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February is Women's History Month!

The backstory of 19th-century masterpiece 'Whistler's Mother'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg, who has the backstory on a 19th-century masterpiece on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's "Whistler's Mother," painted by James Abbott McNeill Whistler in 1871. An American, he was living in London. His mother...

JENNIFER THOMPSON: He adored his mother.

STAMBERG: ...Lived with him. He even bumped his mistress out to make room for Mom in his house. Philadelphia curator Jennifer Thompson says Mrs. Whistler scolded James for his wild bohemian ways and naughty escapades. James didn't mind. He was busy making art and getting admired. Jennifer Thompson quotes a well-known 19th-century poet, playwright and wit's comment on the great attention-loving painter.

THOMPSON: Oscar Wilde would famously say of him that Whistler spelled art with a capital I.

STAMBERG: Museum director Sasha Suda says Mother Whistler, on the other hand, looked so modest and unassuming in profile on canvas.

SASHA SUDA: It's almost a moment frozen in time.

STAMBERG: She wears a black mourning dress, a white cap, and her hands are quietly folded on her lap.

Why is she sitting?

THOMPSON: Well, apparently she originally stood, and then she found it was very difficult to hold that pose.

STAMBERG: She was 67 and not that well. It was an accident, her posing that day - a model couldn't come. Son James wanted to get to work. His loving mother agreed to do it. It's not a portrait.

THOMPSON: For him, it's an experiment with color in these very subtle tones.

STAMBERG: Somber colors - grays, blacks, a dash of pink on her skin. The title is "Arrangement In Black And Gray No. 1." Whistler's subtitle is "Portrait Of The Artist's Mother." Anna Whistler looks so severe, austere, but she's said to have been charming, loved by children and her family. And this picture of her at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until the end of October is one of the best-known paintings in the world. Is it a masterpiece? My sources had careful answers. Me, too. We all have mothers. We're all getting older. The painting is timeless, and masterpieces, like mothers, are in the eyes of the beholder. I'm Susan Stamberg, Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.