Nocturne: Blue and Silver–Cremorne Lights by James McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler

Nocturne: Blue and Silver–Cremorne Lights, 1872, Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 74.3 cm, Tate, London, N03420, © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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Long Rumours of Wisdom

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Spike Bucklow

This painting is a view from London’s Battersea Bridge, looking upstream. The lights of Cremorne Pleasure Gardens and their reflections in the Thames are on the right, and the lights and chimneys of Battersea are on the left. The broad river, night sky, and blurred skyline are all painted wet-in-wet in blended shades of grey whilst, by way of contrast, the small lights and reflections are crisply defined spots and streaks of yellow, added once the greys were dry.

This quiet work was one of a series that caused a storm when first displayed. In an open letter, the critic John Ruskin accused James McNeill Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ (Fors Clavigera no.79). A court case ensued and, in 1878, Ruskin argued that the Nocturnes glorified urban industrialization and lacked moral or didactic purpose—things he believed to be primary functions of visual art. He thought the paintings superficial and sensationalist. Whistler won the case but was awarded token damages, was bankrupted, and had to leave the country.

As the book of Job recounts, the misfortunes that can beset us come in many forms and can be very unexpected. Ruskin, for example, thought he was defending the moral high-ground but the court case precipitated the end of his career. The visual arts may depict afflictions, but they can also be the result of them (like Goya’s late work Yard with Lunatics, c.1793–4, painted after an illness (Connell 2004)) or even, as in this case, their cause.

Whistler managed to rebuild his career in Venice and Paris, and received several international awards through the 1880s and 90s. The Nocturnes are no longer taken as an affront to the unsuspecting public; their delicate qualities are now widely appreciated and Whistler’s work is recognized as influencing subsequent generations of painters. However, arguments similar to Ruskin’s have been levelled against many artists in the intervening 140 years.

The ‘rumour’ of wisdom (v.22), like that of artistic merit, can take a long time to corroborate.

 

References

Connell, Evan S. 2004. Francisco Goya: A Life (New York: Counterpoint)

Ruskin, John. 1891. ‘Letter 79’ in Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, vol. 4 (Philadelphia: Reuwee, Wattley & Walsh), pp. 61–75 [73]

Sutherland, Daniel E. 2014. Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (New Haven: Yale University Press)