Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910

JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER 1834-1903

79 Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea 1871

Oil on panel 50.2 x 60.8 (19 3/4 x 23 7/8)
Signed with butterfly and dated '71'
Prov: W.C. Alexander 1871; by descent to the Misses R. and J. Alexander, by whom given to the National Gallery by Deed of Gift 1959; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1972
Exh: Dudley Gallery 1871 (265, as Harmony in Blue-Green); ?Durand-Ruel, Paris 1873; Grosvenor Gallery 1879 (192, as Nocturne in Blue-Green); ?Paris 1883 (5, as Nocturne en bleu et argent); ?Brussels 1884 (2, as Nocturne en bleu et argent, No.1); Goupil 1892 (18, as Nocturne, Blue and Silver - Chelsea); London 1905 (31, as Nocturne in Blue and Green); Paris 1905 (72); Tate Gallery 1994 (46)
Lit: Sutton 1966, pl.65; Young et al. 1980, no.103

Tate Gallery. Bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander

This is chronologically the first of Whistler's Nocturnes. It was painted in August 1871 as pair to a daylight scene (Variations in Violet and Green, private collection; Young et al. 1980, no.104) which continued the mood of the 'Six Projects' (see no.16) while increasing the importance of the landscape in relation to the figures. Here the single figure is reduced to a mere suggestion and the picture is explicitly and almost exclusively concerned with the effect of twilight on water. The artist's mother recorded that she and her son had just seen together 'the river in a glow of rare transparency an hour before sunset'; Whistler 'was inspired to begin a picture & rushed upstairs to his Studio'.

There are vestigial topographical details: the tower of Chelsea Old Church on the horizon to the right indicates that this is a view across the Thames from Battersea, but there is clearly no intention to convey geographical or social information. The influence of Japanese prints is very evident, as much in the artist's butterfly signature as in the simplification of the image, but it is worth noting that while Japanese prints were nearly always very specific in their reference either to recognisable places or to social events and characters, Whistler borrowed only their clarity of design, never their documentary function. The French critic Th?odore Duret, in the course of a long appreciation of what was almost certainly this Nocturne in 1881, pointed out that Whistler had 'chosen as his subject a river and its banks, for after all he needed a motif to carry (porter) the colour' which is the true subject of the picture (quoted in Young et al. 1980).

As with the 'Six Projects' the apparent absence of subject-matter is compensated by the deliberate naming of a musical form in the title. The name 'Nocturne' was not Whistler's own invention; it had been suggested to him by F.R. Leyland who, as a pianist (see no.16) would naturally have been thinking of Chopin, and was evidently prompted by Whistler's own use of the term 'Symphony' in some of his recent titles. It was enthusiastically adopted by the artist, even if a somewhat perverse choice in so far as this and some others in the series are not strictly night scenes but scenes of dusk or twilight.

The incorporation of both natural and artificial light into the design can be related to a long tradition of night scenes in Western art going back at least to Elsheimer; here the delicacy of the contrast in the context of exquisitely tender tonal variations refers once again to music rather than to any painted precedents. The implied contrast between this tranquil idyll and the busy Thames of the daylight hours, with its steam barges and pollution, makes for a particularly poignant sense of the tension between the achievements of civilisation and the poet's need for quiet and calm. In a well-known passage of his 'Ten O'Clock Lecture' Whistler spoke of the moment '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, and the warehouses are palaces in the night'. He professed to be an artist of the world, of an artificial society in which raw nature had no place. It is in the Nocturnes that that claim becomes transparent. Despite their generalisation, they are nevertheless true to a vividly experienced reality. They are pictures that crystallise the intensely personal, existential relationship between the painter and nature.

There is in any case an inherent ambiguity in the fading light of late evening. Denys Sutton has argued that the choice of twilight as a subject 'accorded with certain definite contemporary preoccupations', and speaks of 'the consolations afforded by night, as when Dante Gabriel Rossetti, tortured by recriminations and a prey to melancholy, wandered through the London streets on his nocturnal excursions'. He adds that 'the moment of nightfall, l'heure bleue, which appealed so deeply to Whistler, is one when dreams and regrets are engendered: reveries envelop the mind; and passions, too, as Baudelaire had disclosed in Les Fleurs du mal' (1966, pp.27-8). The Nocturnes, then, are central statements of the Symbolist position. See also no.80.

Andrew Wilton

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, 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