Book Review: Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

The cover "Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extranordinary Life." The title is set within the famous "Whistler's Mother" painting, to the left of the sitting woman.

I make the best effort I can to read at least one non-fiction book every month. I think there is always benefit and enjoyment to be had in learning about the world around you (or, in the case of history books, the world before you), and it also is an important part of maintaining my chops as an editor, something like unofficial continuing professional development.

The cover "Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extranordinary Life." The title is set within the famous "Whistler's Mother" painting, to the left of the sitting woman.
Image courtesy Yale University Press
 Author: Daniel E. Sutherland & Georgia Toutziari
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33
Language scaling: C2+
Summary: The biography of Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of the modernist painter James McNeill Whistler and the woman in the portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1., known colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother.”
Recommended audience: Those interested in art history, nineteenth century American history, or feminist history.
In-depth thoughts: Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler’s Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.
Like other, more historical non-fiction I’ve received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it’s from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna’s own correspondence. This is part of the reason I would grade the language as highly as I do: this is correspondence that is 150 years old, give or take a decade.
But for anyone with a committed interest in the subjects I mentioned earlier (art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens), it may be a read that is worth the work.
*in exchange for this review

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