Whistler’s Mother: Iconic Painting Visits Pasadena

The famous artwork hasn't called upon Los Angeles since 1933.

There are paintings that pave the way for other works of art for decades. There are masterpieces known alone by their hues, title, or basic subject. And there are iconic scenes, done up in oils and acrylics, that are so famous they are regularly referenced, parodied, and used as inspiration in Halloween costumes.

Grant Wood's "American Gothic" applies here, as does Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and James Whistler's "Arrangements in Grey and Black No. 1." That last painting is also frequently dubbed "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" though most of us would simply refer to it as "Whistler's Mother." 

And you know it. So well. You can probably draw it, from memory, at least its outlines, and which way the artist's mother faces in her chair and the square of the painting on the wall.

You've seen "Whistler's Mother" reprinted in magazines, on posters, saluted on "The Simpsons" and myriad movies (including that one with Mr. Bean), and now, if you head for the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through June 22, you'll see the quiet, somber-toned painting with your own eyes.

For one of the world's best-known masterpieces is visiting Los Angeles for the first time since 1933. It typically resides at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, so a journey to California is akin to receiving royalty (and, indeed, royalty with American flair; Whistler was born in Massachusetts).

The air of art greatness does not end with Mother Whistler, however. Two more works are joining the iconic painting on its trip to the Crown City. Émile Zola by Édouard Manet and Paul Cézanne's The Card Players will also hang in the Norton Simon from March 27 through June 22. 

It can discombobulate a person, ever so slightly, to finally encounter the original work behind an image that has been lodged deep within the folds of one's experience since toddlerhood. The artwork can seem smaller or larger than you thought, or grayer or brighter, but it, above all, dispels mystery and clears away clutter, the clutter that comes from seeing it a thousand times before actually seeing it once.

When you stand before "Whistler's Mother," you're at the source of all of those parodies and reproductions and it feels good to finally know it for yourself. Enjoying a magnificent painting on top of it all is the absolute bonus.

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