Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold - A Revolution

December 8, 2020

The period from the 1870s to about 1900, known as the Gilded Age, marks an era of rapid economic growth in the United States enforced by industrialization, urbanization, and most importantly railroads. The country was developing fast, and so were the social circumstances. The culture was nurtured by the new rich, the art scene was formed with notable proponents that eventually gained international recognition.

One of the leading figures of that time, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a notable painter, printmaker, and interior muralist born into a wealthy family affiliated with the railroad business. While spending his time between England and Russia, where his father worked as a railroad engineer for the tsar Nicholas I, young Whistler received his first art lessons. Many employments proved not to be stimulating enough for the perky young man, who thought that art was the only profession he would commit to.

Around the mid-1850s Whistler settled in Paris and he quickly embraced the bohemian lifestyle. During those years he barely sold any work and was forced to paint and sell copies of masterpieces found at the Louvre. After health issues struck, the artist finally consolidated and met the circle around Gustave Courbet. His career gradually moved and by the 1860s Whistler's painting was widely noticed; during that time, he painted his most acclaimed landscapes series called Nocturnes in London.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket is one of the paintings from the series that came to special prominence for its puzzling, yet enchanting quality. After it was displayed for the very first time, it sparked quite a controversy, leading the artist to a lawsuit with the leading art critic at the time, John Ruskin.

Although Whistler is still best known for the iconic painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 or simply Whistler’s Mother, this one is far more revolutionary in purely painterly terms as it is widely described as the first proto-abstract artwork.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge, circa 1871 - 1874. Oil on canvas, 47 cm (18.5 in) x 62.3 cm (24.5 in). Burrell Collection. Image Creative Commons.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

This unique painting was produced by Whistler in 1875 and is considered the epitome of the Art for art's sake movement, based on the philosophy that the art should be deployed of any political, moral, didactic, or utilitarian function to be true.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was originally shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877 and was inspired by a celebrated pleasure resort in London known as the Cremorne Gardens. It is the last work in the Nocturnes series focused on depictions of different night scenes or moments, as Whistler used to claim, that features the splendor and magic of the fireworks in the night sky.

The painting is entirely composed of bleak tones, with green, yellow, and blue as the three dominant colors. What provides the whole scene a ghostly evocation is the smoke that blurs the line between the water and the sky. Misty air sprawls across the composition and wraps all the familiar shapes of human figures and other features in bewildering and rather abstract fantasy. The artist’s signature that imitates characters found on Japanese prints adds additional flavor to the overall impression.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, detail, 1875. Oil on panel, 60.2 x 46.7 cm. Collection Detroit Institute of the Arts. Image Creative Commons.

The Whistler-Ruskin Feud

After the acclaimed British critic and a champion of the Pre-Raphaelites John Ruskin saw this painting, he was furious with its content, accusing Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The supporters of Whistler’s work were appalled by Ruskin’s critique while the artist himself was aggravated to such an extent that he decided to sue the famed art critic. Whistler hoped to redeem £1,000 plus the costs of additional expenses.

The trial occurred the following year, in 1878, due to Ruskin's poor health; Whistler’s financial state collapsed as his reputation was damaged. The artist hoped several of his colleagues would take a stand as witnesses, but eventually, all of them refused in fear for their own status. The jury was not convinced by Whistler, and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was accidentally presented upside down during the trial. Although his explanation of the work proved fruitless, the artist got the case, but only a farthing. The trial costs were charged on both ends, ultimately leading Whistler to bankruptcy.

Here it is important to note that John Ruskin had a pick on Whistler’s work long before this case came to trial. Four years earlier, the art critic had stated that Whistler's art is absolute rubbish. The American painter was not the only artist haunted by Ruskin: Henry James also experienced his tyrannical behavior, which is believed by scholars to be the result of CADASIL syndrome from which John Ruskin suffered.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel, 1875. Oil on canvas. Image Creative Commons.

The Significance of the Painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Despite the complete chaos, he found himself in, James Abbott McNeill Whistler managed to recuperate after the commission to produce twelve etchings in Venice. During the 1880s his career improved – his book was published, he became a member of the Society of British Artists in 1884, and two years later its president, his popularity was rising along with the positive critical reviews and new commissions.

Despite being marked by a huge controversy, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket shows an enormous innovation of the artist who decided to avoid any form of narration while being focused on formal aspects of his work. Looking from the contemporary stance, this painting evokes different emotions according to the philosophy of Art for Art's Sake movement and underlines the night as the time when anything seems possible. After all, it is a prime example of Whistler’s close examination of the Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Velázquez, as well as Japanese art, and a work of art that encapsulates both his virtuosity and vigor.

Editors’ Tip: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: Illustrated Edition

Vertex Editions is proud to present the only illustrated edition of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, with 117 black and white images of paintings, drawings, and etchings by Whistler and a few other artists in his circle. Included is a catalogue of Venice etchings and a catalogue of paintings. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies is a compilation of published articles, essays, and letters documenting the public debate between Whistler and his critics, which attained an infamous reputation for its comically polite insults. This is also the only edition with a comprehensive index that will be useful for art historians, critics, researchers, and students.

Featured image: James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875. Oil on panel, 60.3 cm (23.7 in) x 46.4 cm (18.2 in). Collection Detroit Institute of Arts. Image Creative Commons.

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