James McNeill Whistler

The Beauty of a Whistler ‘Arrangement’


Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, by James McNeill Whistler (1871)

This post continues the prior one featuring Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold (scroll below)


Whistler was sensitive to some similarities between his approach to painting and the realm of music, and often gave his paintings titles that suggest this connection. He chose words for naming them like arrangement, harmony, symphony, as well as nocturne – a word the composer Debussy (upon whom Whistler’s art had a profound effect) chose for some piano works. Perhaps the most significant commonality between music and some of Whistler’s paintings (as well as with modern abstract art) is that instrumental music is rarely representational in the sense of being about depiction. Instead, such music seeks to convey meaning by evoking sensation and emotion within the listener. For example, Ferde Grofé’s orchestral Grand Canyon Suite is less an effort to describe or portray that magnificent geological locale than it is a means by which the composer can express, and evoke in listeners, the sublime experience of wonder encountered by many who visit there. Understanding this point helps us appreciate Whistler’s goal with many of his paintings, and especially his nocturnes.

For these reasons, Whistler’s most famous painting is probably his most misunderstood. His Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (note Whistler’s title), yet commonly referred to as Whistler’s Mother, clearly demonstrates the painter’s ability as a gifted portraitist. As with many such paintings, Whistler communicated a positive regard for his model, inviting us to share his appreciation for the person. Yet, by comparing this painting with a photograph of his mother helps us perceive his primary intent.

For Whistler did not choose in the painting to represent his model by a frontal or three quarter view (as in her photo), but from the side, in profile. With the title providing an important clue, Whistler’s principal goal with this painting was less to depict his mother than achieve an overall tonal composition. In a large painting, predominantly comprised of a study of shades and of subtle color, these tonal elements nevertheless help highlight the beauty of his sitter’s face.

As different as the three paintings featured here and in my prior post may appear, they have much in common in terms of the painter’s sustained interest in continuing to study a range of shades and subtle colors, as well as in an overall composition or ‘artistic arrangement.’ In this respect, the work of the 19th century Whistler in some ways foreshadowed paintings like those of the 20th century abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, as well as the figurative works by Francis Bacon.

The Beauty of a Whistler Nocturne

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.

The Beauty of Gray



When asked, I used to say that gray was my favorite color. Correctly, some would respond that gray is not a color, but the series of shades marking the region between black and white. Gray often represents a mixture of the two in pigment.

Examined more patiently and reflectively, and in a less technical way, gray is alive with color–but subtle color. Just look up “Payne’s grey” (note, U.K. spelling), and you will see.

Perhaps my childhood in Japan, as well as my adult experience in England, formed my appreciation for the beauty latent within the world of gray. I love James McNeil Whistler’s paintings, and especially those that employ fields of gray permeated with subtle color. Many of these were influenced by Japanese prints.

I consider these things as I reflect on the recent film, The Giver. Though people will say it starts “in black and white,” I think it can be described more properly as immersing us in a visual field of gray. The film is compelling, and not simply sentimental or youthfully romantic (which it might easily have been), because of how positive aspects of this gray world are thoughtfully presented. A thematically ‘black and white’ film would portray a more polarized contrast between the forgotten past of color, which included both conflict, hate and violence as well as their alluring opposites, and a hypothetical present world, deceptively gray, where—eerily— all seems well. A gray world might imply moral ambiguity rather than moral neutrality.

As we emerge from adolescence into adulthood, don’t we seek stability as we move away from the up-and-down emotional life of our teenage years? Don’t we assume that monastics—like us— seek something spiritually akin to a world of gray, enabled by their departure from our world of distraction, competition and self-promotion?

The Giver risks presenting a gray world as desirable, and then fearfully threatened and upset by a young man’s journey into the forgotten past. There is beauty to be found almost everywhere, in a world filled with heart-breaking contrasts of emotion and alive with color, yet even in one where affectively numb persons find everything appears in a field of gray.

I don’t question the value of the hero’s journey, nor its evocative results. Yet, I continue to muse about what made the gray world attractive to those who shaped and promoted it. Simplicity, even a morally reductionist simplicity, has abiding appeal.


Above: James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water (1872). Note the reference to color in the title of a very gray-looking painting.