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.
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 
Sutherland, Daniel E. 2014. Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake (New Haven: Yale University Press)
28“Surely there is a mine for silver,
and a place for gold which they refine.
2Iron is taken out of the earth,
and copper is smelted from the ore.
3Men put an end to darkness,
and search out to the farthest bound
the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4They open shafts in a valley away from where men live;
they are forgotten by travelers,
they hang afar from men, they swing to and fro.
5As for the earth, out of it comes bread;
but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6Its stones are the place of sapphires,
and it has dust of gold.
7“That path no bird of prey knows,
and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
8The proud beasts have not trodden it;
the lion has not passed over it.
9“Man puts his hand to the flinty rock,
and overturns mountains by the roots.
10He cuts out channels in the rocks,
and his eye sees every precious thing.
11He binds up the streams so that they do not trickle,
and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
12“But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
13Man does not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
14The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’
and the sea says, ‘It is not with me.’
15It cannot be gotten for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed as its price.
16It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
17Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
18No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
19The topaz of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
20“Whence then comes wisdom?
21It is hid from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
22Abaddon and Death say,
‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.’
23“God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
24For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
25When he gave to the wind its weight,
and meted out the waters by measure;
26when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the lightning of the thunder;
27then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
28And he said to man,
‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.’ ”