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Creator:
James McNeill Whistler, 1834–1903, American, active in Britain (from 1859)
Title:

Nocturne in Blue and Silver

Date:
1872 to 1878, butterfly added ca. 1885
Medium:
Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Support (PTG): 17 1/2 x 24 inches (44.5 x 61 cm)
Inscription(s)/Marks/Lettering:

Signed in monogram with butterfly, lower left

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
B1994.19
Classification:
Paintings
Collection:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
abstract art | blue | boat | buildings | clock tower | dark | darkness | factories | industry | lights | marine art | music | night | river | sea | seascape | shore (landform) | signature (name) | town | water | waterfront
Associated Places:
Battersea | Chelsea | England | Greater London | London | Thames | United Kingdom
Access:
On view
Link:
https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:5065
Export:
XML
IIIF Manifest:
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In the 1870s, James McNeill Whistler exhibited a series of paintings depicting the Thames at night. He focused on the stretch of river in Battersea seen from his Chelsea home, a view dominated by the industrial buildings of Morgan’s Patent Plumbago Crucible Company (whose clock tower can be seen to the left of the canvas). The artist used a limited palette, thin layers of paint, and simple compositions inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. Originally referred to as "moonlights," Whistler responded to his patron Frederick Leyland’s suggestion that he retitle the paintings as "nocturnes," a phrase commonly associated with the music of Frédéric Chopin. Though first exhibited in 1878, Whistler did not add his famous butterfly signature to this painting until the early 1880s.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2020



The series of paintings Whistler called his "nocturnes" (from the famous piano pieces by Chopin) were the result of evening rides in a boat on the river Thames, near his house in Chelsea. He studied what he saw intently but without making sketches, painting the view in his studio the following day; the riverscape half-emerges through veils of darkness, mist, and memory. The industrial waterfront of Battersea was unconventional material from an aesthetic point of view, but Whistler sought that moment of poetry "When . . . the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us." This painting, which was probably exhibited in 1878 at Sir Coutts and Lady Lindsay's famous Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street, is in flawless condition, and demonstrates Whistler's technical brilliance, as well as his unique handling of the vast, polluted, and more often ululating metropolis of London.

Gallery label for Paul Mellon's Legacy: A Passion for British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2007-04-18 - 2007-07-29)
The series of paintings Whistler called his "nocturnes" resulted from evening expeditions on the river Thames near his home in Chelsea. Rowed out by the Greaves brothers, young men from a nearby boatyard who worked as his assistants, he would study a prospective subject intently but without making any sketches or notes. The painting that resulted, a view through the veil of memory as well as those of darkness and mist, would come the following day in the studio. Whistler's aim in this was anti-topographical: he wished people to enjoy his painting not as the image of a given place, but as a refined arrangement of forms and colors, free of all anecdotal content. As a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement, Whistler worked very much in the spirit of Walter Pater's famous dictum, first published in 1873, that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music."1 He borrowed the title of "nocturne" from the famous piano pieces by Chopin and hoped that it would lead his viewers to appreciate his night scenes on the abstract rather than the representational level. As he declared in his "Ten O'Clock" lecture (1885):
Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful-as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.2
Bringing forth his glorious harmony from as squalid, unaesthetic a chaos as that of the industrial riverfront near his home was typical of his taste for mischief and the unexpected. Then again, he would argue, part of the task of the artist was to see poetry and beauty where others might be blind to them:
When…the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us-then the wayfarer hastens home; the working man and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand, as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who, for once, has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone.3
Here the basic "notes" from which he composed his painting were the buildings and lights on the Battersea side of the Thames, opposite Chelsea, looking upriver: on the left appears the large illuminated clock tower known as "Morgan's Folly," which stood by Morgan's Crucible Works; behind this are some factory chimneys and in the foreground a river barge.
When painting his nocturnes Whistler had the Greaves brothers prepare quantities of various tones of the keynote color, generally blue, thinning the paint to such a washy "sauce" that the canvas would sometimes have to be laid flat on the floor to prevent it from running off. Usually he made a number of attempts at the image, simply wiping the failures off the canvas until he arrived at what he wanted. The thinness of the paint lends the nocturnes an air of cool virtuosity-there is no gestural or finicky brushwork to betray labor, changes of mind, or anything but the purest aesthetic feelings on the part of the artist. Here, typically, the fairly rough weave of the canvas shows through across the entire surface. Like the pervasive blue, this helps bind each element to the whole. It also reproduces the slight vibration of night vision.
The stylized butterfly near the lower edge is a signature derived from the artist's monogram (an "M" above a "W" with a "J" through the middle); he probably added this at some time in the 1880s. He associated the butterfly with beauty, delicacy, and the lack of any useful function in life, the essential qualities of the artist. The design mimics the stamps on Japanese woodblock prints.

1 Pater 1910, 135
2 Whistler 1890, 142-43
3 Ibid., 144

Malcolm Warner

- Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 164, no. 67

Whistler in Paris, London and Venice (Yale University Art Gallery, 2015-01-30 - 2015-07-15)

James McNeil Whistler Retrospective (Japan) (The Yokohama Museum of Art, 2014-12-16 - 2015-03-01)

James McNeil Whistler Retrospective (Japan) (The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 2014-09-13 - 2014-11-16)

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2014-05-02 - 2014-08-14)

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames (Addison Gallery of American Art, 2014-02-01 - 2014-04-13)

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames (Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2013-10-16 - 2014-01-12)

Like Breath on Glass - Painting Softly from James McNeill Whistler through Arthur B. Davies (Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2008-06-22 - 2008-10-19)

Art and Music in Britain: Four Encounters, 1730-1900 (Yale Center for British Art, 2006-10-05 - 2006-12-31)

Whistler " The Naval Review " (Yale Center for British Art, 2005-05-19 - 2005-08-15)

Turner , Whistler , Monet (Tate Britain, 2005-02-12 - 2005-05-15)

Turner , Whistler , Monet (Musée d'Orsay, 2004-10-16 - 2005-01-16)

Turner , Whistler , Monet (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2004-05-01 - 2005-09-05)

After Whistler (The Detroit Institute of Arts, 2004-03-06 - 2004-05-20)

After Whistler (High Museum of Art, 2003-11-22 - 2004-02-10)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06)

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05)

A Palace of Art in Victorian England - The Grosvenor Gallery (Laing Art Gallery, 1996-09-13 - 1996-11-24)

A Palace of Art in Victorian England - The Grosvenor Gallery (Denver Art Museum, 1996-06-01 - 1996-08-25)

A Palace of Art in Victorian England - The Grosvenor Gallery (Yale Center for British Art, 1996-03-01 - 1996-04-28)

James McNeill Whistler (National Gallery of Art, 1995-05-28 - 1995-08-20)

James McNeill Whistler (Tate Britain, 1994-10-12 - 1995-01-08)

M. V. Alper, American Mythologies in Painting, Arts Magazine, vol. 46, Summer 1972, p. 50, N1 A415 OVERSISE (HAAS)

Timothy J. Barringer, Art & music in Britain, four encounters, 1730-1900 (exhibition and label text) , New Haven, 2006, [p. 6], V 1699:1 (YCBA)

Timothy J. Barringer, Art & music in Britain, four encounters, 1730-1900 , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, 2006, pp. 30-31, 34, V 1699 (YCBA)

David Bindman, The History of British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2008, p. 85 (v.3), fig. 55, N6761 +H57 2008 Oversize (YCBA)

Susan P. Casteras, The Grosvenor Gallery, a palace of art in Victorian England , Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1996, pp. 97, 199, no. 68, fig. 53, pl. 32, N1165 G76 G76 1996 (YCBA)

Richard Dorment, James McNeill Whistler, Tate Publishing, London, 1994, p. 128, no. 52, NJ18 W57 D67 1994 (YCBA) +

Facetiae [The Newest Thing in Wall-Paper], London Reader: Of Literature, Science, Art and General Information, vol. 32, January 1879, p. 238, Available in British Periodicals Database.

Susan Hobbs, Whistler at the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Magazine Antiques, vol. 120, November 1981, pp. 1194-202, NK1125 A3 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Donald Holden, James McNeill Whistler: Master of Limited Color, American Artist, vol. 37, April 1973, pp. 38-43, N1 A243 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Terry Ingram, A Win for Yale, ART News, February 1995, p. 33, N1 A6 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

James McNeill Whistler retrospective, Nihon Ho¯so¯ Kyo¯kai, Tokyo, 2014, pp. 181, 277, cat. no. 124, NJ18.W57 J35 2014 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Lagoon, Venice : Nocturne in Blue and Silver (Art Reproduction), ArtsCanada, v. 28, October 1971, p. 18, J10 Ar918 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Katharine Jordan Lochnan, Mystical Landscapes From Vincent van Gogh to Emily Carr, Toronto, Ontario, p. 174-175, ND1340 .L63 2016 (LC) Oversize

Katharine Jordan Lochnan, Turner, Whistler, Monet, Tate Publishing, London, 2004, no. 48, NJ18 T85 L5652 2004 (YCBA) +

Margaret F. MacDonald, An American in London : Whistler and the Thames, London, 2013, pp. 128, 174, cat. no. 65, NJ18.W57 M2422 2013 OVERSIZE (YCBA)

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 164, no. 67, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

John McDonald, A Feast of Mellon, Sydney Morning Herald, May 9, 1998, p. 14, Film An Sy25 (SML) Also Available Online (Factiva database)

Linda Merrill, After Whistler, the artist and his influence on American painting , Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2003, pp. 4, 110-11, no. 6, NJ18 W57 A4 2003 + (YCBA)

Christopher Neve, View of the River: James McNeill Whistler in London, Country Life, v. 148, December 10 1970, pp. 1122-23, S3 C68 + (YCBA)

Nocturne in Blue and Silver : Lagoon in Venice (Art Reproduction), ART News, v. 44, November 1, 1945, p. 21, N1 A6 OVERSIZE (HAAS)

Nocturne in Blue and Silver, no. 1 (Art Reproduction), Art Quarterly, v. 10, 1947, p. 11?, J10 Ar81 + (LSF)

Paul Mellon's Legacy, a passion for British art. [large print labels] , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 +P381 2007, Mellon Shelf (YCBA)

Elizabeth Robins Pennell, The life of James McNeill Whistler, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia London, 1911, pp. 161-67, NJ18 W57 P37 1911 (HAAS)

Dianne Hauserman Pilgrim, Revival of Pastels in Nineteenth Century America: The Society of Painters in Pastel, American Art Journal, vol. 10, November 1978, pp. 43-62, N6505 A618 (HAAS) Available online through JStor.

Marc SImpson, Like breath on glass, Whistler, Inness, and the art of painting softly , Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass. New Haven, 2008, pp. 112-3, pl. 1, NJ18 W57 S57 2008 (YCBA)

Robert Slifkin, James Whistler as the invisible man, anti-aestheticism and artistic vision , Oxford Art Journal, vol. 29, no. 1, March, 2006, p. 58, fig. 3, V 1671 (YCBA) Also available online (Orbis)

Honora Twycross, Japanese Pictures, English Illustrated Magazine, vol. 18, September 1904, p. 529, WD 9118 (LSF - Mudd)

Andrew McLaren Young, The paintings of James McNeill Whistler, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1980, no. 151 (v. 1), pl. 150 (v. 2), NJ18 W57 Y69 1980 (YCBA) +


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