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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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4th July 2003 - An American Icon

In his chapter 'Pleasant Dreams: Whistler's Mother on tour in America, 1932-4' in the newly published book Whistler's Mother: An American Icon (ed. Margaret F. MacDonald, 2003, Lund Humphreys: Aldershot), Kevin Sharp draws our attention to the tour of the USA which Whistler's portrait of his mother undertook in the early 1930s, and the significance of this tour in the developing of appreciation of the painting with the American public.

The tour, which took the picture to cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Baltimore and Boston, attracted record numbers of visitors to galleries and generated great press coverage. Newspapers ran headlines stressing the security required to guard the "$1,000,000 Painting", and Sharp argues that this was a reflection of Depression-Era America: "if personal security, job security, economic security and national security were too much to hope for in such a perilous epoch, at least Americans could go to sleep knowing that Whistler's Mother was safe somewhere, protected by armed militia, watched over by savage dogs" (p. 91).

It was also during this tour that the Mother became strongly attached with a sense of American patriotism and pride. Sharp comments that "After four years of economic hopelessness and a government retreat into isolationism that made the United States appear vulnerable on the international stage, Americans not only wanted, they needed to distil national pride from any source available... To stand before Whistler's Mother...was to share in the pride of a fellow American's accomplishment... Americans were drawn to Whistler's Mother out of patriotism, a competitive form bordering on nationalism, but pride in country none the less" (p. 98).

Today is American Independence Day.

Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother is currently on show at the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow.