Whistler's mother was a substitute for young model who missed sitting

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The Independent Online

One of the world's most famous portraits, Whistler's Mother, was composed by chance, say researchers at a Scottish university.

One of the world's most famous portraits, Whistler's Mother, was composed by chance, say researchers at a Scottish university.

In 1871, the artist James McNeill Whistler was expecting a young model to show up at his studio in London. When she failed to appear he asked his mother, Anna, visiting from America, to pose. He completed her portrait within three days on the back of the canvas intended for the younger model.

Whistler, a wit and playboy as well as a painter of genius who lived from 1834 till 1903, initially titled the portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black, No1, a provocative thing to do amid the mores of 130 years ago. To reduce one's mother to an "arrangement", however devotedly it was painted, implied an aversion to motherhood. Mrs Whistler's stand-in role has been uncovered by a young art historian, Georgia Toutziari, at Glasgow University's Centre for Whistler Studies, where 10,000 letters written or received by Whistler are being researched.

The seven-year study is financed by the John Paul Getty Trust. But Ms Toutziari's discoveries are the first to be made by the centre about that portrait. In one letter written by Mrs Whistler, she says her son became frustrated with the work and cried: "No, I can't get it right. It is impossible to do it as it ought to be done - perfectly."

When completed, it was greeted with great hostility by critics. The French publication L'Union Medicale said it looked as though Mrs Whistler was dead.

Publicly, Whistler said the painting was nothing more than an arrangement of black and white shades, lines and shapes. But Ms Toutziari, from northern Greece, found a letter from Whistler to a friend in which he said: "One does want to make one's mummy just as nice as possible."

Mrs Whistler was her son's agent in the US while he painted in Paris and London. The work by Ms Toutziari and the head of the Centre for Whistler Studies, Dr Nigel Thorpe, shows she was a deeply cultivated and religious woman.

But she shared some of the prejudices common at that time in American society. In a letter in 1853 she referred to slaves as "the race of Ham" and went on: "I am no advocate of slavery, but can witness to the humanity of the owners of southern Atlantic states and testify that such are benefactors to the race of Ham."

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