and the sea.”

One with holy thoughts
For the great Artist;
The meeting of two worlds
And two kinds of glory.

Maoilios Caimbeul
Copyright 2015

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