The painting Whistler’s Mother has given people the impression that James Whistler was a sentimental Norman Rockwell sort of fellow, but Whistler’s Mother wasn’t his normal style.
Most of Whistler’s paintings were more abstract.
On this occasion, he painted his reluctant mom in a straight-backed wooden chair only because his scheduled model hadn’t shown up.
Despite this one painting, Whistler loved seeing himself as a shocking rebel against the art establishment and presented himself and his work in ways to keep that image alive.
In one of his public melodramas, he sued English art critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin wrote a scathing review of his artwork.
After a long and bombastic trial, the jury agreed that Whistler had been libeled, and awarded him damages of one farthing, about a quarter of a cent.
For his “victory,” Whistler was bankrupted by legal fees and lost his house and furniture.
Ironically, he was also forced into backtracking away from his confrontational style and into more commercial, conventional etchings.
Ruskin, for his part, was so outraged by the verdict against him that he stopped writing reviews, resigned from Oxford University, and became a bitter, antisocial recluse.