Whistler's Mother Gives Way to Younger Woman The somber portrait known to most of us as "Whistler's Mother" is out of the latest edition of Janson's History of Art. A more colorful painting by James McNeill Whistler -- of a younger subject -- has been substituted.
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Whistler's Mother Gives Way to Younger Woman

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Whistler's Mother Gives Way to Younger Woman

Whistler's Mother Gives Way to Younger Woman

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

And this final note for the week. If it's not nice to fool Mother Nature, it's downright sacrilegious to mess with Mother Whistler. But that is just what's been done in the latest version of a legendary survey book, Janson's History of Art. Scholars have revised a hefty chunk of the 44-year-old reference bible, the seventh edition published this month. And for the first time Janson's History of Art does not include James McNeil Whistler's iconic portrait of his mother, painted in 1871 and named by the artist, Arrangement in Gray and Black. We know it as Whistler's Mother. She's painted in profile sitting in an uncomfy looking straight chair. Anna Matilda Whistler wears a long black dress and poses against a gray wall, arrangement in gray and black, get it?

Mrs. Whistler appears the prim and proper Victorian lady, a woman not to be trifled with. So who are these people to decide that Whistler's mother no longer belongs on the pages of Janson's History of Art, and why? Well, six scholars revived the book to update it, make it more teachable. Scholar and curator Joseph Jacobs was the one who offed Mrs. W. He replaced her with a different Whistler, again a woman in profile but this one is pretty and young. Symphony in White No. 2 is the title.

Is this anti-motherism? Academic ageism? Jacob says it is a better teaching tool. The pretty woman is holding a paper fan. You can teach students about Japanese influence on Whistler's paintings. Actually, the composition is more interesting than arrangement in gray and black. And it's got colors. But it's the difference between icon and art. Mrs. W is an icon.

Now, Joseph Jacobs is clearly not anti-icon. Curiously he has decided to include for the very first time American Gothic by Grant Wood. Can you believe that hasn't been in Janson's History of Art until now? A certifiable icon, but is it great art? Well, there's no accounting for taste or teaching tools, I guess. Janson's Art History is aimed at all those people who say I don't know a thing about art but I know what I like. The history is designed to teach us some things about art, but we don't have to like it.

(Soundbite of song)

STAMBERG: Come home, mama, at 18 past the hour.

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