The Lowell Home Where Artist James McNeill Whistler Was Born Has Been Preserved for Future Generations.
The easy thing is to refer to the Whistler House Museum of Art as one of the Merrimack Valley’s hidden treasures.
It is somewhat hidden: Though it’s less than a five-minute walk from Lowell’s striking city hall, the house, built in 1823, is tucked away on a side street, not easily visible from the main roads nearby.
And it certainly is a treasure: a multipronged attraction that features a variety of acclaimed art collections in a historic home.
But relegating the birthplace of renowned American artist James McNeill Whistler to “hidden treasure” status doesn’t begin to do the site justice. A “hidden treasure” has come to mean something “nice” in the area. A slice of Sal’s pizza is “nice,” a Spinners day game is “nice.”
The Whistler House Museum of Art is something far beyond that: It’s an essential must-see element of the local arts community.
“Come see where whistler first met his mother” is the museum’s clever tag line. And, indeed, one of the main reasons to visit is to view an exact copy to scale of Whistler’s classic “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” better known to the world as “Whistler’s Mother,” done with the permission of his cousin Edith Fairfax Davenport.
But there is so much more to take in: etchings by Whistler, palettes he used in his studio, works by other famous American artists including John Singer Sargent, Aldro Hibbard and Frank Weston Benson, as well as works by Armenian abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky.
The Whistler House’s permanent collection focuses on late 19th century and early 20th century American representational art, with special emphasis on the artists of New England.
“The bulk of our collection features artists who were part of the Boston Guild that founded the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Rockport Art Association,” says Sara Bogosian, president of the board of trustees and acting executive director of the Whistler House.
The art is on display in a restored and historic home that’s a museum itself. The grounds feature a Victorian garden replete with a sculpture of Whistler done by Mico Kaufman. There is also a rear courtyard area that begs to be the site of an outdoor tea party. The house and grounds can be rented for special occasions.
“What amazes me is on a weekly basis we have international travelers visiting the house from Australia and England and Spain and France and Germany and South America,” Bogosian says.
“They visit us and we tell them all about the American Textile [History] Museum and the [New England] Quilt Museum and the [Lowell] National [Historical] Park and Western Avenue artists’ studios, and all of a sudden they are not just thinking about the Whistler House, but how Lowell in general is a wonderful place to visit.”
The museum attracts about 6,000 people a year, a number Bogosian believes should be larger, and the solution may lie in getting more locals to visit.
“A lot of people are not aware of us,” she admits. “We need to get the word out. It’s too good a place. I bet if you walk down most streets in Lowell and asked people at random about the Whistler House, many have not been here yet.”
The Whistler House is also home to the Lowell Art Association, the oldest incorporated art association in the country. As a result, the Parker Gallery, which is adjacent to the main house, frequently exhibits the work of local artists and often hosts events in the Moses Greeley Parker Lecture series. There is an artist-in-residence program, two additional rooms set aside as studios for local artists, youth art programs and adult classes.
“The arts is a sort of a common language,” Bogosian says. “It’s understood by everyone, and perhaps through the arts you can get families to become more a part of the community.”
Yet with all that, there is a simpler reason for visiting the Whistler House. James McNeill Whistler’s works have been on display in respected galleries around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris .
In his time, Whistler was a fashionista and bon vivant, so well known that even the famed British comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus once recorded an imaginary scene in which the artist traded wickedly amusing barbs with Oscar Wilde.
In other words, he was an international renaissance man of his era. “So here we have this famous American artist,” Bogosian says, “who is loved and renowned worldwide, and it’s sort of cool he was born right here in the city of Lowell on the second floor of this house.
Whistler House Museum of Art