James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Musée d'Orsay

Triptych in Color
by Caroline Johnson
    —after viewing James McNeil Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1," Art Institute of Chicago


Whistler painted his mother with thin paint, black on gray,
a tulle bonnet framing her stern, stoic face. She clutches
a frilled handkerchief, looks tired though she is seated.
Her gigantic ebony gown covers everything but her Puritan
feet, which rest on a wooden box. Perhaps it was the Sabbath.
Did anyone bring her flowers? Did she ever smile?


If I painted my mother, it would be all color. A yellow sundress,
fresh cut daffodils, blonde hair and a Marilyn Monroe smile.
Perhaps she would be seated around a table painting ceramics,
which is what she liked to do when she wasn't hosting parties.

On another canvas, she holds the hand of my dying sister.
What you can't see is our upright Kimball. What you can't hear
are the fragile melodies my sister used to play, the way I
performed the same songs years later at my parents' dinner
parties, my mother humming along and swaying her body.


I can imagine Whistler's mother and my own sitting together.
Whistler would be in the next room, painting his new masterpiece.
Then they would ask me to play. I'm no artist, but the relief
of putting fingers to black and white keys carries me to a softer
time, when I was younger and holding my mother's hand.

Previously published in The Caregiver (Holy Cow! Press, 2018)


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