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Stunning Composition: Whistler at the Clark

As you cross through the roundabout in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and bear right onto South Street, you will notice a long line of cars parked along the roadside. They stretch all the way to the Clark Art Institute, including every available parking space on the Clark campus. Parking space is at a rare premium these days.

This is what it’s like to be so popular. Not only does the Clark have a stunning new Tadao Ando addition, but Van Gogh is also in town, through the 13th of September, proving once again to be a massive draw. Vincent is great, of course, and there are some stunners in the exhibit. But instead I suggest heading right up to the Lunder Center at Stone Hill to visit one of the grandes dames of American painting: Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother), popularly known as Whistler’s Mother. There’s plenty of parking, too.

On loan from the Musée d'Orsay, this beautiful yet dour lady fills the small entry gallery, and the dim lighting gives her a mysterious presence. I've seen this painting several times in Paris, but this time it was different. Anna Matilda McNeill Whistler has never looked better. Her black figure is solidly seated, feet resting squarely on a raised cushion. She holds her own against the sharp black edges of the framed pictures on the wall behind her. We’re supposed to keep our focus interior, but the dancing patterns on the drapery entice your eyes and allude to something more.

Anna is a stoic woman in her mourning dress, but the artist has softened her. The delicate handkerchief in her sturdy hands and the feathery lace of her cap that enshrines her face gently drapes to her breast. There is a similar quality to the paint that is also in the curtain. She is forever bound by that grey wall and the structure of the sharp black frames. But those amazing subtle brush strokes add a complexity to Anna Whistler, as her son lovingly depicts.

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