Contrary to popular opinion, James Abbott McNeill Whistler's famous 1871 painting "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1," better known as "Portrait of the Artist's Mother," is not a harsh and puritanical portrayal of a matriarch. It's a homage to the rich and tender relationship shared by a mother and her loving son, says Norton Simon Museum associate curator Emily Beeny.
The painting, made in London while the artist's mother, Anna, was living with him at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, was the last Whistler would submit to the Royal Academy of Art. The work is coming to the Norton Simon along with Édouard Manet's "Emile Zola" (1868) and Paul Cézanne's "The Card Players" (1892-96) as part of a 19th century masterpiece swap with the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The Orsay will receive 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 paintings will be on simultaneous display in their new temporary homes from March 27 to June 22. The Norton Simon also has ongoing loan exchange programs with the Frick Collection in New York and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., but those exchanges don't happen simultaneously.
"You'll see the soft bloom of pink in her cheek that doesn't necessarily come across in reproductions," Beeny says of the Whistler portrait, which was last in Los Angeles in 1933. It was on view at what was then the county museum in Exposition Park, where it attracted nearly 80,000 visitors.
Beeny is particularly excited to receive Manet's portrait of Zola, which she says is "certainly one of the great portraits of the 19th century and a commemoration of a particular relationship," in this case, the shared admiration between the 28-year-old naturalist novelist and the 36-year-old Impressionist painter, both of whom leveraged their connection to advance their growing fame.