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Nocturne by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne- Blue and Silver - Chelsea

Nocturne by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

A Tour of James Abbott McNeill Whistler – Nocturnes

“Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea” by James Abbott

“Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is the artist’s earliest in his London Nocturnes series.

This painting is the first of thirty-two nighttime landscapes that Whistler began calling “nocturnes.” His biographers describe his process as:

“His method was to go out at night[…] stand before his subject and look at it, then turn his back on it and repeat to whoever was with him the arrangement, the scheme of color, and as much of the detail as he wanted. The listener corrected errors when they occurred, and, after Whistler had looked long enough, he went to bed with nothing in his head but his subject. The next morning, if he could see upon the untouched canvas the picture, he painted it; if not, he passed another night looking at the subject.”

All the nocturnes were painted with extremely fluid paint that allowed Whistler to build thin layers of luminous color.

The liquid mixture was so thin that the wet canvas had to be painted flat, so the paint would not run.

Whistler’s ‘butterfly’ signature is in the center of the bottom edge of the painting, imitating a “chop” seal as an homage to the influence of traditional Japanese art.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea

  • Title:                          Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea
  • Artist:                        James McNeill Whistler
  • Year:                         1871
  • Medium:                   Oil paint on wood
  • Dimensions              w608 x h502 mm
  • Museum:                  Tate Britain


Nocturne painting is a term coined by James Abbott McNeill Whistler to describe his painting style that depicts scenes evocative of the night and of subjects that appear in a veil of light.

In broader usage, the term has come to refer to any painting of a night scene. Whistler used the term within the title of his works to represent paintings with a dreamy mood.

He also titled works using other terms associated with music, such as a “symphony,” “harmony,” “study,” or “arrangement,” to emphasize the tonal qualities and the composition.

The use of the term “nocturne” can be associated with the Tonalism movement of American artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Tonalism was an artistic style that emerged in the 1880s when American artists began to paint landscape forms with an overall tone of colored atmosphere or mist.

The movement was characterized by a soft, diffused light, muted tones, and faint outlined objects.


Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

James McNeill Whistler - Nocturne- Blue and Gold - Southampton Water

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water by James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an early 1870s step for the artist toward abstraction with his Nocturnes series.

Whistler captures the stillness of evening while evoking the artistry of music in the tonal harmonies of twilight.

Whistler has depicted an inlet along the English Channel near Southampton obscured by the approaching night.

Vessels appear as ghostly shapes, and shadowy forms by the twilight as the fragmented moon is seen on the horizon.

The work provides an example of Japonisme style, which was a significant influence on Whistler and many other Impressionists during this period.

The flattened, silhouetted forms are typical of contemporaneous Ukiyo-e prints. The monochromatic color washes, visible brushstrokes, and subdued composition echo Sumi-e.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water

  • Title:                         Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water
  • Artist:                        James McNeill Whistler
  • Year:                          1872
  • Medium:                   Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions              Height: 505 mm (19.88″); Width: 760 mm (29.92″)
  • Museum:                   Art Institute of Chicago


“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Whistler-Nocturne in black and gold

“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler depicts a fireworks display in London’s Cremorne Gardens.

The painting exemplified the Art for art’s sake movement. It is one of his series of Nocturnes and the last of the London Nocturnes. Whistler’s depiction of the city park includes a fireworks display in the foggy night sky.

It is fundamentally composed of three main colors: blue, green, and yellow. The billowing smoke provides a clear distinction between the water and the sky, where the separation blurs into a cohesive space.

Dabs of yellow enliven the exploding fireworks in the misty air. The figures watching are almost transparent, their shapes general and simplistic.

Whistler had perfected his splatter technique with the ability to make an object or person with what appeared to be nothing more than a single flick of paint.

Although Whistler’s critics denounced his technique as lacking artistic merit, Whistler spent much of his time and with meticulous details in his painting.

This painting is famous for the inception of the lawsuit between Whistler and the art critic John Ruskin.

The Artist sues the Art Critic – Whistler v. Ruskin

This painting was the central issue of a libel suit that involved the art critic John Ruskin and the artist. Ruskin had publicly slandered the work with his statement:

“I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Ruskin’s harsh critique of “The Falling Rocket” caused an uproar among owners of other Whistler works, and sales of his works declined, which pushed Whistler into financial difficulties.

With his pride, finances, and the significance of his Nocturne at stake, Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. In court, Whistler asked the jury not to view it as traditional painting, but instead as an artistic arrangement.

Whistler won the libel suit; however, he was awarded only the token damages of one farthing.

It has been suggested John Ruskin suffered from CADASIL syndrome, which caused visual disturbances. This condition might have been a factor in his irritation at this particular painting.

Ruskin reported in his diaries of having visual troubles consistent with the disease.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

  • Title:                          Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
  • Artist:                        James McNeill Whistler
  • Year:                         1872
  • Medium:                   oil on panel
  • Dimensions               Height: 60.3 cm (23.7″); Width: 46.4 cm (18.2″)
  • Museum:                  Detroit Institute of Arts

James McNeill

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 – 1903) was an American artist active during the American Gilded Age and based primarily in the United Kingdom.

He was averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, and was a leading proponent of the credo “art for art’s sake.”

He found a parallel between painting and music and entitled many of his paintings “arrangements,” “harmonies,” and “nocturnes,” emphasizing the primacy of tonal harmony.

Whistler influenced the art world and the broader culture of his time with his artistic theories and his friendships with leading artists and writers.


An American in London: Whistler and the Thames


“An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
– James Abbott McNeill Whistler


Photo Credit: 1)  James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain]

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