What is the purpose behind a painting title? It is usually used to identify a subject, to set the scene, to suggest possible meanings, or to provide a framework of understanding. The title of a painting was important in Victorian England when it told stories and conveyed moral lessons.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey & Black, No. was a provocation. 1.

Provoking portraiture

Whistler, a self-styled provocateur, was only matched by Oscar Wilde in terms of biting wit and effrontery. But this particular insult had a more serious intention. Whistler was a self-styled agent provocateur: only Oscar Wilde could match him for biting wit and effrontery, but there was also a serious purpose to this particular affront.

Symphony in White No. James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s 1 (The White Girl), 1862. Click to Enlarge. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting was well received, but in the opinion of the artist, for the wrong reasons. The Royal Academy rejected the painting but the critics were rapturous when it was shown at Berners.

Many thought the illustration was a reference to Wilkie Collins’ hugely successful novel The Woman in White published just two years before, and interpreted it as a ethereal entity.

Others thought that the girl with a mass of reddish hair was a symbol of virginity and purity, a young woman who had adopted Queen Victoria’s new fashion of wearing all-white clothing.

Most people were more than happy to share their opinions on the meaning of the painting.

Whistler’s response was terse and horrified.

The painting shows a young girl in white, standing in front a white curtain.

When the painting was displayed in Paris the following year, one critic gushed about the artist’s portrayal of lost virginity.

Whistler was frustrated by the constant interpretations of his painting and changed its name to Symphony in White No. 1867. 1.

Whistler, a proponent of Art for Art’s Sake, took up the call of Edgar Allan Poe and Theophile Gautier, as well as John Ruskin and announced.

Art must be free of claptrap, should appeal to the artistic eye or ear and not be confused with other emotions such as love, pity and patriotism. These emotions are not concerned with art; that’s why I call my work ‘arrangements,’ and harmonies.’

Whistler on Chippendale Chair, c.1860. Click to enlarge. Charles Lang Freer papers, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Archives Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.

He insisted that his art was all about painting, and the expression of pure formal values. Any extrapolation or narratives superimposed on top of it were unnecessary and a hindrance to pure enjoyment.

When he sent the portrait of his mom to the 104th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Art, a decade after that, he called it “an arrangement”.

It is unclear whether he acted with integrity, was genuinely ignorant, or was being deliberately inflammatory. But he insists that the identity of the sitter shouldn’t matter to the public.

Whatever his intentions, his decision caused a polarisation in London society. With the Woman in White episode behind him, and his flamboyant egotistical demeanor obvious to everyone, he quickly became a scandalous celebrity in the popular imagination.

Grey and Black Arrangement, No. 1

Whistler’s work seems conventional when compared to the Impressionists in Paris and Vincent van Gogh or Paul Gauguin, who produced works a few more years later in Arles.

His palette is austere. Whistler uses thin washes to achieve harmony and balance in his paintings.

Photo of Anna Whistler, circa 1800-1999. Click to enlarge. The Hunterian Art Gallery at the University of Glasgow.

The paintings are a beautiful example of restrained simplicity. They have a strong geometric framework and subtle coloration.

Can this list of formal qualities explain its extraordinary and lasting popularity?

Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler, despite his assertion that the subject matter was not of interest to the viewers, was more than a prop. She lived in the United States with her son between 1864 and 1875 during a time of great turmoil.

William, her son, and proud Southerner, enlisted as a doctor in the Confederate Army. She had also lost children, as did many American women during this time. Three of her sons didn’t live to adulthood.

She was divided in her sympathies between the North and South during the Civil War, and because of her declining health and widowhood, she decided to go and join her son in London.

Whistler depicts her as an unshakeable fortress. She is a moral bastion whose mere presence is a stabilising factor. In her portrait, she is either stoically contemplating her life or patiently looking forward.

Click to Enlarge.

Her white coif, white lace trimming, and formal black dress are all signs of her longtime widowhood. In 1871, she was 67 years old and ill, so the artist decided to sit his mother down, raise her feet up on a stool, and place her in front of a curtain with a framed etching on the wall.

The artist’s relationship with his mother is implied in the structure that he has created, and we can intuit this when we view the painting. His mother’s dress is tipped over the edge of the thin strip of brown colour at the bottom, suggesting that she has been placed on a pedestal, both literal and metaphorical.

Whistler’s paintings are painted with thin, washed-on layers of colour on raw canvas. They beautifully balance fragility with strength, boldness with delicacy, and timelessness with immediacy. It is easy to recognize his distillation of the character and it stays in our minds.

Its formal construction is not the only thing that has made the painting a popular icon.