Anna Matilda McNeill, Whistler's Mother (1804-1881)

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Are you sure you would have me sit like this, James? I can't see you from here. There's nothing at all to look at.

Yes, Mother, I'm quite sure. This is just a preparatory sketch, so it won't take long. I shan't let you get bored. We can talk.

Really, dear? And what shall we talk about?

Why don't you tell me the story of your life?

What a ridiculous idea, James. The little that there is to tell, you know already.

There's a great deal to tell, as you know very well, Mother. And the expression that I want to capture is the one I see when you recount your memories.

With those words, he has melted her heart again. She is sixty-seven years of age in this year of 1871, and the little room in Chelsea is far from her natural home, but she feels refreshed and content in his company. She smiles to herself, gives silent thanks to her Maker for her family, and begins the tale.

My name is Anna Matilda Whistler, and I was born on the twenty-seventh of September in the year of Our Lord eighteen-hundred and four. My father was Doctor Daniel McNeill and my mother was Martha Kingsley, and I was brought up first in Wilmington, North Carolina and later in New York.

This is probably not quite what he meant, she realises, and shoots a questioning glance in his direction.

His response comes as a whisper.

Talk about Father.

With a little gulp, she continues.

His name was George Washington Whistler and he was a graduate of West Point, where he was a classmate of my brother and your uncle William. After military academy, your father became a construction engineer in the service of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway Company. By his first wife, he had three children, your late stepbrothers George and Joseph and your stepsister Deborah, who of course now lives here in London. He was already a widower when William introduced us. We were married in 1831 and our firstborn was a miscreant to whom we gave the name of James Abbott, who has caused me anguish ever since. Your younger brother William came next. You two are the only ones among my little boys who came to adulthood.

Her voice wavers at this point, and her eyes are bright. The sketchbook catches it all.

Kirk and Charles passed away as infants. It was 1843 when Charlie left us. In that same year your father entered the employment of Tsar Nicolas and our family went to live in St Petersburg. There were already many Americans and British folk in Russia then and we enjoyed a rather splendid living. But you didn't see your father as often as a young man should, because he was driving the railroad to Moscow. My baby John was born and lived just a single year. I was already unhappy in that gilded paradise when we heard the terrible news that your father, too, was dead of the cholera. You, James, were fifteen years old.

The man at the easel says something under his breath, and his mother pauses.

What did you say, dear? Something about 'grey and black'?

For a moment he seems absent and wistful, but when he continues it is in his usual cheerful tone.

We should talk of something happier. What about your letters? You love to write, don't you?

I do love my letters and I'm fortunate to have friends pleased to receive them. Indeed, we were all fortunate, because when we returned home to America we were in need of the charity of those friends. Those were difficult years, James, although you never heeded that. I implored you to try your hardest at West Point and not to dishonour your Father. You didn't apply yourself to your studies then or in the other undertakings I found for you, and you nearly drove me to distraction. And when you took off to France it almost broke my heart, because I was sure that you would starve.

He grins at her.

Well, I didn't starve, did I, Mother? So then, were you surprised when I invited you to London?

She suppresses the impulse to scold.

I was very surprised, as well you know, but I was glad to get away from the war, and when William agreed to come and practise his medicine here, it was an easy decision to make. Was that really seven years ago? Anyway, I soon settled to this atrocious climate, and to running the household and the business of my son the painter, so finally ensuring that the foolish child would never have to grow up.

He shrugs, though the smile has never left his face throughout these last few minutes.

Still, we live well enough, don't we? And it may just be my vanity, but I suspect that you secretly like the paintings.

She brightens.

You know I do. That evening by the bridge, in the moonlight. The one you sketched in only blue and grey, remember? That was magical.

She squeezes the handkerchief in her lap.

Keep doing that! That's perfect.

His tone is all boyish enthusiasm, and the charcoal dashes away. It's the sitter who is whispering now.

You know, you must promise me to finish that painting of the river. Then I will be able to leave London and be at peace. It's a fine city, but its airs aren't suited to an old lady's constitution.

You'd return to America even now?

The reply is serene.

Oh, no. I'm wondering about Hastings. Mrs Swift recommends it in her letters.

But her son is no longer listening as he concentrates ferociously on finishing touches.


The finality of the declaration fills her with anticipation.

Come and tell me what you think.

She takes his arm and allows him to guide her to the easel. The sketch surprises her a little in its severity and its sombre shading, but the intimacy of their relationship is plain to see.

Is this going to be the one they'll remember in a hundred years' time?

His expression is a wry smile, and she gives the arm a little squeeze.

Maybe not, thinks Mama Whistler to herself. But she knows that he will paint it for a different reason altogether, and her heart swells with pride.

The Pinniped Portfolio


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