There aren't many paintings that are so iconic, so instantly recognizable that practically everyone knows who painted them. Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper", for instance. Or Van Gogh's "The Starry Night". There's also Munch's "The Scream", Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam", Vermeer's "Girl With The Pearl Ear Ring", Wood's "American Gothic" and a few others. But in my mind, one painting trumps them all as far as recognizability goes. Mention Whistler's Mother and I think almost all of us can envision this classic work of art in our minds. .... OR CAN WE?
First of all, there's the title. I know I've been aware of this painting since I was very little, around five or six years old. If I had to guess how I first came across it, I'd say that I'm pretty sure it was from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. More specifically, the Mr. Peabody and Sherman segment of that memorable series. I think I developed a significant portion of my early cultural education from that particular cartoon. Anyway, all these years I thought the painting's name was actually "Whistler's Mother". Imagine my complete surprise when just a few days ago I discovered that it's really called, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1". WHAAAT?! What kind of an unexciting title is that? And what, so there's a number two of this Arrangement in Grey and Black? My mind was in turmoil. But nothing compared to the shock I received when I went to a website to actually look at a picture of the painting. If you had asked me to visually describe the painting right before I checked it out online, I would have said the following: An elderly lady sits in profile in a rocking chair, a taciturn look on her face as she knits with her project in her lap. Boy, was I off! First, there is no rocking chair. She sits in a normal chair with her feet propped up on a footstool. Second, there is no knitting. She's holding what appears to be a lace handkerchief. How could I have been so wrong? What's next? Will I soon discover that The Scream is really depicting an out-of-control laugh? Will a detailed study of the Mona Lisa reveal that she is really a he? Does the old farmer in American Gothic actually have a snow shovel in his hand rather than the presumed pitchfork? Is Jesus at the far left of the table rather than in the center in "The Last Supper"? Does Vermeer's mysterious girl actually have a diamond dangling from her ear? I really can't be sure of anything. But you know what? James McNeill Whistler was wrong! His mother should have been sitting on a rocking chair and she should have been knitting. Perhaps the following imagined conversation did actually take place.
Mrs. W. - But the rocking chair is comfortable.
James - That may be, Mother , but I can't have you moving back and forth. You have to be absolutely still.
Mrs. W. - How much are you paying me for this?
James - Not a dime. You're doing this as a favor.
Mrs. W. - It's not my fault your model didn't show up.
James - Oh. One more thing. The knitting has to go.
Mrs. W. - You expect me to sit here like a stuffed bird and not do anything? I'll go crazy after ten minutes. The least you can do is let me knit.
James - Tell you what, Mother. You can knit, but once I start painting your hands they're going to have to be completely still. Aaargh! If only knitting needles weren't so hard to paint. Don't you have a handkerchief or something that you can hold in your hands instead?
Mrs. W. - Handkerchief? Hmmph! No imagination.
James - All right. You win. I'll paint your knitting. By the way, Mother. That thing you're knitting. What is it?
Mrs. W. - It's a sweater. For you, as a matter of fact.
James - I see. And what color would you call that yarn you're using?
Mrs W. - Aubergine.
James - Aubergine? You mean eggplant?
Mrs. W. - Aubergine sounds sexier.
James - Sexy or not, it's still purple. Didn't I tell you that I'm calling this work Arrangement in Grey and Black?
Mrs. W. - Huh? What's up with that? No one will buy this thing with that kind of a title.
James - Well if that's the way you feel, Mother, then knitting is out and handkerchief is in!
Mrs. W. - Suit yourself. But I better at least be getting a dinner out of this. Pizza would be nice.
The way I see it, the world would be a lot better place if sons listened to their mothers more often. Though, on the other hand, if I had listened to mine, I'd be a priest right now, maybe one day even the Pope. Popes who hail from South America are quite popular of late, I hear.
And now, I believe I'll go online and see what this Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 2 is all about.