Whistler's Mother is LeBron James

Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James

‘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 Whistler's Mother is LeBron James, Eliisabeth Ebsworth is second to none

Elisabeth Ebsworth, second to none

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.


Remember, we’re always seeking new writers, photographers, whatever-ers for the COA artist family. If you’d like to get paid for your craft and have it promoted on our dime, please drop us a line through the Contact Us form.


New Writer Welcome: Thorsten Sahlin

Please join the COA family in welcoming our newest writer, Thorsten Sahlin! Thorsten’s bio will be available shortly on our About page. Subscribe to COA so you don’t miss his upcoming debut piece ‘Whistler’s Mother is LeBron James.’

Q: If you’ve ever had a opportunity to dispel a common misconception about Swedes, this is it. Go!

My family is a couple generations over so I don’t have a ton to say that would incorporate any firsthand experience in the country. Although, as conversations go, people will generally inquire about the derivation of my name. When they find out It’s a Swedish name, 90% of the time they will say something to the tune of “but you’re not even blonde”. Many people are under the impression that Brigitte Nielsen and Dolph Lundgren have spawned the entire nation. Truth.

I don’t know if it’s genes or upbringing, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I’m actually the embodiment of several Swedish clichés. I’m pretty shy and reserved with strangers. I look through the peephole to make sure there is no one in the hall when I leave. I get anxiety walking my dog because people see having a dog as a conversational invite. Small talk isn’t my scene. I would say 25-35% of my diet is some variant of smoked fish.

I think the most Swedish thing I’ve done was participate in the procession of St. Lucia when I was very young. It’s a festival where children don robes and march with candles to celebrate St. Lucy, a martyr from the 3rd century. I was the only boy in the procession so I assumed the robe was a dress. I remember thinking “huh, so I guess my crazy mother is just going to be dressing me like a girl now.” That’s a pretty disconcerting scenario for a 5-6 year old who can count all his friends on one finger.

Q: What made you pick Chicago, and now that you’re here will you stay?

I used to tell people I came here to go to SAIC. In reality, I moved here for a girl. I don’t necessarily regret living in Chicago, but I regret the circumstances which brought me here. I had a good thing going in Seattle, but I was drinking too much and that definitely inhibited my decision making.

I had an old friend come visit me out there and she brought a friend of hers with whom I got along quite well. I kept in touch with her after they left. I think I visited her in Chicago a few times, she came back to Seattle once or twice and eventually I just decided to move here. I applied to SAIC so it would look like I was coming here for another reason. The fragility of my ego at the time wouldn’t let me go anywhere to be with another person, so I had to come up with something…

It was a pretty whirlwind development. At the time, I was generally inebriated 6 days out of the week. I don’t know how I got it together to meet someone, get along so well, and then move to another city in a 3-month span. Not surprisingly, the whole thing fell apart like a month after I got here. We broke up, I dropped out of SAIC and had to do some serious “find myself” things. After some terrible career experiences and a little self-improvement, I decided at 30 to return to school and finally finish my degree. It’s going well now and I’m almost done.

I’m not sure about staying here. My girlfriend and I have a lovely spot with our dog, and I’m pretty content with Chicago at the moment. A lot of it depends on my Master’s degree. I’m applying to a plethora of Universities, so it’s up in the air as to where I’ll be in a few years. I do know that I’m not geographically settled yet. There are so many more places I want to experience.

Q: Malort? Seriously?

Swedes know what’s up. I don’t really indulge anymore, but I can safely say it’s the best thing Chicago has to offer.

Looking out your own peephole drinking Jameson: Creepy as all hell.

Looking out your own peephole drinking Malort: Comedy Gold.

Thorsten Sahlin in the most shameless, writery headshot one could fathom.

Thorsten Sahlin in the most shameless, writery headshot that one could fathom.

Q: You’re currently a School of the Art Institute (of Chicago) student. What else have you been and how will it influence what you write about for COA?

I’ve worn a hat or two in my lifetime, but I can safely say the most important thing I have been to date is a train-wreck. I’ve had a slew of interests and occupations in my life and I’ve self-imploded through all of them; mostly through drug and alcohol abuse. You know, writer stuff. I’m very fortunate that I haven’t lost much do to external circumstances. Much of my grief in life has been self-imposed.

I think you can let a fact like that devour you, or you can shoot it in the junk and proudly strap it to the hood of your DeLorean.

I’ve undergone a personal renaissance over the last few years. I’ve taken up marathon running and rock climbing. I pursue activities that simultaneously strain me mentally and physically. Much of my success in these endeavors is rooted in the need to overcome those negative aspects of my past.

Watching yourself transform as an individual gives you a hypersensitive insight. Whatever I write about; whether it be sports, art or songs from the 90’s about butts, I’m bringing said insight and striving for improvement. That’s what it’s all about right?


Remember, we’re always seeking new writers, photographers, whatever-ers for the COA artist family. If you’d like to get paid for your craft and have it promoted on our dime, please drop us a line through the Contact Us form.