Essay on Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1: Portrait of the Artists Mother

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Vanderbilt University
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Creative writing
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The Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 is an oil on canvas painting that was created by James McNeill Whistler in 1871. Whistler was an American-born painter who had relocated to Europe together with his mother (Walden, 2003). The painting displays his mother, Anna McNeill Whistler seated on a stool with her legs resting on a footrest. She is wearing a black robe which creates a clear contrast with the gray wall behind her.

Initial Thoughts

The Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 is a painting that displays an old woman who seems to be detached from her surroundings. She sits alone on a stool and seems to be consumed by her thoughts. There is no expression on her face and it can be argued that she is maybe contemplating and reflecting on something (Walden, 2003). Her black gown may symbolize a period of mourning or maybe she is a nun. Given the expression on her face and the colour of her gown, it is more likely that she might be mourning

. Anna had relocated to Europe with her young son and away from family members after her husbands death. She was getting old and maybe reflecting on the choices that had led her away from her family. She was in a society where social class issues were affecting many people. She might have been one of the unfortunate people. In the picture, she is only in possession of a stool, a footrest, two paintings and a curtain. This painting reminds me of times when I am reflecting about my life. Whistler might have used this work to capture the psychological and social struggles that most people were going through in England during the Victorian Era (MacDonald, 2015).

Aspect of Interest

There are two-framed pictures in the painting. One partially, and the other fully displayed. The fully displayed picture is composed of a painted region bounded by a white region, which is bounded by a black frame. The black-frame distinguishes the contents of the picture from the grey walled background. The different layers in the picture might symbolise the different social classes in England during the Victorian Era (MacDonald, 2015). It might also symbolise the various confines that people found themselves in. This symbolism can be extended to the black strip at the bottom of the wall or the artists mother position in the painting.

The black strip creates a boundary between the gray colour of the wall and the floor, confining the gray paint to the wall. The artists mother is confined to the stool and the footrest. However, while her entire body is captured within the painting, just like the one framed-picture on the wall which is partially captured in the painting, a portion of Annas gown is not captured in the painting as well (Walden, 2003). This might illustrate that may be during the Victorian Era; there were certain rules and regulations as defined by the society that people from the various social classes were confined to. However, not all people adhered to the confines.

Historical Context

During the Victorian era in England, the 19th century, motherhood was highly regarded. Queen Victoria was a mother of nine and represented femininity, which centred on motherhood, family, and respectability. Her life was a model for good domestic virtues and marital stability. She managed to juggle between family and her role as Queen. Femininity at the time focused on the suffering women went through during childbearing and rearing. As such, respect was demanded from men as a sign of appreciation to the role women played in society. Additionally, throughout the Victorian era, ordinary people faced many challenges such as poor housing, ill health, hunger, poverty and high child mortality rates.

The underlying cause of all these problems was the rapid and uneven social changes that were happening at the time (Jones, 2014). When death occurred, a strict mourning process was to be followed. Widows were to mourn their husbands for at least two years; parents were supposed to mourn their children for nine months; orphans were to mourn their parents for nine months and siblings were supposed to mourn for three months. During periods of mourning, black clothes were to be worn

Insights into the Work

Whistlers early life included a first job as a draftsman at West Point, USA (MacDonald, 2015). However, he did not like this job and spent most of his time doing other things such as drawing mermaids, sea serpents, and whales on the margin of maps used by draftsmen for mapping purposes. After quitting the job and moving to France, he focused on modern art which involved scrutinizing the brutality of life while avoiding mythologies and allegory (MacDonald, 2015). This aspect of modern art is illustrated through the painting Arrangement in Grey and Black no.1. He communicates his understanding of modern art through this painting. He scrutinises the brutality of life that ordinary individuals in England were facing during the Victorian Era. Most people were struggling to survive with their only possession being basic items such as the stool and footrest as captured in the painting.

Exploration of a Particular Theme

The painting brings out the theme of mourning. The artists brings out this theme through the use of the colour black. The woman in the painting is wearing a black robe. In the Victorian Era women were required to mourn their husband for at least two years and during that time, they were required to wear black attires. The colour black is also used on the frames of the painting hanging on the gray wall, on the strip at the bottom of the wall and on the curtain. The black colour makes the painting dark and dull. Perhaps, it is the communication the artist intended to relay to his audience. The facial expression of the woman is also suggests she might be mourning. She looks gloomy and disoriented.

Relevance of the Work

This painting is relevant to today's audiences. With basic knowledge of the major events and challenges that occurred in England during the Victorian Era together with the colour of the robe worn by the woman, her facial expression and the simplistic nature of the painting prompts one to ask a lot of questions as to what the artist was trying to communicate (MacDonald, 2015). However, there is a clear theme that can be derived from the painting, the theme of mourning. This theme portrays how important mourning was during the Victorian Era. In the present day, mourning is not as important. Privacy during mourning is no longer guaranteed with a lot of people showing indifference to the bereaved through social media platforms. One should be allowed to mourn in peace and in their own way as depicted in the woman in the painting. Perhaps she is reflecting on her loss or thinking on the way forward.

Effect of Analysis on Perception

After analysing the painting, my view about what the artists was trying to communicate is still the same. Whistler is trying to portray an individual in mourning. The use of the colour black on the robe worn by the woman and on the frames of the pictures on the wall, and the dull facial expression on the womans face all support this argument.


Jones, G. S. (2014). Outcast London: a Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. Verso Books.

MacDonald, M. F. (2015). James McNeill Whistler: An Artist on Artists. Visual Culture in Britain, 16(2), 200-222.

Walden, S. (2003). Whistler and His Mother. Gibson Square.

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