Anna Matilda Whistler, 1804-1881
Date of Birth: 1804.09.27
Place of Birth: Wilmington, NC
Place of Death: Hastings, Sussex
She was the daughter of Dr Daniel McNeill and Martha Kingsley. She spent her childhood between North Carolina and New York. In 1831, she married George Washington Whistler who had attended the USMA, West Point, NY, and became a construction engineer for Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company. George was a classmate, close friend and work colleague of Anna's brother William Gibbs McNeill. George Washington Whistler brought into his second marriage three children from his previous marriage, George William, Joseph Swift and Deborah Delano. Anna's courage and resilience were to be severely tested. Anna herself bore five children, James Abbott (1834-1903); William McNeill (1836-1900); Kirk Boott (1838-1841), Charles Donald (1841-1843); and John Bouttatz (1845-1846).
Anna became a widow at the age of 45 in 1849, when her husband died in St Petersburg from cholera. Between 1843 and 1849 George Whistler had worked as a chief engineer for Tsar Nicolas I, supervising the construction of the rail road between Moscow and St Petersburg. The family joined him for most of this period. In St Petersburg their life was quite different from what they were used to in the USA. Her writings there reflect the wealthy life-style they enjoyed, surrounded by the elite of Russian, American and British social circles. It is through these writings that we can come to a fuller and closer view about her life, character and concerns. Anna was a prolific correspondent and most people tend not to be aware of or to misinterpret the wealth of historical documentation her writings reveal. She wrote constantly to her friends, relatives and administrative officials. In addition to shorter notes describing her daily routine, she wrote lengthy diaries, which unravel a difficult and complex life, and occasional long pieces including a profile of her late husband.
In St Petersburg Anna was in charge of running the household, providing for her husband and children, looking after their education and well-being and of course keeping up appearances. It would be a mistake to think of Anna as a woman who was scared of the sophisticated aspect of her world. It has been noted that her religious character prevented her children from entering into dancing classes or anything to do with 'inappropriate' pedagogical activities. This is true to an extent, but one has to remember that Anna was brought up in a 19th-century context, which enforced limitations in the activities of women. Women were confined in most cases to the private domain of the home, and Anna did not escape this restriction. Her insistence and belief in the traditional role of women is transparent in her writings. She writes to her friend Margaret Hill: 'I wish you could read Kate's description of the mother & wife taking care of fond husbands & those little ones, it so tender & so comforting it does the heart good'! (13 February 1851, Cornell University Library, New York). On another occasion she writes to her son James: 'my sweet little hostess has attended to her routine of domestic duties so gracefully, so unobtrusively it seems truly fairy like…' (#06468). At the same time, when her husband died, Anna proved that she could provide the best future for her children on her own.
When the family left St Petersburg, the widowed Anna was in a bad financial state. With no means of her own, she had to depend on family and friends for living expenses. Their way of life changed drastically and six years later they were still suffering. In 1855 she confessed to her son James, 'Bills came pouring in & I am helpless, I have been tempted to talk to our host here! I am not dishonest tho poverty has overtaken me. I feel my winter bonnet! I see my old gown of two summers wear, foxy & thread bare. Still I know my respectability does not depend on dress, tho comfort does depend upon neatness' (#06459). However, the death of her husband and the demands of four children at this stage did not stop her from becoming assertive and dynamic. It is possible that the answer for this lies in her religious faith, which remained steadfast. Anna writes 'His divine purpose of numbering us among His heritage, He from time to time opens visions of a heavenly home to us, as He permits us to see one by one of our loved family circle entering there thro the gates of death, Joe, Kirkie, Charlie & now the one on whom we all leaned!' (Glasgow University Library, MS Whistler W388).
When her son James was at the USMA, West Point, NY, Anna naturally tried to show James new directions. She was almost in tears when she was writing to James in 1853 begging him to do well at the Academy 'Do not tarnish your fathers name, let it not fall upon you to be a scourge to your mother' (GUL, MS Whistler W422). When James was dismissed due to poor grades, she used her influential friendships and relations to find a new position for him, as any other parent in her position would do. She managed to secure a series of posts, but James showed no inclination to remain in any of these.
When James set off to Paris, where he started his artistic career and bohemian life, she remained faithful in her support. In the late 1850s - early 1860s she became his agent in America and tried to sell his etchings. The correspondence between Anna and her son proves this, 'I have not been advised to send the etchings yet to Mr T Winans' she writes, 'but he knows they are in my safe keeping and in time I hope he will write you expressive of his pleasure in receiving them. Capt & Mrs Swift are to spend an hour soon with me in looking at the set you gave me.' (#06516).
At this stage Anna, having lived in Russia and Britain for a considerable time, was experienced in the world of Fine Art. She had visited Museums and exhibitions across two continents. She was a cultivated woman who kept up with current affairs. She was opinionated but at the same time reserved. When asked about the Civil War and slavery issues, her southern background arose, supported by her Christian upbringing and life. Anna writes '…I am no advocate of slavery, but can witness to the humanity of owners of southern Atlantic states & testify that such are benefactors to the race of Ham, believing as I have been led to from my mothers opinions, that the blacks at the south are cared for by Christian owners, being taught from the gospel & all their religious indulgences provided…' (Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, PWC 34/53-54). At the same time Anna was looking after a 'colored' girl, and worked for charities for the poor both in the north and south of the USA. 'You recollect the colored girl,' she writes to Mr Gamble, a family friend (one of the many friendships that endured throughout her life), 'who for the last years from disease was removed from the home of my N Hampshire friends, to an asylum for the poor & sick. When we are tête à tête dear Mr Gamble I can tell you of that child of God, a member of Christ! An inheritor of His Kingdom…' (#06479).
When Anna left her native land for London in 1864, it would be a mistake to think that this was to escape the ravages of the civil war. Her step daughter Deborah was married and settled in London. James was pursuing his career there, and her other son William, a physician, was soon to set up his practice in the British capital. Naturally the mother wanted to be where her children were. She lived with James in Chelsea, still helping him as much as she could. She would soon be corresponding with his patrons, running his household, training the servants, and coping with his rushes of inspirations. Anna recalled such an event to her sister Kate Palmer in early November of 1871: '…then we [James and Anna] took a Hansom Cab as it is an open carriage and for a shilling drive we were soon at our gate, the river in a glow of rare transparency an hour before sunset, he was inspired to begin a picture and rushed upstairs to his studio, carrying an easel and brushes, soon I was helping by bringing the several tubes of paint he pointed out that he should use and I so fascinated I hung over his magic touches till the bright moon faced us from the window…' (#10071). The cooperation between mother and son resulted in the production of one of the most beautiful nocturnes James ever produced, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, and in the famous portrait, which gave her immortality, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother y101.
Anna never stopped writing throughout her life and she knew how to shape her epistolary style to suit the person in question. Her letters generally afforded their recipients much gratification. As she divulged much of her true inner self in them, she was insistent in many cases that they should never be shown but rather be destroyed. She directed her children as well as friends to burn her letters. Yet there is nothing scandalous or shocking about the contents, as such. She kept her private affairs distinct from the society life that she observed and occasionally disapproved of. Her private, courteous, sensible, loyal, caring, strict and dynamic qualities are reflected in her letters, each one of which is full of historical references and allusions. She would often be effusive in her sympathy, believing her own intense feelings to be shared by others. 'You & I have been ever since we first knew each other sympathisers in our joys & sorrows' she writes to Mr Gamble (#06565).
In 1875 she retired to Hastings, due to ill health, where she was to live until her death six years later. Of course letter writing continued, as it was the only means of maintaining the friendships, family and social connections of her earlier life. It was also this lonely woman's way of giving and eliciting much-needed affection.
Record Group 405, National Archives, Washington, DC; James McNeill Whistler Papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library; Elizabeth Mumford, Whistler's Mother: The Life of Anna McNeill Whistler, Boston, 1939; K. R. MacDiarmid, Whistler's Mother: Her Life, Letters & Journal, unpublished MS. in Glasgow University Library, n.d.; MacDonald, Margaret F. (ed.), Whistler's Mother: An American icon, Aldershot, 2003.