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When Whistler arrived in London in 1859 he was painting in the French Realist style developed by Gustave Courbet. But soon he decided he needed his own distinctive artistic voice. Recognizing he had not taken advantage of the opportunities he had been offered in Paris, he set for himself a course of re-education, one which included studying classical sculptures and Japanese woodblock prints.

“They are lovely, these fogs. And I am their painter!”
   – James McNeill Whistler

Those years of experimentation and study in the 1860s would result in the paintings that provided the bridge to the pictures that are his greatest legacy. With Variations in Flesh Colour and Green: The Balcony, he found his subject, the urban landscape; with Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, he saw that by limiting his palette to just a few colors, as the Japanese did, he could achieve the effect he was seeking.  The result of these two discoveries would be his most controversial and enduring creations, the Nocturnes.

Prior to the Nocturnes, Whistler had been painting en plein air, from direct observation of his subject, as with The Balcony. He would sit by the river or look out a studio window to make his pictures.  But this traditional approach proved problematic for achieving the ephemeral look he was now seeking.

Southampton Water

“Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Southampton Water,” 1872, Oil on canvas, Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago, Stickney Fund

Whistler had learned a method of drawing based on memory training from artists Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros, and began to experiment with this way of “seeing.” Boatman Walter Greaves would row him on the river at night, and the artist would commit what he saw on the river to memory. The next day he would return to the studio to paint that memory with pigments that he had mixed to a thin watercolor-like consistency, color which could be applied quickly and arranged in horizontal bands across the canvas. “Paint should not be applied thick,” he cautioned. “It should be like breath on the surface of a plane of glass.”

The Nocturnes, first produced in the 1870s, offered a visual impression of the river. Whistler had initially named these river pictures “moonlights.” Patron Frederick Leyland suggested the musical term “Nocturne”.

“I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a 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!”

   – James McNeill Whistler, 1872

Falling Rocket

“Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket,” 1875, Oil on panel. Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts, gift of Dexter M. Ferry Jr.

Whistler’s ambition had been to “put form and color into such perfect harmony that exquisiteness is the result.” The Japanese influence, once largely decorative, had given way to an assimilation of its formal qualities of perspective and composition. He flattened the picture plane by raising the horizon line to suggest two dimensions, not three, and used colors restrained in tone and contrast. Whistler’s technique had achieved the fluidity that he sought; subject matter, once narrative, was increasingly abstract.

The Nocturne was Whistler’s most original contribution to modern art. The most abstract of these, Falling Rocket, would provoke an important event in art history. When critic John Ruskin reviewed Whistler’s Nocturne as “a pot of paint” flung “in the public’s eye,” Whistler sued for libel. He went to trial, and argued that the artist — not the critic – has the right to define what makes art. The trial was a watershed moment, and with it, Whistler would become an acknowledged precursor of twentieth century abstraction.

Daniel Sutherland Whistler Biographer
He’s trying to find a way to depict nature as he sees it. It’s not a literal depiction of nature. The painter adds his, his own sense of atmosphere, his own sense of emotion if you will. And Whistler was constantly struggling, trying to find that way.

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