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By Jane Bower — is a consultant for primary schools in art, drama, dance and literacy

Study pose, proportion and position by looking at Whistler’s Portrait of the Painter’s Mother

This section focuses on Portrait of the Painter’s Mother (1871) by James McNeill Whistler (see back cover for the portrait), one of the most memorable and famous portraits in the world. It is an excellent starting point when exploring portraits, as it offers opportunities to study pose, proportion, colour and composition.

Introductory activity

  • Begin with an exploration of the picture with the class. If you can gather any other examples of portraits by Whistler (such as Symphony in White, No. 1; The White Girl (1862), Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux (1881), or Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret (1883-1884)), they will be a very helpful aid to the discussion.
  • Provide the children with the Essential facts below to add understanding to their study. Then discuss with them the pose of Whistler’s mother. It is likely that, as she was elderly, Whistler chose a position that would be both natural and typical of her. (Note the footstool under her feet.) Yet it also seems a stark and uncomfortable chair for an old lady. Hand out copies of Activity sheets 4 and 5, and ask the children to note the proportions in Whistler’s portrait. Discuss the titles of Whistler’s paintings given above – what do they tell us about his priorities when painting?

Ages 7-9

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