Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, by James McNeill Whistler (1875)
One of Whistler’s most remarkable paintings, Nocturne in Black and Gold, subtly rich in tone and with bright bits of color, bankrupted him as a result of a libel suit. A famous art critic, John Ruskin, had accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” and for the nerve of asking two hundred guineas for the result. Whistler asked the court not to consider this work as a traditional representational painting but rather as what he termed an ‘artistic arrangement.’ Its purpose was therefore not strict visual representation, for which a photograph would be more suitable. Instead, he sought to evoke the experience of having been at the depicted waterside gardens after dark during a fireworks display.
When asked by Ruskin’s attorney how long it had taken him to paint the canvas, Whistler frankly admitted that it was just a few hours. But then, he added, that even so, it took a lifetime of learning to create the work. Whistler won the lawsuit. But he was awarded the smallest amount possible, one farthing, which financially ruined him.
Whistler had identified himself with the at-that-time daring phrase, ‘art for art’s sake.’ Viewers new to his work may find themselves using the title, Impressionist, to characterize his ‘artistic arrangements.’ With such paintings, he may appear to be connected with other painters identified by that label, as he was a contemporary with many of them. He shared their strong interest in newly discovered Japanese wood block prints by artists such as Hiroshige. And, like the Impressionists, he often sought to capture his subjective apprehension and experience of a particular scene, rather than depict it objectively in the way that ‘photorealist’ painters more recently have sought to do.
And yet, in contrast to those formally identified as Impressionists, Whistler often worked with a more limited palette, extensively employing black and various shades of gray as well as those of taupe, while seeking what he called a tonal harmony. As a result, though he was not averse to working with bright color, his use of it tended be more limited as compared with paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir. Further, while valuing atmospheric effects like his predecessor, JMW Turner, Whistler was also a gifted draftsman who periodically pursued precision in representation. This can be seen in many of his portraits, and in the way his paintings often feature linear boundaries for defining areas of tone and color within a composition (such as in his self-portrait, Arrangement in Grey, below).
I will follow up on this posting with a second one regarding Whistler’s painting, next week, when I will reflect upon the connection between his Nocturne in Black and Gold, and his Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, commonly mis-titled as Whistler’s Mother.