This is one of six Nocturnes that Whistler painted of Cremorne Gardens in London. The gardens were situated at the west end of Chelsea on the river, only a few hundred yards from Whistler's residence in Lindsey Row. They could be reached by foot or by steamboat, and offered a variety of entertainments, including restaurants, theatres, a 'stereorama', a gypsy grotto, a maze and an indoor bowling alley. In all his depictions of the gardens, Whistler ignored the dancing and music which were major features of the nightlife there and focused on the more mysterious and ephemeral activities, such as the nightly display of fireworks. Both this work and The Falling Rocket (1875, The Detroit Institute of Arts) show the climax of one of the pyrotechnic displays which were held every evening on the Cremorne fireworks platform, known as the Grotto. A crowd of spectators, their backs turned to us, are watching in awe the spectacular Catherine wheel as it revolves in the night sky, throwing off a shower of sparks. A tiered fountain strung with fairy lights is just visible to the left of the picture, with trees to left and right.
Whistler sought in his Nocturnes to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquility of the Thames and its environs by night. It was Frederick Leyland who first used the name 'nocturne' to describe these moonlight scenes, suggesting the concept of evening, or night, but with musical associations. The expression was quickly adopted by Whistler, who later explained,
By using the word 'nocturne' I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first (quoted in Dorment & MacDonald, p.122).
He never painted his Nocturnes on the spot, but rather from memory in his studio, employing a special medium devised for painting swiftly in oils. He thinned his paint with copal, turpentine and linseed oil, creating what he called a 'sauce', which he applied in thin, transparent layers, wiping it away until he was satisfied. In this picture he used thin washes to give the impression of smoke blowing across the velvety darkness. He then dripped paint across the surface to convey the effect of the fireworks, and brought the figures to life with deliberate, studied brushstrokes. His intention was to preserve the mood of the Cremorne Gardens, as they appeared to him, by not describing the scene too literally.
Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, no.56, pp.133-4, reproduced in colour p.134.
Andrew McLaren Young, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer with the assistance of Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James MacNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980, no.170, reproduced in colour plate 153.
4 December 2000