Writing Exercise: The Iconic Painting of Whistler

This is a writing exercise about analyzing manuscripts and texts. The following essay is my analysis of an essay by a certain student in art who wrote about James Abbot Mcneill Whistler’s (1834-19803) iconic painting.

jong pairez, exercise, FA 200, Leo Abaya, U.P. College of Fine Arts

Douglas Lee on Whistler’s Japanese Painting

The five paragraph critical essay written by Douglas Lee about James Whistler’s infamous painting of his mother is written in an expository discourse that infer to the artist’s intention to convey his work as nothing else but Form. The following paragraphs explain Lee’s list of proofs that answer the question on how Whistler wanted his painting to be seen not as a picture of a particular mother and why is it Japanese rather than American.

1. The Controversy Behind The Title: “Whistler’s Mother”

Douglas Lee in his introduction provided us the background of Whistler’s controversial painting by looking closely at the original title given by the artist: Arrangement in Black and Grey: The Artist’s Mother. He compared it with the common title that directs the viewer to see the subject (artist’s mother) rather than how Whistler wanted it to be seen otherwise. Given this comparative analysis between the Common Title and Artist Title, Lee in his introduction wrote: “Whistler forces us to think about the work as a composition, not as a picture of a particular mother.”

2. Holy Mama, The Title You Know is Crap!

In the second paragraph Lee bluntly described how Whistler, “has done a good deal to prevent us from seeing the picture as an image of motherhood.” Lee illustrated Whistler’s intention further by writing all possible ideas that reveal the image as completely opposite to the notion of a mother (although the picture is actually the artist’s mother). He then made a comparative look with Whistler’s contemporaries Renoir, Gaugin and Van Gogh who were popularly known in devising vibrant women subject in their composition using Japanese influences.

3. Arrangement in Black and Grey

Whistler wanted to paint his mother in a way that is something very interesting. He achieved this by going through his references in Japanese prints. Lee described how Whistler was so fascinated about the flatness of colors and empty spaces common to Japanese prints however decoratively elaborate they are. Given this “exotic” sensibility of design pattern in oriental print Whistler appropriated it in his work by reducing it to black and grey, nonetheless, leaving the oriental elements of composition intact. “Now, this is what it is.” says Whistler.

4. Triumph of the Ugly Postage Stamp

The horrifying event in Whistler’s painting of his mother finally happened in 1934 when the U.S. issued a stamp reproducing his work into a mere picture emphasizing a Caucasian American mother. Lee argued that this painting is an art of painting no more no less, thus, when the public (State) appropriated Whistler’s painting into a mere picture the result was very ugly because it degenerated the core value of the work.

5. Must Be American As Apple Pie

This last paragraph of Lee’s critical essay is his final contention and conclusion at the same time. Lee argued that Whistler’s painting is completely misunderstood without the, “awareness of Whistler’s title and a familiarity with the fact that Whistler was much interested in Japanese prints.” Therefore, this justly famous painting of Whistler’s mother is not simply an image of America and motherhood but a completely different narrative that reveals the relationship of international exchange of trade and culture with Japan.

In this essay, Douglas Lee is simply arguing that Whistler should be understood according to his own terms as an artist. And what are these terms? It is the formal terms in art for art’s sake. However, the recurring problem of art for art’s sake is the inevitable schism of Form and Content.

There may be people who would view Whistler’s work according to the language of art for art’s sake that values the form rather than the content. But there may be also other people who value the work according to its content. From this double ways of viewing is the clash between the two, like in the case of Whistler’s painting of his mother. However, this problem found a solution in post-structuralist literary criticism articulated in the infamous essay, “Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes.

To reflect further the post-structuralist way of viewing is however another story. For now what is important is we are able to understand Lee’s contentions and justification that the painting should not be seen as a picture and it’s not American but Japanese. The following is my outline of Lee’s essay:

Whistler’s Japanese Mother

  1. Introduction
    1. Introductory remarks: Whistler’s Mother is a composition in painting inspired by Japanese prints.
    2. Thesis: Whistler’s Mother as a composition in painting is not a depiction of American motherhood because it rather emphasizes the Japanese composition in design.
    3. List of proof:

1. The popular title that directs the viewer to see the subject rather than how Whistler wanted it to be seen otherwise.

2. The image of motherhood is absent in Whistler’s painting of his mother.

3. The flatness of color and empty space common to Japanese prints are the central element in Whistler’s painting of his mother.

4. The horrendous result of reducing Whistler’s painting of his mother into a picture.

5. Whistler’s painting of his mother is not American but Japanese.

  1. Body (Development of each point of proof)

A. Point of proof 1: The Title

B. Point of proof 2: The Image of Motherhood

C. Point of proof 3: Japanese Composition in Whistler’s Painting

D. Point of proof 4: The Horror of a Picture

E. Point of proof 5: Japanese not American

  1. Conclusion
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