James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the son of George Washington Whistler and Anna McNeill Whistler, was a prominent nineteenth century artist who spent his adult life in Europe. Whistler’s mother, Anna McNeill, was made famous in renowned painting, “Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother.” The work, referred to colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother,” was painted in London in the early 1870s. Anna McNeill, the subject, was born in Wilmington in 1804.
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Anna McNeill, born on September 27, 1804, to Martha Kingsley and Dr. Black Daniel McNeill was the fifth of six children, and was influenced heavily throughout her life by her older brother William Gibbs McNeill. In 1815, the McNeill family moved to Brooklyn Heights, outside of New York City, shortly after William Gibbs McNeil entered West Point.
William Gibbs McNeill befriended George Washington Whistler and William Swift while attending West Point, and both became close friends of the McNeill family. Whistler married William Swift’s sister, and Anna’s close friend, Mary Swift in 1821. She died later that decade after the birth of three children. In 1831, George Washington Whistler and Anna McNeill wed, with McNeill adopting Whistler’s two sons and daughter. Whistler and McNeill then had five sons themselves, including the future artist, in 1834.
George Washington Whistler worked as a civil engineer following his education at West Point. In 1842, Whistler was recruited by commissioners of Czar Nicholas I to travel to Russia to build the Moscow to St. Petersburg railroad. The young family moved to Russia, where they lived until 1849, when Whistler died. Anna Whistler returned to Pomfret, Connecticut, with children after the death of their father. James Whistler continued the education he began at the Royal Academy in St Petersburg, attending West Point between 1851 and 1854. At 1854 he was expelled from his father’s alma mater, and in 1855 James Whistler sailed for Paris to study art, never again returning to the United States.
James Whistler lived alternately in Paris and in London, where his half-sister, Deborah was living with her husband, Lord Seymour Hayden. Whistler continued to develop his craft, becoming a figure in contemporary art circles and generating controversy with his work. Whistler placed greater focus on color and arrangement than on realism, making him a precursor to the abstract art movements of the twentieth century but a contentious figure amongst his contemporaries.
Anna Whistler moved to London in 1863 to live with her son, and in 1871 he painted her as the figure in “Whistler’s Mother.” The painting was first shown in 1872, extending Whistler’s reputation, but it has received mixed reviews throughout much of its history. “Whistler’s Mother” now hangs in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, and has rarely been exhibited in the United States.
Elizabeth Munford, Whistler’s Mother (1939)
Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, XIX
Tony Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1986)
Andrew J. Howell, The Book of Wilmington (1959)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
Musee D’Orsay website: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/home.html