This painting is one of the series of 'Nocturnes' done by Whistler in the 1870s which represent the fullest and most extreme development of the aesthetic theory of 'art for art's sake', derived from the French poets and art critics Th?ophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. As Whistler put it in his own formulation, '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 ...' The mention of the ear is significant, since the Nocturnes mark the beginning of his use of musical titles and his retrospective re-titling of earlier works. The theory of 'Correspondences', of links between the different senses, was pervasive in the mid-nineteenth century and is highly complex, but for painters like Whistler it was mainly a question of a basic analogy: just as music functioned through the effect of a pattern or arrangement of sounds which, though they may be evocative, in no way imitate any other reality, so painting could similarly function through relationships of colour, and patterns of objects whose reality has been transformed into simple, aesthetically pleasing shapes. In the twentieth century this idea was extended, in the work of Kandinsky for example, to encompass forms which were, in effect, completely abstract. Whistler was also strongly affected by Japanese art of which he was a collector and connoisseur. His work reveals particularly his assimilation of the Japanese emphasis on decorative surface pattern and their treatment of objects or figures in terms of bold, flat simplified outlines. The stylised treatment of Battersea Bridge, which was in reality much lower than it appears here, was probably based on a Japanese print of a bridge by Yeisen, a pupil of Hokusai.
Whistler took the term 'Nocturne' from the piano pieces of that title by Frederic Chopin, and used other musical terms, Symphony, Arrangement, Harmony, Variation, for other kinds of picture. The Nocturnes themselves were based on evening, or even night views of the Thames at Chelsea and Battersea where Whistler lived, and the expanse of water and sky, with buildings shrouded in mist or darkness clearly gave him precisely the vehicle he needed for the most extreme manifestation of his art. The paintings were done from memory in his studio, based on observation and some notations in black chalk on brown paper done the evening before. In his famous 'Ten O'Clock' lecture delivered in London. Cambridge and Oxford in 1885 and published in 1888, Whistler reveals something of the poetic attitude behind the Nocturnes: 'And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, then the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us ...'
Whistler's intense concern that his paintings should be objects of pure aesthetic effect extended to the frame and even the signature. He designed and decorated his own frames to harmonise with the painting and adopted a pictorial signature, a highly stylised butterfly, the form and placing of which he varied according to the needs of the picture. In this case, remarkably, he has removed it from the picture altogether and placed it on the frame.
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.100