Accidental Southerner

M.I.A.: Mom

Why Whistler’s mother is looking for a permanent home

By Nan Graham

Have you seen this woman?

If missing person’s milk cartons make a comeback, you might see the above image on your kitchen counter . . .

Missing: Elderly woman, reportedly age 65 years at the time of her last portrait. Last seen in the 20th century. Authorities believe she is still among the living . . . though her whereabouts are unknown. Native of Wilmington, North Carolina. Last seen wearing floor-length black dress, dated white lace cap and a Puritanical expression on her face. Small in stature and not prone to frivolous behavior. Last seen in Latimer House archive room where she hung out for some time. Name: Anna McNeill Whistler. Son, renowned Bohemian artist James Whistler, painted the iconic original profile portrait of his mother seated in a modest rocking chair.

It’s true. She seems to have disappeared without a trace. This copy of a copy of the original portrait Whistler’s Mother, commissioned by the City of Wilmington, was hung in City Hall. Twice the poor woman was banished to the Thalian Hall attic. As late as 2003, she was at the Latimer House, who returned it to the City of Wilmington. But the 5 1/2-by-4 1/2-foot oil painting has moved around almost as much as its real-life model (subject), Anna Mathilde O’Neill Whistler.

Born in 1804 to Scotsman Dr. Daniel McNeill and wife Martha Kingsley, Anna spent her early girlhood in Wilmington, North Carolina, before she moved to New England and married a West Point friend of her brother, widower George Whistler. Anna became the stepmother of two young children and added four more to the brood, moved to Saint Petersburg with her young family while George designed the important railroad that linked Saint Petersburg and Moscow. He even designed the steam whistle to replace the trumpet as a signal of the approaching engine. The family lived a lavish lifestyle in Russia, hobnobbing with the elite of the city. Mama herself sailed across the Atlantic 11 times during her lifetime; dined with the czar, Queen Victoria, even Victor Hugo. The Whistlers had lost two sons before father George died of cholera, leaving his 45-year-old widow with teenager James and other siblings in Russia. Anna returned to America. When rebellious James flunked out of West Point, he worked as a draftsman and then became an artist in Paris.

James lived with several mistresses through the years. Moving to London, “Jimmie,” as his mother called him, lived with his beautiful mistress Joanna for eight years before Mama wrote that she had arrived in Southampton 80 miles down the road from his London flat and told Whistler that she was coming for a visit. ETA: two days. Jimmie hustled Jo into nearby digs down the street before Mama arrived for her visit. It was said that Anna chose the top floor of his flat so she could be closer to her maker. She stayed for nine years while Whistler rose to fame in the art world. Tabloids reported his antics along with his coterie of like-minded artists who proposed the “Art for Art’s sake.” He and Oscar Wilde exchanged witticisms and barbs and became the scandalous talk of London.

His Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 — the painting known by all as Whistler’s Mother — is listed in the 10 most famous portraits in the world, along with the Mona Lisa. In addition to appearing on a 1934 postage stamp, her image has been widely parodied by The New Yorker as well as Mad magazine, and international publications. Despite the barbs, Whistler’s Mother has become the icon of American motherhood. The original painting has been shuffled from the Luxembourg Museum to the Louvre to its final home at the Musee d’Orsay.

Our own poor Anna McNeill Whistler, abused, ridiculed and abandoned, deserves the city’s respect and a permanent home in City Hall. She belongs to us. She’s iconic. She is out there somewhere. Please email if you have any information about this painting.

Nan Graham is a regular Salt contributor and has been a local NPR commentator since 1995.

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