Art Tourism Kitsch: Come See Our Copy of Whistler’s Mother?



Why do we preserve the childhood homes of famous people? I remember visiting the Edgar Degas House in New Orleans which was nice but nothing much really. Then someone told me he lived there for only a few months and I became a little peeved, why make this place a museum? Now I’ve discovered that 19th C. artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler has a similar home/museum called the Whistler House Museum of Art in Lowell, MA. Apparently he was born there but only lived there for the first few years of his life. What’s the point?

Then there’s this odd paragraph in the House Museum’s website outlining one special work in the museum’s second floor installation:

Apres James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in Grey and Black (1906), Oil on canvas, by Edith Fairfax Davenport, a cousin of Whistler. This is an exact scale model of the original painting which, it is said, heralded modern art. The original is worth approximately $30 million and hangs in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.

Am I suppose to be impressed by the value of the original when I’m looking at a copy of Whistler’s Mother? It is disappointing that the Whistler Museum has no original paintings by its namesake and only 20 of his 450 etchings.

Why don’t major museums adopt sites like this? I’m sure the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the Smithsonian has a stash of Whistlers somewhere that haven’t seen the light of day in ages (Whistler isn’t exactly the most popular artist nowadays). Wouldn’t it be a good idea for a big city institution to reach out beyond its urban borders and attract a new potential audience? Perhaps if more museums attempted this type of thing we wouldn’t need to worry about fate of federal funding for the arts every few years when politicians try to score (and usually do) easy points with culturally conservative voters by ragging on big city cultural elites. Granted Lowell isn’t a hotbed of culturally conservative voices but I’m sure there are similar institutions in states with lesser cultural resources.

Note: The webpage I cited is also cached here.

7 responses to “Art Tourism Kitsch: Come See Our Copy of Whistler’s Mother?”

  1. Joanne Mattera Art Blog Avatar

    You are missing an opportunity, Hrag. The Vartanian Family home could be a lovely stop on one’s tour of Ontario. I personally would love to see the Red Cape from your childhood, as well as a room of your early writings.

  2. Peter Benson Avatar
    Peter Benson

    It is very obvious to me that you have not been to the Whistler House Museum to see one of the best Boston School collections in New England. Degas once said “Men of letters explain the arts without understanding them.” I have been to the Whistler House many times and each time I see something new. Recently, a family thought enough of this museum to donate 28 works of art by the Armenian artist, Arshile Gorky. If you were involved with the Armenian Community, you would have heard about this wonderful exhibit.

  3. hv Avatar

    Dude, you need to chill. First of all, it’s funny that you assume that I’m not involved with the Armenian community, I’d be curious what your assumption is based on.

    I think the Gorky show idea is great but the Whistler House Museum needs more works by … wait for it … Whistler! I really think a major institution should partner with them and help bulk up their Whistler collection, thus ensuring that a fine small house museum becomes a GREAT small house museum.

  4. Peter Benson Avatar
    Peter Benson

    The Whistler House Museum had a Gorky exhibit at the same time the Philadelphia Museum had their Gorky Retrospective. Gorky family members came from London and Tuscany to visit both museums and NAASR (National Association for Armenian Studies and Research) in Belmont, MA had several lectures and talks by leading Gorky authors, WHMA researcher, and Gorky family members. At the opening in Lowell Mellisa Kerr, Managing Director of The Arshile Gorky Foundation, was a speaker.

    Please, don’t try to critique a restaurant without sitting down and tasting their food!

  5. Hrag Avatar

    Peter, did you even read my post? I’m guessing you just want to vent. Oh well, can’t please everyone.

  6. Peter Benson Avatar
    Peter Benson

    Of course I read it Hrag… I wouldn’t comment on something I didn’t read or see. The Whistler House was purchased by the Lowell Art Association in 1907. Their founders, including Thomas Bayley Lawson and David Dalhoof Neal, had the foresight to preserve the building. Other Boston artists in their collection include Frank W. Benson, John S. Sargent, George Loftus Noyes, William M. Paxton, Frederick Porter Vinton, Aldro T. Hibbard, William Morris Hunt, Hermann Dudley Murphy, Louis Kronberg, Marie Danforth Page, Margaret Richardson, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Walter Lofthouse Dean, Parker S. Perkins, Charles H. Allen, and many more. Several of the above named artists were born in Lowell and developed international acclaim. Can you name them?

    Hrag, please visit the museum soon… you won’t regret it. Lowell is filled with multicultural restaurants and several other museums. You will enjoy yourself.

  7. jeannette Avatar

    was wondering if copies of whistlers mother are worth anything?/frame looks really old , old tiny nails holding ..looks like cardboard..picture in.was just wondering.i picked it up at a sale

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