On this great feast day, when we remember the good and solicitous Virgin of Guadalupe, I am reminded of another, no less familiar, image. The reader may well identify the black-clad lady portrayed above as the mother of James Abbot McNeill Whistler. The painting, commonly known by the pithy title Whistler’s Mother, remains the most important and perhaps recognizable work of American art residing outside the United States. Few artistic icons—such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Edward Munch’s The Scream, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic—impress us with the same intelligibility and profundity as Whistler’s Mother. Just as the Mona Lisa dazzles the imagination with its purported mystery and evocative detail, so does Whistler’s Mother speak to the viewer of motherhood and its enigmatic character.
The painting, formally known as Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1, portrays Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler sitting patiently, alone, gazing into the distance and beholding, insofar as one can tell, nothing. The scene is typical of Whistler, who seldom used more than a few colors in his works (see also Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl). This practice, despite its apparent simplicity, did not—as one might think—render his works flat and dull. By varying the given tones (lightness or darkness) of each color, and often drastically so, he generated visual interest and excitement in the viewer. Consider his use of grey and black in Whistler’s Mother. Anna’s dress is black, extremely black, rendering the better part of her bodily frame indecipherable. The viewer is thus drawn to the lace cuffs adorning her wrists, the rose-tinted hands clutching a handkerchief, and the blank forbearance written upon her face. Each of these physical characteristics reveal something about motherhood: the black dress admits of personal sacrifice; the lace cuffs, bygone beauty; the handkerchief, inconsolable grief; the blank forbearance, exclusive devotion to her son.
The appeal of Whistler’s Mother is, in my opinion, twofold: 1) its universal application: everyone has a mother and approximately half of us will become one; and, 2) its striking familiarity: Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler is reminiscent of all mothers, who gaze into the distance, pondering matters and concerns that only mothers can and will ever know. The painting is, therefore, an exemplary image of that sacred office entrusted to women of every generation: motherhood.
The accomplishment of Whistler is analogous to the feat of another painter, the Divine Painter, who created, fashioned, and preserved the perfect woman and mother for himself. Our own mothers—whether we know it or not—remind us of this ideal mother, whom we cannot help but love. For indeed, the Immaculate Virgin is the masterpiece of his handiwork and the secret love of every man. In The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God, Archbishop Fulton Sheen addresses this very topic:
When Whistler painted the picture of his mother, did he not have the image of her in his mind before he ever gathered his colors on his palette? If you could have preexisted your mother (not artistically, but really), would you not have made her the most perfect woman that ever lived—one so beautiful she would have been the sweet envy of all women, and one so gentle and so merciful that all other mothers would have sought to imitate her virtues? Why, then, should we think that God would do otherwise?
When Whistler was complimented on the portrait of his mother, he said, “You know how it is; one tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can.” When God became Man, He too, I believe, would make His Mother as nice as He could—and that would make her a perfect Mother.
In 1531, this perfect mother appeared to a humble man on the outskirts of Mexico City. Almost five hundred years later, we still marvel at the image of the woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” (Rev 12:1). I believe that the overwhelming appeal of the miraculous tilma, like Whistler’s Mother, is twofold: 1) its universal application: everyone has a mother and approximately half of us will become one; and, 2) its striking familiarity: Our Lady of Guadalupe is the ideal mother, who smiles upon her children from above, pondering matters and concerns that only mothers can and will ever know.
Image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s Mother