Tag Archives: Ruskin

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?

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