In 1878, James McNeill Whistler said about his most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), “Take the picture of my mother, exhibited at the Royal Academy as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ Now that is what it is. To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?” Painted in 1871, the portrait was intended to demonstrate Whistler’s recent focus on tonal harmonies over subject matter.
The return of “Whistler’s Mother” to the Art Institute of Chicago is especially meaningful given the museum’s deep holdings of Whistler’s paintings, prints, and drawings. Championed by the museum during his lifetime, Whistler is one of the 19th-century artists whose work lies at the core of the Art Institute’s collection.