Anna was a typical mother. She loved her kids with the passion found only in a mother’s heart. Her son was her inspiration and she made her a mother’s icon.
Here’s how it happened.
They say a woman can’t resist a man in a military uniform. Anna proved that this was true. She fell in love with George, a West Point cadet, in the 1820s. They were married in 1831.
Anna was a North Carolina Southern belle and George began their lives together in North Carolina. James, the first child they had, was born in 1835. George resigned from his Army post and began designing the new high-tech transportation marvel of railroad locomotives. He quickly switched to the construction of rail lines.
The young family grew. Besides raising three children from George’s first marriage, the couple had three more sons, two of whom died young. Anna was devoted to her boys. William was a serious scholar while James was an artist and daydreamer. Anna encouraged and nurtured both. She was very loving and strict.
George’s skill at building railroads eventually led the family halfway around the world. Russia’s Czar Nicholas I sent representatives to study America’s booming railroad business. They were so impressed with George’s skills that they offered him his dream job: supervising the construction of a railroad linking Moscow and St. Petersburg. George checked with Anna, who said, “Go for it.” So, they headed off to Mother Russia, where they became friends with the czar and socialized with nobility.
By now, James’ talent as an artist was apparent. Anna was generous and enrolled James in the prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts. The bright future looked promising for the happy family.
George died suddenly in 1849 from cholera.
Anna politely declined a sympathetic offer from Nicholas to tutor the boys at Imperial School. Bewildered and devastated, Anna gathered her children and moved to New York and Connecticut.
Her income dropped from $12,000 per year to $1,500. She was unable to make ends meet with pennies and dollars. William was even sent to medical school by her.
Anna hoped James would be a minister but he was appointed to U.S. Military Academy as he turned 17.
But James and West Point weren’t a good fit. After three years without success, James quit quietly after failing a chemistry test. (James later said, “If silicon had been a gas instead of a solid, I’d be a major general today.”)
James was finally free to indulge his passion for painting and he set off to Paris and London.
America was on the verge of civil war, all while this was happening. Anna and James were reunited in North Carolina where James became a Confederate surgeon. Anna began to miss her son across the pond as the conflict raged. The Union’s naval blockade of Southern ports stood between them. But no cannon was powerful enough to stop a mother’s love. Anna boarded Advance, a blockade-runner, on a dark August evening in 1863. For a woman of 60, it was an extraordinary act of courage. Anna was determined.
The Advance made it through the patrolling warships and had a joyful reunion with James at his London studio. Although she was caught unaware by James’s extravagantly bohemian lifestyle and he didn’t know it, she still showed Southern hospitality to his friends, serving tea, preserves, and homemade biscuits.
James asked Anna to pose with him a few years later. Some said she filled in for a model who couldn’t make it; others claim James intended his mother to be the subject all along. We know that he wanted her standing. He ended up painting her in profile with her hands folded in her lap, at 67 years old and her health declining.
Entering a VIP showing in London in 1872, James titled his work “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1.” Victorian critics wouldn’t accept it as an arrangement since it was clearly a portrait, so they renamed it “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.”
It became the name we all know today. Because James was James McNeill Whistler, Anna was Anna McNeill Whistler, and the portrait on display today at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris is simply dubbed “Whistler’s Mother.”
More than the likeness of one man’s mother, it is an enduring tribute to the love of mothers everywhere.
Holy Cow! J. Powell, a former TV journalist and ardent history buff, is the author of history. Mark Powell. Are you looking for a solution to a historic mystery? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Send it to [email protected]
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