‘Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James’ Thorsten Sahlin’s first piece for COA. You can check out his new author Q&A piece here if you want to know a little more about people that actually enjoy Malort or being from everywhere and nowhere all-at-once.
It is not without an eye roll that I hear about a world-famous painting exhibiting at the Art Institute of Chicago. Individuals who normally wouldn’t spend 1.5 seconds on a lesser-known painting come in droves to view a work because someone else told them it’s important. With this in mind, I had reservations about going to see Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (Whistler’s Mother). Is this epitome of all things matronly worth trudging through the galleries of screaming children? Is it worth listening to their khaki-baptized parents summarizing the description from the pamphlet to one another as if these are their own takeaways from the piece? Oddly enough, the answer for me is almost always yes. After, all someone told me it’s important.
Viewing an artwork that is such an integral part of the art history canon is paradoxical. It’s exciting, but it’s preceded by a familiarity that can dampen said excitement. The rocking chair, the curtain, the vaguely defined painting resting at her eye level were all there; as I had expected. What I did not expect however, was the enthusiasm I had once I was face to canvas with it. Anna McNeill Whistler has become a comic vehicle for film, propaganda posters, cartoon characters, and countless memes. The image has become prodigiously familiar to all, and as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In spite of that, I felt no contempt, only awe; struck by her sheer superstar status.
From the painting itself, to its hulking sunken frame, to the protective glass that has reflected back the eyes of millions, Whistler’s Mother is a badass. Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James.
I should iterate, the NBA finals just wrapped up, and I cannot help but relate everything to basketball. Whistler’s Mother sits there, stoic, unperturbed, comfortable in the fact her legacy will be near unforgettable and yet, like LeBron in the finals, she was somehow being outdone. There was a Kevin Durant in this situation, someone wrenching greatness from the hands of the King (or Queen in this case) if even for a moment, and her name is Elizabeth Ebsworth.
I followed the gaze of Whistler’s Mother into the next gallery and it landed squarely on John Singer Sargent’s large scale portrait Mrs. George Swinton (Elizabeth Ebsworth). The shared glare between the two constructed an allegory of social and generational rivalry worthy of exploitation on the BRAVO channel (Bonnets VS. Tiaras… I’d watch that). Sargent’s painting is the visual antithesis of Arrangement in Black and Gray No. 1.
Mrs. Swinton stands tall, her gown capturing shimmering swaths of light and brilliantly reflecting them via Sargent’s painterly strokes of titanium white. She is alert, her right hand on the chair beside her, her left placed saucily on her hip. Like Durant, this was her moment.
If you watched the NBA finals this year with no previous basketball knowledge, it would not be a stretch to consider that Kevin Durant is the better player than LeBron. Granted, LeBron went off frequently, and would have been the clear MVP had the Cavaliers won, but with the exception of 2 games the Cavs were systemically dismantled by the Golden State Warriors. That dismantling came mostly at the hands of Durant. He was a historically elite Swiss army knife through five games, averaging 35 points, 8 assists, and 5 boards against the Cavs. Like Ebsworth, he exhibited grace, confidence, and when the ticker tape settled, it was Durant standing there with the Bill Russell MVP award.
Unfortunately for Ebsworth and Durant, MVP moments, and quick gallery visits are fleeting.
There is no doubt Durant will be remembered as a PHENOMENAL player, but he will never carry the legacy that LeBron does. The case is similar for the Sargent and Whistler paintings. While beautiful and technically proficient (in my opinion more so than Whistler’s piece), Mrs. George Swinton is one of MANY well executed portraits of wealthy young women from the mid-20th century. You can throw a dart and hit several in any museum.
Whistler’s Mother and LeBron are unique unto themselves; perfect storms of technique and “what the f**k?”.
They have outgrown the respective fields of basketball and art criticism. Sargent’s piece may shine stronger on first glance, but it doesn’t really matter, Whistler has already won. Future art enthusiasts will celebrate Whistler’s Mother for its presence in pop culture and its deviation from more traditional subject matter, while Sargent’s Mrs. George Swinton will be just another beautiful portrait having lost its relevance to time.
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