Art for art’s sake: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Aesthete. Idiosyncratic charmer who had a habit of making enemies. Sometimes friend of Oscar Wilde’s. Sometimes impressionist, sometimes advocate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. James Abbott McNeill Whistler had a large range of sources and reformed his style many times throughout his career. But what makes his art so appealing to this day?

Like so many American artists of the late 19th century, Whistler felt drawn to Europe. Due to his father’s work, he spent many years in various countries during his youth, including Russia and the United Kingdom. After moving to Paris in 1855 to study art, he never returned to the United States.

Although he travelled across Europe multiple times and sought inspiration from various locations, his heart always seemed to be drawn to London. Consequently, he painted many of his most famous works there, undoubtedly inspired by the variety of artistic movements working in London around that time.

Despite the range of sources he took for inspiration, many critics place him firmly within the aestheticist camp. As such, he firmly believed in the gospel of doing ‘art for art’s sake’ and befriended many prominent decadents, among them Oscar Wilde – but he also had a habit of making enemies. After a lecture by Wilde, Whistler believed the dandy was poking fun at him, resulting in a lasting feud. Allegedly Basil, the painter who is murdered in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, is partly an ironic depiction of Whistler.

Not only an aestheticist

But Whistler was also acquainted with artists from other schools, such as the Impressionists (Monet, Manet and Degas), the Pre-Raphaelites (Dante Gabriel Rossetti), the French symbolists (Stephane Mallarme and Marcel Schwob), and many more. This culminated in a style which is idiosyncratic, fascinating, and unquestionably his.

Unlike the typical focus on high realism of his contemporaries, Whistler always emphasised the impression of art and believed that all art should strive towards the conditions of music. Hence, many of his paintings are titled with terms from music theory – such as nocturne or symphony.

Whistler emphasised simplicity and the economy of means, the importance of technique, and harmony. He insisted that the artist should interpret what he saw rather than depict it ‘as it is’. He was also a strong theorist, publishing a range of material on art theory and advocating his vision to the best possible degree.

But it won’t do to discuss an artist in theory, so here are three of his Nocturnes which I find particularly engaging. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea

This is the first of Whistler’s popular Nocturnes, painted in 1871. Rather than depicting a realistic vision of the Thames, he tried to capture the overwhelming beauty of the Thames by night. By titling it ‘nocturne’ he separated the work from any sense of subjectivity it may have had from the painter and makes it entirely artistic through his use of technique.

The view shows a section of Chelsea with Chelsea Old Church on the right. The details are kept to a bare minimum, and yet it unquestionably evokes the sense of the river and the night time. You get a sense that the city never really sleeps, as indicated by the individual lights which brave the otherwise pervading grey and blue of the scene.

Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket

This slightly later painting from 1875 depicts the Cremorne Gardens, one of the old pleasure gardens which have since closed their gates. It is the final of the London Nocturnes and displays a firework display in a foggy night sky, again with little detail but individual streaks of light breaking the otherwise dark palette.

Through the lack of clear lines, Whistler makes it difficult for us to distinguish between the individual aspects of the painting, but his use of light, shades and especially the smoke nevertheless marks out the general layout. You feel a slight sense of bleakness as you look upon the painting with its dark colours, but the surprising explosion of the rockets wakes you to a moment of realising the beauty of the scene.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge

Here we have another Nocturne from the period around 1872-1875, this time of the Battersea Bridge across the Thames. Sadly, the bridge has now been replaced by a more modern one. Whistler is more interested in detail, so it is possible to make out the Chelsea Old Church on the left and the fireworks in the background.

Again, the dark palette makes the entire scene feel tranquil and quiet, if it wasn’t for the firework display. The fisher in the foreground seems to be going quietly about his business and the Thames is generally surrounded by an aura of solitude. It demonstrates the diversity of the city – some people are still awake to celebrate with fireworks, whereas others are quietly starting their daily labour. The whole painting, as such, oozes atmosphere and invites you to spend the night time roaming around the Thames yourself.

Closing thoughts

As you can see, with Whistler you can often find paintings depicting one area and one time of day, with similar moods, which yet all tell their own story and give a different aspect of one big picture. I hope you find him as engaging as I do, and that you found this article informative. Do you have anything to add, any personal impression about the artist or his work? Then please leave a comment. Otherwise, why not share it on social media? Then please click on one of the tender buttons below.