Through June 22 the Norton Simon Museum is showing three magnificent paintings from the Musée d’Orsay. One of them—James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (“Whistler’s Mother,” a portrait of Anna Whistler)—already has a local history. In 1933 it became L.A.’s first blockbuster art attraction. It also has a unique connection to one of Hollywood’s signature takes on American motherhood: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
The story begins in 1931, when Lillie P. Bliss died childless. A co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art, she bequeathed her collection to that New York institution. The gift included such iconic works as Cézanne’s Bather, but it came with a condition. MoMA had to demonstrate its financial viability by raising a suitable endowment.
MoMA director Alfred Barr believed he could raise some of the cash with a high-profile exhibition. The result was “Seventy Years of American Painting and Sculpture, 1862-1932,” with Whistler’s Mother as the star attraction. It was said to be the first time the Louvre had lent a painting to an American museum.
The Whistler was such a sensation in New York that museums across the county wanted to show it. It toured 12 U.S. cities, including four stops in Ohio alone—Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo. Eventually it made its way to the the very hinterlands of the art world, the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art in Exposition Park.
There it attracted close to 80,000 visitors. That’s incredible given that the MoMA showing had somewhat over 100,000, and the painting was on view in L.A. for only 18 days (Mar. 18-Apr. 5, 1933).
The L.A. Times called Whistler’s painting “a world symbol for the ideal of mother.” That was typical of the American reaction. It was read as an artist’s tribute to his mother, a woman whose stoic expression seemed to embody American values. Few realized that Anna was depicted in her expatriate son’s London studio.
The 1930s American press also fixated on money as the determinant of artistic value. (Not much has changed there.) Coverage marveled that the French state had purchased the painting for the equivalent of about $800 in 1891 and had insured it for $500,000 for the American tour.
In 1934 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suggested using Whistler’s Mother on a Mother’s Day postage stamp. FDR even sketched the design. Maybe Presidents had more free time back then.
Don’t blame FDR for the stamp’s most dubious feature. At lower left is a vase of flowers that Whistler neglected to include in his painting.
FDR’s own mother posed in front of the painting at MoMA in a proto-selfie. (The Norton Simon Museum is allowing non-flash photos, presumably including selfies. All three Musée d’Orsay loans are framed behind glass, as is much of the permanent collection.)
Alfred Barr was not the only coastal intellectual to sense that Whistler’s Mother had turned into a populist Frankenstein’s monster. Barr’s 1943 book What Is Abstract Painting? attempted to set the record straight.
Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, Barr insisted, is not a celebration of mothers everywhere. It is “a composition of rectangles… not very different from the abstract Composition in White, Black, and Red by Mondrian.”
Barr supplied a diagram proving that, after Anna was “omitted,” Whistler’s Mother is this close to being a work of Neo-Plasticism.
Most Americans continued to see mom, not modern. Whistler’s Mother was of the scale of the WPA murals of the late 1930s, espousing shared patriotic values. In fact, the WPA commissioned a bronze statue of Whistler’s Mother for Ashland, Penna. Its inscription reads, “A MOTHER IS THE HOLIEST THING ALIVE.”
The truly nuance-blind read Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 as a Norman Rockwell magazine cover writ large. (Below, Rockwell’s painting for the Saturday Evening Post’s Thanksgiving 1945 issue.)
The re-Americanization of Anna culminated in a 1954 Disney cartoon. In Donald’s Diary, Donald Duck meets meets the prospective in-laws. Girlfriend Daisy’s mother is Anna with a bill and an ear trumpet.
The June 1963 Mad magazine cover conceived Alfred E. Neuman as a matricidal, or manslaughter-liable, maniac. It’s by Norman Mingo, an illustrator who worked in the Norman Rockwell mode until being hired by Mad late in his career.
Norman Rockwell, Norman Mingo, and… Norman-or-Norma Bates?
Alfred Hitchcock based the Psycho home, behind the Bates Motel, on Edward Hopper’s 1925 House by the Railroad. He commissioned the famed title designer Saul Bass to produce storyboards for key scenes of Psycho, including the shower sequence and the ending. In Joseph Stefano’s script, the latter has Norman Bates, reverted to the personality of mother Norma, in a cell.
“The walls are white and plain. There is no furniture except the straight-back chair… the room has a quality of no-whereness…”
Bass’ storyboard re-envisioned this as a tableaux vivant of Whistler’s Mother. Explained Bass:
“I devised a small idea for that, which I call the ‘Whistler’s Mother’ thing. In [the painting], the mother sits in a rocker and there’s a framed painting [a Whistler etching] on the wall. So I set up the thing based on that where Tony Perkins is wrapped in his blanket and there’s a wall vent in the ceiling where the frame is in ‘Whistler’s Mother.’”
Hitchcock dialed down Bass’ conception. He may have felt that an obvious sight gag would be inappropriate; also that he wanted to show his anti-hero’s breakdown frontally, not in profile. In any case the film ends with Norman wrapped in a blanket, next to a significantly cropped rectangle.