One of the world’s most iconic paintings will appear in Australia for the first time at the National Gallery of Victoria.

James Whistler’s Portrait of the artist’s mother from 1871 will be shown in Australia for the first time in March at the National Gallery of Victoria. On loan from the world-famous Musée d’Orsay in Paris, it will be shown exclusively at the NGV. As part of a cultural exchange with the illustrious Parisian gallery, the NGV will be lending Pierre Bonnard’s Siesta (La Sieste) from 1900 to the Musée d’Orsay.

Tony Elwood, Director of the NGV, said that Whistler’s work (also known colloquially as Whistler’s Mother) sits alongside da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Munch’s The scream as “one of a handful of artworks which enjoy universal recognition and admiration”. The fame of this iconic painting is reflected in its numerous appearances within pop culture, including The Mr Bean Movie, The Naked Gun , I Am Legend and four episodes of The Simpsons. It has also been used extensively in advertising.

American painter, printmaker and designer James Whistler was born in 1834 and worked during the Aesthetic movement, which celebrated ‘art for art’s sake’. Whistler’s Mother is one of the world’s most extraordinary masterpieces, considered the most important American artwork shown outside of the United States. The work was met with criticism at its 1872 unveiling at the Royal Academy in London, with many confronted by the painting’s starkly abstract and non-narrative qualities. However by the late nineteenth century it had drawn crowds from across Europe and the United States, and in 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt devised a modified design of the work for a Mother’s Day stamp.

Exhibition curator and Assistant Director of NGV Dr Isobel Crombie said the exhibition will take viewers on a “captivating journey through the history of the work; uncovering the life and career of Whistler, the life of its sitter – Anna Whistler – its conservation, the influences that informed the work’s production, its volatile reception and until now unexplored Australian connections, before viewers encounter the arresting painting in a dedicated room”. The piece is a potent symbol of motherhood painted in tonal shades of grey, white and black, depicting Whistler’s mother – Anna – in profile clutching a white handkerchief.

While it’s the first time Whistler’s Mother is being shown in Australia, the painting already has an association with the Victorian gallery. The NGV holds an edition of the etching Black Lion Wharf from 1859, which is depicted in the background of Whistler’s famous painting, and a Goodwin chair similar to the one that Anna Whistler sits on.

The exhibition will also trace the influence of Whistler on some of Australia’s most prominent artists, including John Longstaff, Tom Roberts, E. Phillips Fox and Hugh Ramsay. The Gallery has produced a short film to further explore significance of the painting, and the gallery store offers an illustrated 88-page publication to accompany the exhibition. A floor talk series will discuss the contemporary insights of Whistler, and an illustrated panel discussion will explore the question ‘What makes an artwork iconic?’ through examination of Whistler’s Mother, the iconic works of Andy Warhol, and the NGV Collection.

Whistler’s Mother will be on display at the National Gallery of Victoria from 26 March to 19 June 2016. 

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