James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea

1871

On display at Tate Britain

Artist
James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834–1903
Medium
Oil paint on wood
Dimensions
Support: 502 x 608 mm
frame: 685 x 825 x 45 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander 1972
Reference
T01571

Summary

Painted in August 1871, this is the first of Whistler's Nocturnes. In these works Whistler aimed to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquility of the Thames by night. It was Frederick Leyland who first used the name 'nocturne' to describe Whistler's moonlit scenes. It aptly suggests the notion of a night scene, 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 and MacDonald, p.122).

Returning from a trip by steamer to Westminster, Whistler was inspired, one evening in August 1871, by a view of the river 'in a glow of rare transparency an hour before sunset' (Anna Whistler, the artist's mother, in a letter to Julia and Kate Palmer, 3 Nov. 1871, quoted in Dorment and MacDonald, p.122). He immediately rushed to his studio and painted a sunset (Variations in Violet and Green, private collection) and this moonlit scene at one sitting. The picture is painted on panel, primed with dark grey paint, over which Whistler applied thin layers of pigment in order to create a contrasting sense of luminosity. The view is from Battersea looking across to Chelsea, and it is possible to make out features on the horizon, such as the tower of Chelsea Old Church on the right. In the foreground, a low barge and the figure of a fisherman are indicated with the minimum of detail, and the influence of Japanese art is evident in the restricted palette, the economy of line and the characteristic butterfly signature.

This picture was exhibited, along with its pair, at the Dudley Gallery in November 1871. The critic for the Times revealed a rare appreciation of Whistler's Nocturnes, describing them as follows:

They are illustrations of the theory … that painting is so closely akin to music that the colours of the one may and should be used, like the ordered sounds of the other; that painting should not aim at expressing dramatic emotions, depicting incidents of history or recording facts of nature, but should be content with moulding our moods and stirring our imaginations, by subtle combinations of colour, through which all that painting has to say to us can be said, and beyond which painting has no valuable or true speech whatever' (The Times, 14 November 1871).

Further reading:
Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, pp.122-3, no.46, reproduced in colour p.123.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.206-7 no.79, reproduced in colour p.207.
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.
103, reproduced in colour plate 106.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

Display caption

Whistler painted this view from Battersea Bridge looking across the Thames towards Chelsea. The tower of Chelsea Old Church is just visible on the right, and a fisherman stands in the foreground looking out to a low barge. It was the first of Whistler’s series of nocturnes: paintings intended to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquillity of the River Thames in the evening or by night. The influence of Japanese woodblock prints is evident from the relatively small range of colours and the butterfly device at the lower centre, which Whistler used as his signature.

Gallery label, November 2016

Catalogue entry

James Abbot McNeill Whistler 1834–1903

T01571 Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871

Signed with a butterfly and dated‘71’ in a cartouche at bottom. The frame, designed by Whistler, is also signed with a butterfly motif.
Oil on panel, 19 11/16 x 23 15/16 (50 x 60.8).
Presented to the National Gallery by the Misses Rachel F. and Jean I. Alexander under the terms of a Deed of Gift 1959; entered the collection as N06418 in 1972.Transferred to the Tate Gallery 1972.
Coll: Purchased from the artist by William Cleverley Alexander 1871; his daughters Rachel and Jean Alexander.
Exh: Dudley Gallery, 1871 (265); Grosvenor Gallery, 1879 (192); Société des XX, Brussels, 1884; Goupil Gallery, 1892 (18); Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1902 (34); Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, 1904 (250); International Society of Sculptors, Painters & Gravers, 1905 (West Room, 31); Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, 1905 (72); Whitcchapel Gallery, Spring 1907 (Upper Gallery, 33); Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1910 (25); Tate Gallery, 1912 (21); The New English Art Club Retrospective Exhibition, Spring Gardens Gallery, 1925 (149); Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, 1937 (484); Two Hundred Years of British Painting, New York, St Louis, and San Francisco, 1956–7 (118); Arts Council Gallery, London and Knoedler Galleries, New York, 1960 (26); The Alexander Gift, National Gallery, 1972.
Lit: E. R. & J. Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 1908, I, repr. facing p.162; Denys Sutton, Nocturne; The Art of James McNeill Whistler, 1963, p.64, repr. in col. pl.III.

This is probably the earliest of Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’. First exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1871 as ‘Harmony in Blue-green— Moonlight’, its title had been changed to ‘Nocturne in Blue-Green’ by the time it was next exhibited, at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879. A label on the back, perhaps in Whistler’s hand, reads: ‘“Nocturne in Blue Green/Nocturne en Bleu vert— “/J.A.M. Whistler, London’. At the Goupil Gallery in 1892, however, the picture appeared as ‘Nocturne Blue and Silver— Chelsea’. Whistler adopted the term ‘Nocturne’ in 1872 on F. R. Leyland’s suggestion. In a letter, presumably of that year, he wrote to Leyland: ‘I say, I can’t thank you too much for the name “Nocturne” as the title for my moonlights. You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me; besides, it is really so charming, and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish!’ (Val Prinsep, ‘A Collector’s Correspondence’, Art Journal, 1892 p.252; the original letter is in the Library of Congress, Washington.)

T01571 was painted at Whistler’s house at 2 Lindsey Row (96 Cheyne Walk). The view is from the Battersea side of the river, looking towards Chelsea church. The picture was bought from the Dudley Gallery exhibition by William Cleverley Alexander who afterwards commissioned Whistler to paint portraits of his daughters Cicely and Agnes Mary Alexander (Tate Gallery, N04622, N05964).

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.

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