Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Whistler left the United States — never to return — some twenty years before the completion of this painting, settling in Paris where he mixed with the likes of Manet, Courbet and Monet. A few years later he moved to London which became his home for much of the rest of his life, first taking rooms in the dockland area of Wapping and later moving up the river to the more salubrious location of Chelsea. The Thames, the link between these two homes, became his principal muse.
This picture is one of a series of views of the Thames by night which he entitled ‘Nocturnes’. The term was inspired by the Chopin piano pieces of the same name possibly at the suggestion of Whistler’s patron, F. R. Leyland who had commissioned portraits of himself and his wife Frances and who later had a spectacular falling out with the artist. He later used other musical expressions in his titles including Arrangement, Symphony and Variation and retrospectively changed existing titles.
The picture shows one of the massive piers of the old wooden bridge extending to a much exaggerated height. A section of the bridge arcs across the top of the composition: our viewpoint is from below. A somewhat formless blob of darker paint denotes a boatman steering his craft like Charon across the Styx. Some fireworks are represented with flecks of gold, otherwise colour is constrained to a very narrow range. In a letter to his friend Henri Fantin-Latour, Whistler explained that ‘the same colour ought to appear in the picture continually here and there … in this way the whole will form a harmony. Look how well the Japanese understood this’. Whistler’s admiration for the stylised simplicity of Japanese art can be plainly seen in this piece, based as it is directly on similar Japanese motifs.
Whistler is not concerned with making an exact naturalistic representation of Old Battersea Bridge. He believed — in line with the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, of which he was a key propagandist, thinker and exponent — that art should not be slavishly descriptive or aspire to representational accuracy, nor should it be concerned with matters such as morality or instruction. Rather a painting should be appreciated as a beautiful object in its own right, its composition and colour harmonies being of more aesthetic value than mere subject matter: in other words ‘art for art’s sake’. In the Nocturnes — and especially in the famous Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket — Whistler pushed these ideas to their logical conclusion; he was flirting on the fringes of abstraction.
In this he found himself on a collision course with Ruskin whose battle cry of ‘Truth to Nature’ had had a deep impact on many artists, not least the youthful Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin’s reaction on seeing The Falling Rocket was to write his infamous letter to The Times, castigating Whistler for ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’. The celebrated court case ensued but that is another story…
Photo © Tate – CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)
1873 Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Summer; Paris, Musée d'Orsay
1875 Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, The Dancing Examination, Paris, Musée d'Orsay
1875 Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, Philadelphia, Jefferson Medical College