James McNeill Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’

22 Dec

When James McNeill Whistler first exhibited his Nocturne series in 1877 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, he enraged John Ruskin who wrote of the exhibition that Whistler was “asking two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge circa 1872-5 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Gold; Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-75

Whistler sued Ruskin, and their little ‘art quarrel’ reached the court in 1878. Ruskin couldn’t understand why Whistler asked for 200 guineas for a painting which needed merely two-days work. On that question Whistler cunningly replied that the amount of money wasn’t for the two-days of work, but for the knowledge he had been acquiring all his life. This is a wise thought which could easily be applied to all artist; all the emotions, memories, thoughts and associations which the artist imbued in his artwork will forever remain a mystery. What is known, what I write here, is only scratching the surface, and endless interpretations which are subjective. Just like Marcel Proust said: ‘An hour is not just an hour, it is a vessel full of perfumes, sounds, plans and atmospheres.‘ (In Search of Lost Time) A painting is all those things as well.

Another thing that angered Ruskin, and majority of art critics, were the titles of the paintings, such as ‘Nocture’ in this case. Other typical Whistler-style names were ‘harmony’, ‘symphony’, ‘study’ and ‘arrangement’. In 1872, he wrote to Frederic Leyland, an amateur musician who inspired Whistler for his musically inspired titles: I say 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 that I want to say and no more than I wish. As for the composition, it was clearly derived from Japanese woodblock prints which Whistler loved just like his contemporaries, the Impressionists.

This case symbolically represents the deep gap that divided artists in the second half of the 19th century. Ruskin, who was older, hoped he could raise an awareness of beauty among people by appealing to their morals, while Whistler, who later became the leading figure in ‘aesthetic movement’, argued that the artistic sensibility is the only thing in life that has value. As the 19th century progressed, both viewpoints gained in importance. Which viewpoint is more your cup of tea?

Advertisements

5 Responses to “James McNeill Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’”

  1. Gea Austen 24th December 2015 at 8:39 am #

    at this moment need a cup of tea ,,, !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gea Austen 28th December 2015 at 8:40 am #

    this reminded me of Hokusai
    ““From the age of 6 I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”
    ― Hokusai Katsushika…..

    he is probably the artist I most admire… art is an accumulation of learning ,, life,, emotions,, everything, as Whistler said “Whistler cunningly replied that the amount of money wasn’t for the two-days of work, but for the knowledge he had been acquiring all his life” I’m rather amazed and impressed by this story.. and rather amused by how seriously these two took art.. certainly the painting roused deep passsion !! which is right,, but to go to court .. not sure,,
    maybe an agree to disagree approach would have been better,, surely art encompasses all of these things,,morals, aesthetics, beauty and more, one does not exclude the other ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Byron's Muse 29th December 2015 at 11:02 am #

      Thanks for commenting, I actually had that Hokusai’s quote in my mind! 😉 Peace…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gea Austen 29th December 2015 at 11:50 am #

        How strange,, its lovely isn’t it ? So optimistic .. and I think true x

        Liked by 1 person

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. John A. Grimshaw – Dreary Victorian Streets | Byron's muse - 19th November 2016

    […] rests on his townscapes with gas-lit streets of late Victorian England. Another Victorian artist, Whistler, praised Grimshaw, saying: ‘I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: