Nocturne: Blue and Silver — Chelsea by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). 1871. Oil on wood. Support: 502 x 608 mm; frame: 685 x 825 x 45 mm. The painting is in the Tate Gallery's Collection, having been bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander in 1972. Reference T01571. Kindly made available under the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Whistler's fascination with the River Thames was soon apparent — in, for example, his etching The Pool of London, from the very year he first arrived in England, in 1859. Changes become evident in his etchings fairly early on: in Battersea Dawn (Cadogan Pier) of 1863, for instance, light effects and atmosphere have superseded precise details of riverine activity. By the time he began the series of paintings which now seem most characteristic of the way he saw the river, in the early 1870s, he was really presenting "a new and radically different interpretation of the river, ... citing 'line, form and colour' as his primary concerns" (Jacklin 216).

As partially shown in the Tate's catalogue entry, the Times reviewer of 14 November 1871 was unusually appreciative of two of the Nocturnes ("Variations in Violet and Green," and "Harmony in blue green — Moonlight"), praising them as

illustrations of the theory, not confined to this painter, but most conspicuously and ably worked out by him, that painting is so closely akin to music that the colours of the one may and should be used, like the ordered sounds of the other, as means and influences of vague emotion; that painting should not aim at expressing dramatic emotions, depicting incidents of history, or recording facts of nature, but should be content with moulding our moods and stirring our imaginations, by subtle combinations of colour, through which all that painting has to say to us can be said, and beyond which painting has no valuable or true speech whatever.

This enlightened reviewer notes that such ideas were now prevalent, because, of course, they were being put into practice by the young French artists of the day, the up-and-coming Impressionists: "It was Whistler's destiny to form an intellectual bridge between Paris and London," writes Lionel Lambourne (465).

The reviewer also notes the Japanese influence here, and ascribes Whistler's addition of his monogram as a "coloured cartouche" to this influence as well. This was astute of him: Whistler had written to his friend Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) as early as 1862 that the Japanese understood the sort of effect he was aiming at, with colour applied as if "embroidered on the canvas" (qtd. in Lambourne 465). The influence of Japanese art on both sides of the Channel at this time is well known.

Stoutly defending Whistler against criticism, the Times reviewer points to the etchings as proof of the artist's talents as a draughtsman, and admires the new approach, finding it original — and insisting that even Whistler's critics must feel the "beauty and charm sui generis of these pictures" ("Dudley Gallery"). — Jacqueline Banerjee

Related Material


"Dudley Gallery. — Cabinet Pictures In Oil." Times, 14 November 1871: 4. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 29 January 2018.

Fowle, Frances. Catalogue Entry, December 2000. Tate. Web. 28 January 2018.

Jacklin, Elizabeth. In The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London: French Artists in Exile, 1870-1904. Ed. Caroline Corbeau-Parsons. London: Tate Enterprises, 2017. 216.

Lambourne, Lionel. Victorian Painting. London and New York: Phaidon, 1999.

Created 29 January 2018