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James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Grey and Gold Westminster Bridge

In 1874 the American artist and aesthete James McNeill Whistler described this painting to a prospective buyer as, ‘A very warm summer night on the Thames – lovely in colour they say – A Nocturne in blue and gold – view of the river from the Houses of Parliament.’ The view is taken from Westminster Bridge, looking southwest. The shadows of the terrace of the Houses of Parliament can be seen on the right and in the distance, on the left bank, a string of lights, marking industrial Lambeth.

From 1855 Whistler was drawn to paint the industrial Thames, initially attracted to the gritty realism of its bustling old wharfs and warehouses. Lindsey Row where he lived was right beside Battersea Bridge. However, by 1864 Whistler began to turn his back on Realism, influenced by the art of Japan, flattening his picture plane, restricting his palette, minimising detail, concentrating on balance and arrangement of form and colour. Whistler was among the first collectors of Japanese prints and porcelain after the Japanese embargo on foreign shipping was gradually lifted from 1854. He recorded painting his first moonlight scenes in August 1871, initially making sketches from his Lindsey Row balcony. Then he would make sketches en plein air on the Thames, his pupils the Greaves brothers acting as oarsmen. He also began to rely on memory, consciously fixing scenes in his head to paint back in the studio. Whistler adopted a very liquid, experimental medium, which he called his ‘sauce’, which was oil paint diluted with copal, turpentine and linseed oil. The mixture was so runny that Whistler had to put his canvases flat on the floor. Afterwards he would put them out in the garden to dry. The speed of Whistler’s technique was a matter of controversy during the Whistler v. Ruskin trial of 1878. Whistler told his pupil Otto Bacher in 1881: ‘Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like the breath on the surface of a pane of glass.’

The name ‘Nocturne’ came from the Liverpool shipping magnate and collector Frederick Leyland, who was a keen pianist. Nocturne is a rather romantic musical term referring to a piece to be played in the evening or evocative of night, and was most famously used by Chopin. Whistler wrote to him: ‘I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me, - besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish.’ Whistler wanted his art to be like music and be appreciated on a purely emotional and sensory level, rather than try to teach or moralise. Beauty, harmony and balance was all that mattered. In this painting he transforms the industrial and manufacturing district of Lambeth. Whistler wrote in his 1885 Ten O’Clock Lecture: ‘when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil – and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky – and the tall chimneys become campanile – and the warehouses are palaces in the night – and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us’.

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