The Wild Restaging of a Famous 19th-Century Masterpiece

The Photo Blog
Jan. 29 2013 11:00 AM

Whistler’s Mother Gets a Makeover

Portrait of the Artist's Mother
(l)Portrait of the Artist's Mother (r) Arrangement 12.

(l)James Abbott McNeill Whistler (r) Aline Smithson.

Aline Smithson loves garage sales. When a single weekend of scavenging yielded a print of the famous 19th-century painting by James McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother,” a leopard coat and hat, a 1950s cat painting, and a chair just like the one in Whistler’s painting, something clicked. Her years of art education, fashion editing, and honing her darkroom skills, plus her sense of nostalgia, love of family, and wacky sense of humor all came together to produce what Smithson calls “the series that put me on the map.”

Over a period of two years, her mother, who was in her mid-80s, sat erect in the “Whistler chair,” presenting her left profile and a perfect deadpan expression in front of Smithson’s lime green garage door for 20 versions of “Arrangement in Green and Black, Portraits of the Photographer’s Mother.” Instead of Anna Whistler’s voluminous black Victorian dress and white lace cap, Katrine Kleihauer Smithson is decked out in get-ups such as a grass skirt and a safari suit. Smithson scoured thrift stores and eBay for costumes and bad paintings with matching themes.

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 11.

Aline Smithson.

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 5.

Aline Smithson.

Smithson says her work reveals her years of experience as the fashion editor for Vogue Patterns (“I love putting things together”) and her art background.

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“I like things that have had some life before. I like old things,” she said in a phone interview. “My camera is from the ’60s.” Her love of tradition comes through in the “Arrangement …” series: these are black-and-white prints that she hand-colors.

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 14.

Aline Smithson.

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 3.

Aline Smithson.

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 10.

Aline Smithson.

Smithson’s humor and affection for her mother strike a chord worldwide. “The series just keeps going. It recently was published in Saudi Arabia. It’s been published all over Europe and the U.S. and I’ve had three shows of it this year,” she said. Gallery directors say they love having the works in their spaces because they enjoy hearing the laughter.

Though her mother was in poor health when she was posing for the series she “always had a great sense of humor,” Smithson said. “I was quite busy; I had the kids and a lot going on. She considered my carving out time specifically for her a treat.” Sadly, Smithson’s mother passed away before she ever saw the whole project completed. “But,” says Smithson, “I know she’s up there enjoying her success.”

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 7.

Aline Smithson.

Arrangement in Grey and Black Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.
Arrangement 20.

Aline Smithson.

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