James McNeill Whistler painted his mother on impulse, when she came to London to escape the American Civil War, forcing him to evict his mistress from his house. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between Whistler’s outrageously flamboyant life in London—where he famously befriended Oscar Wilde and Dante Gabriel Rossetti—and the subdued, touchingly melancholic depiction of his Puritan mother he entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black.” This portrait has become one of the world's best-known paintings and an American icon, yet we know remarkably little about it.
While restoring the painting for the Louvre, Sarah Walden became intrigued by the extraordinary and complex history of the painting, which had never been fully explored. From French, British, and American sources, Walden uncovers the intersections between Whistler’s flawed genius, his struggle for recognition, his troubled relationship with his mother and mistresses, and the unprecedented historical response to his greatest work. Walden’s findings read like a detective story, and her controversial and progressive views on art restoration combine with biography and criticism to create a gripping narrative that skillfully weaves history and aesthetics into a seamless tapestry.
Sarah Walden is one of Britain’s most accomplished restorers. She trained at the Courtauld Institute and in Rome, and has lectured at Harvard University. She has worked at the Tate Gallery, the Louvre, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and been entrusted with canvases by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, Holbein, Gauguin and Picasso. A critic of the Anglo-American style of restoration her book The Ravished Image, with a preface by Sir Ernst Gombrich, did much to raise the level of the debate about conservation of national art treasures.
"The book is entrancing. Walden's is a view we seldom get: the detail of individual brush strokes and choices of paint and varnish. Her respect for the particular lets you see both the good and the bad of the overall construction and the result is absorbing."—Christine Stansell, London Review of Books
"What Walden reveals about the immense subtleties of Arrangement in Grey and Black has implications not only for art historians, but for anyone interested in the continued possibilities of painting today."—Ned Denny, Daily Mail
"A brilliant new book. . . . . There is something almost unbearably poignant about this story. Suddenly Whistler, the social gadfly who never learned to paint properly, rose briefly to lasting genius when confronted with the awesome task of painting the mother he loved. He also launched the flamboyant tradition of American 20th-century art. . . . Walden manages to convey both the excitement of restoration and the thrill of unearthing the mysteries surrounding this great painting."—Sue Corrigan, The Mail on Sunday
"Walden's command of art history and of painterly technique is splendidly displayed in a text thick with detail, spruced with judicious quotation and trimmed with precise gossip. The result is that rarity, a technical study to be relished at a single sitting, rather as Whistler would have liked to paint his portraits 'in one wet.'"—Frederick Raphael, The Spectator
"An intriguing account of what it was like for Sarah Walden to restore Whistler's famous painting. . . . Walden, a restorer at the pinnacle of the painting restoration tree, tells her story, and his, in a style that is charming and scholarly, but never dry."—Katie Campbell, Evening Standard
“Through Weldon’s work on the canvas, and now through this detailed and loving story of the painting, we get to see Whistler’s work anew.”—Rob Hardy, Times of Acadiana
"Walden engrossingly tells the story of Whistler's composition, and her own attempt to restore some of its former surface brilliance, with all the attention to detail one would expect from one in her trade."—Robin Blake, Financial Times Magazine
"Whistler's portrait of his mother is one of the most famous paintings in the world, and few are better qualified to write about it than Sarah Walden, who restored the painting when she was working at the Louvre. Her book is both a technical analysis of the work and an account of the circumstances of its composition."—The Week
"Seldom has a single painting been probed so thoughtfully from so many angles—including the technical, which art historians too often slight. . . . Walden's perspective is unique and invaluable. Highly recommended."—Choice
"A fascinating, easily read account of an icon."—Booklist
“Enlightening. . . . I see the painting more deeply than ever.”—Don Delillo, author of Underworld
“Fascinating and beautifully written.”—Saul Bellow, author of Seize the Day
“Sarah Walden’s insights into Whistler are absolutely unique and of the highest importance.”—Richard Dorment, coauthor of James McNeill Whistler
“Original both in terms of conception and new research.”—John Golding, author of Cubism: A History and an Analysis 1907–1914