At Norton Simon, a delicate 'Tete-a-Tete' with Whistler, other masters

 At Norton Simon, a delicate 'Tete-a-Tete' with Whistler, other masters
Museum workers mount and align James Abbott McNeill Whistler's "Whistler's Mother" onto the wall for display at the Norton Simon Museum. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Hanging a masterpiece on the wall of a museum is a lot like hanging a flea market painting up in your living room. Eyeballing makes all the difference.

"Can we see what it would look like 5 inches to the right?" asks Norton Simon Museum associate curator Emily Beeny on a recent Monday evening. Inside the Pasadena museum, five men and one woman in somber, solid-colored clothing maneuver James McNeill Whistler's massive 1871 painting "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1" on a rolling wooden cart called an A-frame.


You might know the painting by its more famous unofficial name: "Whistler's Mother."

It's getting an entire wall to itself in Pasadena as part of a 19th century masterpiece swap with the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Joining it in the gloaming for the spirited hanging are Édouard Manet's "Emile Zola" (1868) and Paul Cézanne's "The Card Players" (1892-96).

"Right now the piece is 5 inches to the right from center," says one of the handlers — called preparators — holding a yellow tape measure with a bright red handle. Beeny, who is tall and slender with a swan-like neck, boyishly short hair and stylish black framed glasses, stares at the painting with her fingers laced thoughtfully beneath her chin.

Norton Simon chief curator, Carol Togneri, joins her on the right, and the Orsay's senior curator emerita, Caroline Mathieu, who has traveled from Paris with the Cézanne, steps to her left.

All three women cock their heads in unison.

When they are satisfied with the painting's position everyone but a small team — the preparators and the preparators' boss, Norton Simon director of operations John Sudolcan — is asked to leave the gallery for the next step of the hanging. Togneri explains that this allows for the kind of quiet concentration required during the lifting process, but it is also a matter of security. Outsiders aren't permitted to see the hardware used to hang the paintings.

This process does not resemble "crafternoon" in your living room.

Just outside the gallery, among Degas dancers and Van Gogh peasants from the museum's own collection, a sound like someone tunneling through a bank vault is heard. A loud drilling noise and an alarming metal crash doesn't appear to have any affect on the visages of the curators watching the wall in front of them.

The non-essential players are ushered back into the room just as Mrs. Whistler — which at 6-foot-1 by 6-foot-8 Togneri calls "the chunkiest" of the three paintings — is hoisted onto the wall.

Four preparators labor beneath its hefty frame, swaying like drunken sailors under its weight, while two other preparators flank them on ladders, steadying the painting's rise and directing it to what appear to be two thick black studs that perch like fat beetles on the wall.

A solemn hush sweeps across the room as the painting finds its bearings on the wall and the preparators step away. A year of planning and waiting is finally over. Or it would be if the painting weren't slanted down and to the right.

"Let's get everyone on it and get the weight off it," directs Sudolcan with conviction.

There is a rush of movement and adjustment, the preparators' black-gloved hands working with studied stealth.

"Better?" one asks.


Yes, Beeny nods, a smile captures her lips as her excitement at this moment bursts through.

"Now lets get some light on it!" declares Sudolcan. From Cézanne to Manet to Whistler, this has become the evening's most well-worn phrase.

An American living in Paris, "Whistler's Mother" has not visited Southern California since 1933 when she was 72 years old and put on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art in Exposition Park (now the Natural History Museum). The passage of time has not changed her and she still wears the same outfit: a simple long-sleeved dress of midnight black with white lace cuffs and a plain white bonnet.

Whistler painted his mother, Anna, in 1871 when she was living with him in London's Chelsea. The Musée du Luxembourg acquired the piece in 1891 and it went on to be the first American painting to hang at the Louvre. Whistler, who struggled financially, had briefly handed his work over for credit after it met with a lukewarm reception at the Royal Academy of Art.

On this trip the painting is making a single, three-month stop at the Norton Simon for the exhibition "Tête-à-tête." During that same time the Orsay will display its exchange students from Pasadena, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "The Pont des Arts, Paris" (1867-68), Vincent van Gogh's "Portrait of a Peasant (Patience Escalier)" (1888) and Édouard Vuillard's "First Fruits" (1899).

The Norton Simon is not without experience in receiving, hanging and exhibiting visiting dignitaries — it has a regular loan program with the Frick Collection in New York and Washington's National Gallery of Art — but flying masterpieces of this stature across the Atlantic is no simple feat. More than a year of planning transpired between the museums to make the Orsay swap happen. There was security and insurance to see to, with Norton Simon receiving international indemnity from the U.S. government to prevent it from losing its smock should something happen to the paintings during their journey.

The artworks arrived at the museum late last week from an undisclosed airport. For security reasons, the museum will not name the airport or provide details about how the paintings were transported to the museum, only that a special team of movers is often brought on for that process.

Once the paintings arrived, the preparators took over, under the guidance of Sudolcan.

The term preparator refers to a professional trained in the art of handling art. Each preparator goes through a rigorous two- to three-year apprenticeship that includes instruction in hanging, lighting, shipping, crating and packing art, as well as applying wall placards and painting over hardware on the walls so that it doesn't stand out.

Sudolcan, who has overseen countless installations during his more than 35 years at the Norton Simon, traveled to Paris to oversee the hanging of Vuillard's "First Fruits" at the Orsay for this swap.

Of that painting Mathieu says, "It's so beautiful, you can't imagine."

She feels the same way about seeing "Whistler's Mother" in Los Angeles, in particular about seeing it alone on the wall. The Orsay, she says, is too crammed with masterpieces to allow such treatment.

Mathieu is shy and unassuming, with a strong French accent and a natural sweetness that relaxes those around her. When you regard a painting that is normally in your museum at another institution, she says, "You rediscover the work, you see something you had not seen before because of the light and the harmony between the paintings around it — it's always moving."

All parties involved agree that lighting is indeed key. "Whistler's Mother," for example, is lighted by three quartz halogen bulbs that don't exceed an intensity of 200 lux and possess UV filters. A circular skylight in the gallery adds unpredictable ambience.

One light pours ethereally over her left shoulder, illuminating her bonnet and the pale rose blush of her cheek. Another washes across the Japanese fabric on the painting's left side, causing the material to take on a glittering appearance. The third draws attention to her exquisite hands, which grasp a white kerchief with what might be a touch of anxiety.


The light casts a muted glow on the wall behind her, which has been painted a color called "tarnished silver" in anticipation of her arrival. The color, however, reads more blue-gray than silver and provides its own study in gray against hers. The effect, everyone agrees, is elegant.

"Nothing can prepare you for how good they look in the end," says Togneri.

Beeny agrees, "Wonderful," she murmurs.

Mathieu nods and blushes, "Even if we don't speak the same language," she says, "we speak the same language — art."

Soon the gallery empties of people and the lights go out. On Friday a new generation of Angelenos will lay eyes on "Whistler's Mother," but it really isn't about who has seen her, but rather all the people she has seen.



What: 'Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay'

Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: Through June 22. Closed Tuesdays.

Admission: $13, tickets are timed by entry in 20-minute intervals

Info: (626) 449-6840,