Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, 1871, oil on canvas, 366.5 x 412.8 cm
The National Gallery of Victoria has a small exhibition of the work of James McNeil Whistler, and the main attraction is the famous painting of his mother titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1
This is the only Whistler painting in the exhibition but there are a number of his etchings on display and they are magnificent. There are also some paintings by Australian artists who were Whistler's contemporaries, pointing to the fact that his thoughts on art had an undoubted influence on their work.
But the famous painting of his mother is a wonderful achievement. It would have to be one of the most elegant and subtle paintings an artist could create. On close inspection, it reminds me of what the Australian painter Hugh Ramsay said on viewing it, that it seemed 'as if it was thought onto the canvas rather than painted', and it's an excellent observation.
It does look as if it was breathed onto the canvas. The thinness of paint and the way it's applied, like interwoven veils, gives the impression coloured clouds gathered to form an image. But it has structure, which saves the painting from being too ephemeral or lacking a core that grounds it to our world as well.
Whistler was an artist whose character was not transferred to his art. He was a prickly human being who painted the most restrained and serene works. He was very attached to his mother, so this could be a reason he rose to the occasion and painted a portrait that is undoubtedly one of his greatest masterpieces.