Whistler's aim in this picture, as in all his Nocturnes, is to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquility of the Thames by night. The epithet 'nocturne' was first suggested by Frederick Leyland, since it conveys the sense of a night scene, but also has 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).
The composition of this work, with empty foreground and high horizon, relates closely to Nocturne in Blue and Silver - Chelsea (Tate T01571) of the previous year. The view is from Battersea Bridge, looking upriver towards Battersea on the left and the lights of the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens on the right. Whistler preferred the calm of the river at night to the noise and bustle of the Thames by day. With would set off in a rowing boat at twilight and sometimes remain on the river all night, sketching and memorising the scene. He never painted his Nocturnes on the spot, but rather from memory in his studio, employing a special material 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.
This particular scene is painted over a composition of four or more robed figures. Whistler presumably rubbed down the figure composition before adding a thin layer of pinkish grey paint, with which he worked out the main features of the river scene. The expanse of blue sky and water, creating a phosphorescent surface right across the canvas, enhances the mood of peace and tranquility. The orange lights of the pleasure gardens twinkle in the distance, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere. The reeds and raft in the foreground are barely indicated, with deft, calligraphic strokes of paint. The influence of Japanese art is evident here, and also in the restricted palette, the economy of line and Whistler's characteristic butterfly signature on the right.
Richard Dorment and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1994, p.124, no.47, reproduced in colour p.124.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.207-8, no.80, reproduced in colour p.208.
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. 115, reproduced in colour plate 110.