After Whistler’s Mother

“Take the picture of my mother, exhibited as an ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black.’ To me it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?”
– James McNeill Whistler

The pages of the history of art
open to Whistler’s Mother. A portrait
of Madonna, arranged in grey and black.
She’s draped in realist shapes and has much aged
since weeping in medieval garb. Composed,
she now looks onward into time, always

a woman only halfway seen, always
enfolded in her son’s vision of art.
He thinks of her as symphony, composed
by brushwork in a minor key. Portrait
without subject, for meaning in that age
belonged to only color. Silvers, blacks.

So Whistler said. And yet, the widow’s black
is weeping past her skirt’s outline. Always
a blush will blossom wrongly at her age.
There’s vague discomfort in unfinished art,
as if the painter, forming his portrait,
faltered—could not bring himself to compose

or complete that ancient composition
of Madonna with child. Amidst her black,
she clutches cloth. Missing from the portrait
is someone’s death or someone’s birth, always
both at once. Absence is the lesser art.
While Whistler’s masterpiece is passed from age

to age, his mother will ripen, aging,
patient. She waits for her son to compose
that strain of art which forgives life: an art
where profiles crack and blocky rooms of black
drink sunlight through a curtain’s part. Always
these flecks of forlorn grace should be portrayed;

home to the restless heart. For in portraits
which hold a mirror to their fallen age,
the shades of redemption emerge, always.
And an artist, whose call is to compose,
will find this speckled gold within the black.
A mother holds her son. A prayer of art

 is said. Another portrait is composed.
An age of history fades. The deepest black
is always washed with whispers His art.

Sheila Mulrooney's work has appeared in Dappled Things, The Agonist Journal, The Society of Classical Poets, America Magazine (forthcoming), and elsewhere. She received her Masters from the University of Toronto and works in Rochester, NY.

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