Whistler’s Mother is visiting Australia

Whistler’s Mother, by James Abbott MacNeil (1834-1903). Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 portrait of the artist’s mother is America’s Mona Lisa.

But, perhaps to the chargin of US galleries, it calls the Musée d’Orsay in Paris home and is thus regarded as the most important American artwork to reside outside of the United States.

Whistler was an American-born painter born in Massachusetts in 1834. His portrait of his mother, Anna, is considered a potent symbol of motherhood and her stoic and pious appearance was the exact opposite of her flamboyant, gregarious son.

Interestingly, the painting was panned when it first appeared at the Royal Academy in London in 1872, because it ran against prevailing tastes, but its popularity grew at the turn of the century and in 1934, US president Franklin Roosevelt used it on a Mother’s Day stamp, helping cement the image’s popularity, although the designer altered Whistler’s work, adding a pot of flowers for the Anna to look at, rather than just starting into space.

Now Whistler’s mum has come to the National Gallery of Victoria, as part of an art swap with the Musée d’Orsay, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

An exhibition based around the painting opened at the last week and runs until 19 June 2016.

Exhibition curator Dr Isobel Crombie said it was the first time the “large and imposing artwork” has been seen in Australia

“This focused exhibition takes viewers on a journey through the history of the work, uncovering the life and career of Whistler; the life of the sitter, Anna Whistler; the artwork’s volatile reception; its conservation story; the influences that informed its production; and, its until now unexplored Australian connections, before viewers encounter the painting in a dedicated room,” she said.

Tickets are $12 and available online at ngv.vic.gov.au.