Arago: Exhibits

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FDR & Mother's Day

United States Master Collection, Scott 738

The 3-cent Mothers of America Issue stamp featuring "Whistler's Mother" was issued on May 2, 1934.

United States Master Collection

The 2-cent Famous Americans Issue stamp honoring artist James Whistler was issued September 5, 1940.

FDR Drawing Mothers of America design

President Roosevelt’s original hand drawn design for the Mother’s Day postage stamp issue.

In 1933, Mrs. H. H. McCluer, the past president of the American War Mothers, requested a stamp honoring America's mothers be released by the Post Office Department. Postmaster General James A. Farley approved of her idea, and President Franklin Roosevelt suggested using the 1871 painting by James M. Whistler entitled “Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother.” More commonly known as “Whistler’s Mother,” the painting shows a frail and quiet woman sitting against a plain wall. Many consider Whistler one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth century. James Whistler was born in Massachusetts but spent the majority of his life in London. James Whistler followed in his father's footsteps to West Point but did not graduate. In addition to painting, Whistler employed his skills as an engraver to produce many different types of print work. The Tonalist Movement influenced Whistler's paintings in the later years of his distinguished career.

The Post Office Department followed the suggestion of President Roosevelt and portrayed “Whistler’s Mother” on the Mothers of America Issue postage stamp. However, if the full piece had been depicted, it would have been too hard to see the mother figure. As a result, the Post Office Department cropped the painting and added flowers to the left corner. Manipulating Whistler's original painting was somewhat controversial at the time the stamp was issued. On one hand, some complained the stamp sullied Whistler’s work. On the other hand, the stamp was not meant to primarily honor Whistler’s painting. It was intended to celebrate all mothers by concentrating on the mother figure in the painting.