You think you know this artist by the painting he’s famous for - commonly identified as Whistler’s Mother (Anna). But contradictions that arise in this story suggest he’s not easy to know.

Whistler made clear that the picture of his mother is not a portrait by his picture title - Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1. Anna, then, was intended only as a picture part, which can have you imagining him telling her, “Just sit still, Mom, this is not about you.”

Whistler’s intentions aside, Arrangement in Grey and Black has so often been identified as a portrait that the British Journal “Modern Painters” tags it the Victorian Mona Lisa.

Art object

Given that Arrangement in Grey and Black isn’t a portrait, what is it?

Whistler, an early devotee of abstract art, would have you think of it as an art object to be appreciated for its design, not its devotion to motherhood.

But wait. The way Jonathan Jones, The Guardian art critic, raves about London’s Royal Academy new show “Whistler’s Woman in White” is hard to reconcile with the painter’s coldly abstract picture of his mother.

Jones says the Royal Academy show offers “raw, boozy, sexual slices of real-life and love.” And he wasn’t the only art critic writing fervently of “Woman in White.”

In Leila Lebreton’s review for Artlyst, she talks about Whistler’s fascination with Joanna Hiffernan and her long locks of red hair – the woman he pictured so often in white.

Painter’s Muse

More than his model or lover, Lebreton says Hiffernan was Whistler’s muse. This, she believes, makes the exhibit a must-see for those wishing to understand the role of an artist’s muse, “and how the right muse can provide a grounding force.”

But Hiffernan doesn’t come across as all that grounding in a 1908 bio of Whistler by Joseph Pennell and his art critic wife Elizabeth.

They said that besides modeling for Whistler, she also posed for Courbet (Le Sommeil), and likely had an affair with him.

And in another record - the 1945 Book Artists on Art - written by art critic Robert Goldwater and architect Marco Treves, abstract art was on Whistler’s mind, not Hiffernan.

Goldwater and Treves pointed out that Whistler’s practice of titling his pictures was meant to emphasize their abstract qualities.

For his pictures of Hiffernan, he called them symphonies of white.

In the abstract

Whistler's staunchly defense of abstraction was in rebellion against those who refuse to consider paintings apart from stories they tell: “Art should be independent of all clap-trap.” (Did he just call his mother clap-trap?)

Fixated on eliminating all sentiment from his work, Whistler said further that art should appeal to the eye “without confounding it with emotions entirely foreign to it.”

He even named the “confounding” emotions: devotions: pity, love, patriotism. “All these I have no kind of concern with,” he said.

All of which leaves one to wonder what in the world Jones was talking about saying the Royal Academy show “Woman in White” offers “raw, boozy, sexual slices of real-life and love.”

An incident noted in the 1908 bio indicates Whistler’s disdain for sentiment in his pictures. Upon receiving praise for the painting of his mother, he sneered, “Yes, one does like to make one’s mummy just as nice as possible.”