Art Lesson for Children
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
In the time Whistler painted, many people believed art should tell a story or teach them how to become better people. But other people, such as Edgar Allan Poe, thought creative people should try to make perfect art even it that art didn't have any meaning at all. Whistler agreed with Poe that artists could make "art for art's sake" instead of making art for a specific purpose.
Whistler believed that different kinds of art had connections to each other. So he sometimes gave his paintings titles that would fit musical pieces. For example, in a musical arrangement, the parts of a song are put together in a new and different way. When Whistler named his painting Arrangement in Grey and Black (you can see the original at the Musee d'Orsay) he was comparing it to a piece of music.
In this painting, Whistler wanted people to think about how he had arranged the shapes. Look at the black and white sketches below. The painting wouldn't feel as balanced if Whistler had left out a picture frame, or the curtain, or had even changed the darkness of the curtain.
When he painted the seated woman he thought of her as just another shape that made up the picture. But people knew the seated woman was his mother, so they began calling the painting Whistler's Mother. Even though Whistler hadn't meant to give the painting any meaning, it became a popular symbol of motherhood.
Some artists sign their work with the initials of their names arranged in a decorative way. Albrecht Dürer and Alexander Calder are two of my favorite artists who happen to have signed their works with monograms. I sketched out their monograms, which look something like this:
Whistler signed many of his paintings with a butterfly monogram that changed over the years. In Arrangement in Grey and Black, you can see the butterfly in the upper left hand corner on the curtain.
Whistler chose the butterfly because he always dressed in fancy clothes and spent a lot of time working on how he appeared to others. In later years he added a scorpion's tale to the butterfly. He wanted to show that he would strike back if anyone upset him.
I sketched out a few of Whistler's monograms to show you how they changed over time. Can you see Whistler's initials in his monograms? What shape would you get if you placed a capital M (for McNeill) on top of a capital W (for Whistler)?
Can you make a design or animal shape out of the initials of your name?
*Childrensart.info's mascot is a chimpanzee---a member of the ape family-not a monkey. Monkeys have tails, but apes do not. But Whistler's Monkey sounded like a better title than Whistler's Chimp.