Chasing Whistler's Mother

How Far Would You Go to See the World's Best Works of Art?

For this traveler, to the ends of the earth.

By Bill Wiatrak April 29, 2019

Night time at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

I'd been scouring the museum for Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, and wanted to ask someone where it was, but wasn’t really sure how to say it in French. It was 9 a.m. in Paris and I was still exhausted from my red-eye flight from Ethiopia. My brain wasn’t working.

You’ve seen photos of this painting. It’s been called the "Victorian Mona Lisa" and is one of the most famous pieces of American art not in America. Most people know the work by it by its nickname, Whistler’s Mother.

Anna McNeill Whistler never suspected that she would be immortalized by her son James when he painted her portrait in 1871. The French government bought it 20 years later, after he pawned it, and it's been hanging in the Musée d'Orsay for decades.

I'd done my math and figured I’d use my six-hour morning layover in Paris to clear immigration, jump on the Metro and dash through the Orsay before catching my flight back to Houston. Could I make it? If nothing went wrong, yes. Seeing Whistler’s Mother was on my “painting bucket list” and I wasn’t going to miss her again.

I realized several years ago that I knew nothing about the works of art I'd seen on my adventures around the world. I felt like I was missing an entire level of travel as I visited places like the Louvre and recognized practically nothing other than the Mona Lisa. I enrolled in an art history course at a community college, and as I attended my weekly class my eyes were slowly opened. I started to understand the link between art, history, and religion. Van Gogh, da Vinci and Dali became real people to me as I learned about their lives, inspirations and contributions to art.

One semester was just enough to whet my appetite and help me decide to self-educate myself as I traveled. I created a list of about 50 of the most important pieces in the world and decided to start visiting them all. Wherever I visit, I first Google famous art in the area and make it a point to see the highlights local museums have to offer. I've visited Paris twice and ran out of time before I could make it to the Orsay Museum to see Whistler’s Mother. This morning that was all going to change.

Except I had walked through the entire museum and hadn’t been able to find Whistler’s Mother anywhere. Had I missed a room? An employee at the museum, who spoke perfect English, informed me that the painting had been shipped to Chicago. I was shocked. It was on tour? I didn’t think famous paintings like that were moved around! I had missed it by only a week. The rest of the museum was fantastic, but I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to check Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 off my list.

The Art Institute of Chicago.

A few months passed and I scheduled a trip to see the Indianapolis 500. Rather than fly there directly, I opted to use Chicago as my hub and drive the three hours from there to see the race. This would give me a day to visit a few places in the Windy City that I’d missed on my previous adventures. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the finest museums in the world, and I was excited about seeing the elusive painting I'd missed in Paris.

Once I arrived, I strolled past the Monets and Renoirs, wondering which room held my quest. After an hour of fruitless searching, I asked a curator. She smiled and informed me that I’d just missed it. It had been moved to Copenhagen or somewhere else I was sure I wouldn’t be visiting anytime soon. I suppose I should have checked with the museum before I arrived, but who knew that Whistler’s mom was such a traveler?

All good paintings eventually make their way to Paris, so I ate the bitter pill of disappointment and continued my travels. One day I stumbled across an article about the world’s most expensive painting, a da Vinci called Salvatore Mundi that was going to be displayed at the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The painting’s origins were a little controversial, but it was generating quite the buzz in the art world. I added it to my bucket list and the timing couldn’t have been better. I was going to be visiting Kurdistan, Iraq soon, and why not stop in Abu Dhabi on the way?

As my trip got closer, I checked the news and discovered that this painting had yet to be unveiled. There was something strange about a masterpiece that is purchased for $450 million and never shown. The rumor was that it was going to be displayed on the anniversary of when it had been painted, which was …. (wait for it)…the day of my arrival. I crossed my fingers.

The stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The day finally came and I headed straight from Dubai to the museum. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful building full of treasures borrowed from its Parisian location and I couldn’t have been more excited about seeing this art-oasis in the desert. I strode to the counter already guessing that they were going to tell me what I already knew—the da Vinci was not being shown. After my Whistler’s Mother chase, I didn’t let the news phase me. Sometimes things aren’t where you expect them to be. That’s life. And art imitates life.

The museum was amazing regardless. There were lots of works I recognized, including Portrait of a Woman, another da Vinci that's nicknamed the "Mona Lisa of Abu Dhabi." I suppose a lot of famous portraits get compared to the Mona Lisa, but even more so if the same man painted both.

I didn’t expect to see a lot in the museum since it had just opened. I decided to just meander through the exhibits and not worry about crossing anything off my list. Lists can be great motivators, but can also keep us from being in the moment. Besides, sometimes when you’re just aware, you discover things you never expect to find.

That’s exactly what happened that day.

Posing with Whistler's Mother.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

As I walked into the final room, there she was. Sitting in her rocking chair, perhaps resting from all the jet-setting she’d been doing throughout the year, Anna Whistler looked straight ahead, content in her new home. Much larger than I expected, I could barely grasp this happenstance. I had come looking for Jesus and I found Anna instead. No longer was it about checking her off my list. I had been to Europe and North America to find her and she’d turned up in the Middle East. I’ve chased a few women in my life, but finding Mrs. Whistler was my favorite lifetime art experience. I sat down and stared at her as other travelers came and went.

So what now?

Dogs Playing Poker? Challenge accepted.

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