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.


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As Seen at Half-Mast, Port Huron, MI

who decides to lower flags to half staff (half-mast)?

Old Glory at half-mast, plus Joe Riedy & William Horn, Kings of the Port Huron sidewalk. View on COA Instagram.

“Hot dogs will be ready in ten minutes,” William Horn, proprietor of the Carter’s Concessions cart calls out as though there were more than just the four of us standing there solving all the world’s problems.

Who sets the rules for flags at half-mast? Governors? Local officials? The ripping, snapping stars and stripes in front of the Port Huron Public Library are at 50%.

All four of us has opinions and no one has answers. All we know is that something grim happened.

Joe Riedy, a Vietnam vet and veterans affairs apostle handed out American flags on Memorial Day stamped ‘Made in China’. We agree that there’s solid ground for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture of American flags in anywhere but the US of A. Write your congressman today.

The National Guard is the only US military squadron that comes back as a unit. I lose track of Joe is saying as my mind pictures that trip home, in the only way a civilian mind can, which is largely based on summer blockbusters about war. It occurs to me that one would find peace in returning with a squadron. That even without words, the healing wouldn’t wait for the VFW hall if you can gaze at your compatriot and know immediately, that in ways people like me will never know, you will never be alone. Hot dogs will be ready in 18 seconds says William Horn. The man’s a perfectionist.

A half mile to the east and within eyeshot is the Dominion of Canada, another nation just past a shipload of iron ore, 26 thousands tons or more, making its way up the St. Clair to the lake that gave Port Huron her name.

Port Huron, MI city hall, just across from Sarnia, ON, Canada. [Half-Mast]

Port Huron city hall and Canada just beyond her. Click to follow COA on Instagram

I tell Joe I’m second-generation railroader. His father or uncle or both worked for the railroad. “Trunk?” I ask. Grand Trunk Railroad, yes sir.

Once upon a time we all worked for the railroad and once upon time we all went to war.

“Democracy is a participatory sport,” is the QOTD. Make sure to remember that quote, dummy, I told myself. Small victories.

Joe keeps telling William to raise his prices but he doesn’t listen or is too much a man-of-the-people.

And I suppose that’s the beauty of our ten minutes across from the Port Huron Public Library where the flag flies at half-mast because the unpredictable will always happen. Never did any of us paint in broad-strokes (“X people are always ____” “political party X never can yadda yadda”). We were all most-assuredly from different backgrounds and all have had to be bigger than their own biases on any number of occasions.

Once you see how the other half lives you learn that the only thing you can come close to knowing or controlling is yourself. There’s Peace in acceptance.

And at the end I was pulled aside by a Soldier of Christ, a late-comer to our sidewalk powwow. He was a veteran of a different kind of war. In his super-terrestrial war there’s only winners or losers. You’re either in or you’re out. It’s clear cut. We agreed to disagree. On what grounds, he asked me.

“Because we’re all in this together,” I told him. “And democracy is a participatory sport.”

Evidently I’m going to Hell.

If you get an opportunity to contribute to the Buddy to Buddy program veterans assistance program please do. We’re all in this together!