Object Lesson: How Madame Manet and Whistler's Mother triggered a rupture in art

What the face-off between Madame Monet and Whistler's Mother at the Norton Simon tells us about modern art

In one of the central galleries at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, two women from two continents face each other from across a pair of gallery walls: the very composed, somewhat severe-looking mother of the 19th century American painter James Abbott McNeil Whistler and the dreamy, lost-in-thought Suzanne Manet, wife of Edouard, a pivotal figure in Western art, known for the frank depiction of his subjects (including the infamous reclining nude, "Olympia," as a prostitute).

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1," as the beyond-legendary 1871 portrait of Whistler's mother is formally titled, generally resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. "Madame Manet," which was painted sometime between 1874 and 1876, is part of the Norton Simon collections. Both works are on view for five more days as part of the Norton Simon exhibition "Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces From the Musée d’Orsay."

The exhibition is worth a journey for the chance to marinate in masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay without having to tangle with airport security. (In addition to Whistler's mother, the show also includes Paul Cezanne's "Card Players" and Manet's gallant portrait of his friend and defender, the writer Emile Zola.) But it also represents an interesting opportunity to examine a pair of paintings of women that each, in their own way, represent a rupture in Western art-making traditions — a moment in which strict representation begins to fray in favor of more abstract experiments in color and mood.

"They're each very modern pictures," says curator Emily Beeny, of the Norton Simon, "but they each achieve this in a totally different way. Manet's is very intimate, while Whistler's is more of a grand abstraction."

Certainly, in some ways, the works couldn't be more different.

"Whistler's Mother," as the Whistler piece is informally known, is by now an established part of popular culture — often referred to as the American "Mona Lisa" for its fame and for the ways in which it has been endlessly manipulated in the popular culture, from Bugs Bunny to Mad magazine. It is a formal portrait on a large scale (it's almost 5 feet tall) and features the artist's mother, seated in profile, rendered in an array of grays and blacks.

"This picture is famous for being famous on some level," says Beeny. "And that fame has occluded, to some degree, the original radicalism of the painting."

"In giving this piece the title 'Arrangement in Grey and Black,' there's something polemical about that," she adds. "Whistler is encouraging viewers to think about tonal relationships, the formal, abstract qualities — and he's discouraging us from thinking of this figure as his mother, even though there are these insertions of his own personality into the picture."

While the woman's face is rendered in great detail, other aspects are represented less exactingly  and feel almost flat. Says Beeny: "There is a bleeding effect between blacks and grays." Take away the figure, and the solid slabs of color almost evoke Mark Rothko's blocky abstractions from the 1960s — as if Whistler were making a reach toward total abstraction.

(An interesting note: Whistler's painting also features a small rendering of one of his early works hanging on the wall behind his mother. It's an 1859 etching of a waterfront scene on the Thames River, a work that is now on view at the L.A. County Museum of Art as part of the exhibition "50 for 50.")

Manet's work, in the meantime, is more informal — and much smaller. (The portrait of Madame Manet is not even 2 feet tall.) As in Whistler's work, however, the face is well developed. "But it dissolves in composition around the edges," says Beeny. "It dissolves into something more graphic, and you have this background that is rather flat and painted quite frankly. She's not shown sitting in a room or a studio. The background is just paint."

Both works, interestingly, are rendered in tones of gray and black. And both feature women that the artists knew intimately. They also mark an important moment in the 19th century when painting is starting to give way from realism to something more abstract.

"Manet's work is about this rapid, breathless brushwork," says Beeny, "a drawing that dissolves into oils. Whereas the modernity of Whistler's picture is in the severity of the composition, this abstract statement made on a monumental scale."

The juxtaposition also speaks to Norton Simon's proclivities as a collector. Simon, says Beeny, would have been looking to the French national collections held by museums such as the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay to guide his own acquisitions.

"The French national collections form a gold standard by which to judge 19th century French and French-related pictures," she says. "And they deeply inflect the Norton Simon's collection. He was always interested in the best."

For a few more days, these two women will sit in conversation in the gallery — two women from two continents, painted by two very different artists, and held by two very different institutions on opposite sides of the globe. Art has a way of reaching across those divides.

"Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces From the Musée d’Orsay" is on view at the Norton Simon through Monday. 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, nortonsimon.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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