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“Nocturne in Black and Gold” by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

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

“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 distinguishes 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 a 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.

Art for Art’s Sake

Art for art’s sake—the usual English translation of “l’art pour l’art,” a French slogan from the early 19th century.

The phrase that expresses the philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only ‘true’ art, is divorced from any teaching, moral, political, or utilitarian function.

“Art for art’s sake” became a bohemian creed in the 19th century. A slogan raised in defiance of those who thought that art’s value was to serve some moral or didactic purpose.

It was a rejection of politicizing art. Art for art’s sake affirmed that art was valuable as art in itself.

The movement believed that artistic pursuits were their own justification and that art did not need moral justification, and indeed, was allowed to be morally neutral or subversive.

James McNeill Whistler wrote:

“Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone…
and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it,
as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.”

A Latin version of this phrase, “ars gratia artis,” is used as a motto by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and appears in the circle around the roaring head of Leo the Lion in its motion picture logo.

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″)
  • Category:                  American Artist
  • 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 his vision.”
– James Abbott McNeill Whistler


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

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