When James McNeill Whistler first exhibited Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket in 1877, the tiny (60.3 × 46.6 cm) painting ignited a massive public debate.
As the title suggests, the painting depicts a fireworks display at night. The scene is Cremorne Gardens, a popular gathering place beside a bridge over the River Thames in London. However, it was not the subject matter that was controversial, it was the way Whistler depicted it – as a mostly black and gray surface splattered with droplets of yellow, with the only recognizable elements being a few ghostly, humanoid forms lingering in the bottom of the frame.
In his own words Whistler stated:
I did not intend it to be a ‘correct’ portrait of the bridge. My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour.
His hope was that the colors would incite viewers to experience a sense of mood or atmosphere. He wanted emotion, not recognition.
The painting was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery, which had only just opened, and which billed itself as dedicated to showing works outside of the British mainstream. John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the time, attended the show. Ruskin already had a reputation for despising anything out of the mainstream. He trashed the painting in his review, writing that the gallerist “ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture.” He continued:
I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.
Ruskin portrayed Whistler as lazily trying to foist an unfinished work onto the public, when in fact the painting was grounded in theory and techniques that had taken Whistler decades to perfect. In response, Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and won.
The backlash nonetheless devastated Whistler financially and shattered his reputation amongst his old collectors. It also, however, cemented his reputation amongst younger artists who understood his efforts and followed in his conceptual footsteps, proudly and publicly calling themselves his pupils.
Whistler painted Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket in the midst of what we now call the Aesthetic Movement. This movement emerged at the start of La Belle Époque, or the Beautiful Era, a time when all across Western Europe the culture was filled with optimism and economic prosperity.
Inspired by Impressionist artists who prioritized the element of light in their paintings, artists associated with the Aesthetic Movement rejected the idea that art had to be realistic, or have any narrative content at all. They focused on individual aesthetic qualities, emphasizing anything they perceived as beautiful. Color, tone, texture and line were no longer used in service to some other topic of interest – they were themselves the topics of interest.
As Whistler pointed out, if the height of artistic expression is simply to faithfully copy what already exists, the photographer would be the “king of the artists.” The Aesthetic Movement was about searching for what else a painter might be able to introduce to a painting beyond what is readily seen in the world.
Aesthetic Movement artists sought to capture the feeling, the emotion, and the drama of life. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was an attempt to convey the mystical apparitions that appear and disappear out of the fog at a fireworks show. What looked to the critic like splattered paint was actually an energetic attempt to capture the fleeting dynamism of sparkling fire-lights. The painting was grasping at something primal and subconscious: the fear and wonder of walking through the city streets at night.
After Whistler won his libel case against the critic, he published a transcript of the trial as part of a book titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. The book is invaluable, as it memorializes what were the common biases towards visual art in the late 19th Century, not just in Victorian England but all over the Western world. “Detail and composition” and “correct representation” are exalted as essential signifiers of true art. Even another artist who was called to testify in the trial called the “picture” Whistler painted “only one of the thousand failures to paint night.”
The witty responses Whistler delivered made it clear that he did not even consider the painting to be a “picture” at all. He considered it a tool of transcendence offering every individual viewer the chance take a personal journey of self-discovery. He advocated for the entitlement of the viewer to see whatever they want to see, and to feel whatever they want to feel. And he slammed critics, saying, “they spread prejudice abroad; thousands are warned against the work they have yet to look upon.”
Even though Whistler was right that he indeed made many enemies by daring to leap head first into the blurry and yet undeveloped world of abstract art, he also made many friends, though he may not have lived to meet them. His paintings and words inspired artists like Hilma af Klint, who was 15 years old when Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was created, and who wholeheartedly embraced the mystical qualities of color, line and shape; Wassily Kandinsky, who decades later embraced the abandonment of image as the epitome of spirituality in art; and Jackson Pollock, who proudly, brilliantly, and quite literally flung pots of paint in the face of the public. The bravery Whistler demonstrated by daring to show his nocturne paintings in the first place, and then stand up for his ideas in public, may have irreparably damaged his career. But he taught generations of future artists the value and beauty in abstraction, and the importance of laying waste to the prejudices of the past.
Written by Phillip Barcio.
Featured image: James McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold- The Falling Rocket, 1875, detail.