art masterpiece: whistler

At the Piano by James Whistler 1858-59

I have found that 1st graders are obsessed with death.  I think they are trying to make sense of it.  Each week I go in someone always asks if the artist is alive and if I say no (which I usually do) they want to know when, how old and how.  This picture was interesting because it touches on the subject of death and keeping someone alive in memory. 

About the Artist
James Whistler was born in Massachusetts and moved to Russia with his family when he was 9 years old. When James was 15 his father died and his family moved back to the United States. At 17, he worked for the government making maps. At 21 he went to Paris to become a painter and at 25 went to England where we stayed.  He never returned to the United States. He died at 1903 at the age of 69.

What do you see in the painting? Do you think he knew the people in the painting? Who are they? How old is the little girl? This is the artist’s half sister Deborah and her daughter Annie, 10 years old. The painting is showing his half sister playing the piano as her father once played for her.

Why do you think they are dressed this way? Deborah is mourning the death of her father 10 years earlier. Black is the color for adults to wear when mourning the death of someone.  White is the color for Victorian children to where while mourning.

This painting was created in 1859, 152 years ago. The name of this painting is At the Piano and is one of the artist’s first paintings. Deborah is playing the same piano that she used to play with her father.

What does this painting sound like? Both mother and child have a look of seriousness and concentration creating a mood of quiet music and memory.

How do you think the artist felt when he painted this picture? Why do you think he painted it? This is how he wished to keep his father’s memory alive.  This was painted 10 years after his father’s death. This is a mirror of his father and sister playing at the piano, now his sister and her daughter are at the piano. I don't know if Whistler's sister really played piano with her daughter like her father did, but I hope so. It is a nice thought that she cherished those special moments with her father and therefore had them with her daughter.

If you wanted to paint a favorite memory of your father or mother what would it be? The kids really love this kind of question. It allows them to talk about their life and I think it helps them relate to the artist on a more personal level.   

For me, a memory I would like to paint would be a picture of my parents laughing and dancing.  They always knew how to have fun (and still do)!

How about you, what memory would you want to paint?

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