Generally, one has to go to Paris to see one of the best-known American paintings. But Whistler’s Mother, as the work is popularly known, is paying a visit to the Los Angeles area now in a swap of paintings between museums.
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Norton Simon Museum in the Pasadena area of Los Angeles County exchanged three masterworks. The deal allows both museums to draw attention to works rarely seen in their countries but of local interest.
Called Tête-à-tête: Three Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, the exhibit at the Norton Simon consists of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting, Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players and Édouard Manet’s portrait of writer Émile Zola. The three paintings are hanging in the Norton Simon’s 19th century wing along with the museum’s collection by Cézanne, Manet and other contemporaries.
Whistler’s work, which is actually called Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, is one of the most iconic American paintings. Like Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Whistler’s painting of his mother completed in 1871 has been reproduced and parodied a lot over the years, so it is instantly identifiable (though not by its real name). It is still impressive to see the work in person, even if it seems bigger or smaller or darker than imagined.
The painting features the sparsely furnished interior of Whistler’s studio. His somberly dressed mother is sitting stone-faced on a chair and shown in profile staring straight ahead.
Whistler’s painting was bought by the French government in 1891. While Whistler was born in Massachusetts, and briefly attended West Point, he spent most of his life in Europe. He was living in Paris when he blossomed as an artist hanging out with other painters in the Parisian artistic scene.
The Cézanne in the exchange (The Card Players) is from the period were he lived in the South of France, outside of Aix, and focused on kitchen still lifes, local landscapes, and other domestic scenes. The Card Players shows two workers playing cards at a table. The painting on display is the first of three versions of the composition that Cézanne painted in the 1890s (the others belong to London’s Courtauld Gallery and the Royal Family of Qatar).
Like Whistler’s painting, Manet’s work depicting Zola reflects someone close to the artist, in this case a close friend. Zola was still trying to establish himself as a writer when he published a complimentary article on Manet and his frank style. When the Paris World’s Fair jury deemed that the art Manet submitted was too radical, Zola conspired with him to erect a pavilion near the fairgrounds where people would pass by and judge Manet’s work themselves. As thanks for his help, Manet painted Zola in January 1868, and depicted his friend as a scholar surrounded by art (including a reproduction of Manet’s Olympia) and books (which included one of Zola’s).
As part of the exchange, the Musée d’Orsay is currently exhibiting three 19th century masterpieces from the Simon collection. Vincent van Gogh’s Patience Escalier (Portrait of a Peasant), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Pont des Arts and Édouard Vuillard’s First Fruits are being presented in Paris in galleries alongside other pieces by each painter.
Visit Whistler’s Mother and the other works on their visit to the Los Angeles area’s Norton Simon Museum through June 22, 2015. The museum is located on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. It is closed on Tuesdays.
By Dyanne Weiss