James Whistler’s Nocturnes in American Art


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1866). Nocturne, The Solent [Oil Painting].

Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, United States.



The emergence of nocturne painting at the end of the nineteenth century in American art differentiated itself from the academic landscape painting in terms of its cultural heritage and artistic influence. This article stakes out the ground for a brief history of the appearance of nocturne painting in the American society of the late nineteenth century, providing the reader with an introductory overview of the main characteristics of its artistic methods and techniques used by the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).


The art of painting nocturnal landscapes existed long before the emergence of nocturne as an established American landscape art starting from 1860s-70s. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a series of painters, including Aert van der Neer and Claude Joseph Vernet, whose paintings illustrated various night sceneries. In order to paint nocturnal landscapes during that period, painters were inspired by two main night motifs derived from natural light—the Moon and the stars. With the American painters of nocturnes, such as James McNeill Whistler, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Frederic Remington, Edward Steichen, and Henry Ossawa Tanner, the night motif is revised and re-examined in accordance with each painter’s influence, inspiration, creativity and imagination.


The Birth of Nocturne in American Art


Under the influence of one of his clients Frederick Leyland, the American painter Whistler attributed musical terms to his artworks. ‘Nocturne’ or ‘nocturne painting’ is the technical word designed to refer to Whistler’s landscape paintings, depicting night, twilight or evening sceneries. The term nocturne, borrowed from the Polish romantic composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, combined musicality with the aesthetics of American landscape art starting from mid-1860s. The motive of associating nocturnes to musicality is a way to minimize the narrative content of the painting and rather focus on the esthetic aspect of the canvas. Apart from anything else, Whistler’s paintings were given other musical terms like arrangement, symphony, and harmony. Paintings like Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland (1871–74), and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander (1872–74) are Whistler’s portrait paintings, whose titles were influenced by the musical jargon.


“By using the word nocturne I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and color first.” - James Abbott McNeill Whistler - (Valance, 2018, p. 47).

Whistler’s canvas is a storytelling medium of a deep interest in the artistic combination of art and musicality, explained by the nature of his nocturnes in the American art at the end of the nineteenth century. According to Hélène Valance (2018), Whistler’s interpretation of nocturnes as “an ascetic art, an almost scientific abstraction” goes hand-in-hand with his ideology of art for art’s sake. During the 1870s, Whistler’s nocturnes were a turning point in the American society as “the cultural values of nighttime were thereby profoundly transformed”, describes Valance (2018). The depiction of evening and night scenes are meant to use the musicality of nocturne in order to accentuate the “dreamy, pensive mood” (Nocturne painting, n.d.) of the landscape painting.


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1871). Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea [Oil Painting].



Most importantly, evening and night landscapes depicted in Whistler's nocturnes of the 1870s, including Nocturne, Blue and Silver: Battersea Reach (1872-78), Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), and Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge (1872–75) celebrated the influence of Tonalism. In this sense, the Tonalist characteristics, such as the softness of light, the muteness of tones, and haziness of drawn objects are highlighted on a nocturne canvas. In addition to that, the depiction of light on a nocturne canvas is portrayed through “flickers or reflections” (Valance, p.3), while human figures and landscapes are deeply infused with blurriness and unclearness.


“In contrast to an impressionist disorder that relied solely on immediate sensation, nocturnes strove to establish a unified vision of an idealized landscape.” (Valance, 2018, p. 79).

Unlike the Impressionist art, whose basics are centered on the use of shiny and bright colors like red, yellow, and green as a reminder of nature; nocturne paintings involve, primarily, the use of dark shades of blue diffused all over the drawn landscape on the canvas. The representation of darkness and obscurity in the nocturnes is the artist’s interpretation of a particular setting at night, where the little light is diffused. The absence or minimal presence of light is used by the nocturne artist to depict the unseen, unreachable, and unclear part of the setting being drawn in the shape of a misty landscape. In other words, the use of dark colors facilitates the process of drawing monochrome landscapes and night sceneries. Chiaroscuro is not the only technique used by the nocturne painter to celebrate and depict the dark tones of night, other techniques are experimented and utilized to feature the theme of nocturnes.


The nocturne painter revolutionized the art of academic landscape paintings which was established by Claude Lorrain, by introducing a new method to visualize and depict night themes on a canvas. In the academic landscape paintings, the focus is on guiding the viewer to contemplate the display of natural elements all over the landscape. The painter’s role is to arrange the space in terms of trees, ruins, bodies of water, and human figures, explains Valance (2018). In the nocturne, however, a re-examination of the display of natural elements, done by a restricted palette of colors questions the prioritization of the subject’s nature to be drawn on a canvas. Presumably, the nocturne’s subject is “often fluid, evanescent, formless” (Valance, p.22). For instance, the horizon in the nocturne is drawn by adopting two distinct methods.


It is worth noticing that the nocturne painter explores “the horizontal and rectangular space” (Valance, 2018) of the canvas in a disproportionate and excessive way. In other terms, the rules of the traditional landscape painting are deconstructed and revised, thus opened the gate for novel methods of landscape’s drawing. For example, Whistler’s method of drawing the horizon is made in two separate yet interrelated manners. The first method entails that the horizon is drawn very high on the canvas. In this way, it is situated “between a misty landscape or body of water and a sky reduced to a mere ribbon of color”, argues Valance (2018).


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1873). Nocturne in Silver and Grey [Oil Painting].



The second method, however, is the opposite of what the first method calls for. The horizon is, rather, placed very low on the canvas, giving more space to the sky to be shown. Hence, by drawing the horizon in a lower position on the canvas, the nocturne painter guides the viewer to comprehend the value and significance of the sky in the nocturne. Nonetheless, at some point the use of the two methods by Whistler aims to demonstrate to the viewer how barely visible the horizon is depicted on the canvas. In this sense, it is meant to confuse the sight by inviting the viewer to grasp the reasons of separating the horizon from the sky. Thanks to the application of “subtle tonal transitions”, describes Valance (2018), the viewer will be able to locate the horizon line in the painting. Consequently, a blending rather than a separation between the two elements will be the explanations to such methods of nocturne painting or to what Valance (2018) refers to as “the illusion of depth”.


“The nocturne, in neutralizing the foreground of the painting and eliminating the traditional contrasts—the visual reference points that create the illusion of depth—subjects the beholder to a disorienting spatial experience, a landscape that alternates between painted surface and dizzying precipice.” (Valance, 2018, p. 22).

The Nocturne – A Hybrid Form of Perception?


Nocturne is a three-dimensional painting that encompasses the power of sight, touch, and hearing. The involvement of the three senses plays a significant role in rendering the nocturne more appealing to the eye. Perception is experienced through “visual sensitivity: scotopic (night) vision as opposed to photopic (day) vision”, explains Valance (2018). For instance, the darkness of night is often depicted by fogginess in nocturnes. The opaque aspect of fog eliminates shapes and thus facilitates the diffusion of light throughout the landscape. It is intended to problematize the viewer’s perception by destabilizing the gaze.


In order to sense the nocturne’s aura, the scotopic vision is based on sensitivity to colors, such as shades of blue and green, that are situated at the highest part of "the light spectrum", states Valance (2018). Provided that the human eye needs twenty to forty minutes to adapt itself to darkness as vision during that given time changes from photopic to scotopic; looking at a nocturne requires, thus, “a concentrated gaze” (Valance, p.26) to experience contemplation, visual pleasure, and interpretation. Moreover, colors, other than blue and green, such as mauve, violet, and gray are used by the nocturne painter on purpose to invite the viewer to feel dark harmony and serenity.


The power of colors in a nocturne painting opens the gate for another sensory experience: that of touching. The ability to feel positive emotions while gazing at a nocturne is explained by a sensual effect present on the canvas. Such technique is made through the use of canvases with thicker weave, allowing the nocturne painter to detach himself from the French-style salon painting by exploiting the texture to create a subtle diffusion of light, describes Valance (2018). For example, Whistler’s technique is based on the dilution of pigments of colors through a so-called “sauce”, which is “a very fluid medium” (Valance, 2018, p. 30) , enabling the painter to put colors on the unpainted space of the canvas.


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1879–1880). Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice [Oil Painting].

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States.



Last but not least, the combination between music and art in nocturne paintings highlights the importance of vibrations. As much as harmony is found in music, it is also depicted in art through the medium of color. For example, sound waves of music are interrelated to light waves on a canvas. According to Valance (2018), such possibility can be explained by the fact that “color vibrations” in art are studied and examined as “waves of music”. In other terms, the connection between the visual aspect of a nocturne and musicality is illustrated by the darkness of the canvas that stands for the evasive feature of music.


“Harmony in color, like harmony in music, may be defined as rates of two or more vibratory waves that enhance one another; and discords are the reverse.” (Valance, 2018, p. 78).

All things considered, during the late nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth century, the musical term of nocturne is re-invented and incorporated in American paintings, enabling American artists to re-examine the night themes. It revolutionized academic landscape painting in representing nature and natural elements through poetic and metaphorical lenses. The nocturne, thus, becomes a hybrid artwork thanks to the combination of music and art. Its comprehension is based on individual contemplation through inciting the viewer to experience visual sensitivity, light vibrations, and the sensual effect of night themes all at once.



Image Sources

McNeill Whistler, J. A., Alexander, R., & Alexander, J. (1871). Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea [Oil Painting]. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/whistler-nocturne-blue-and-silver-chelsea-t01571


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1866). Nocturne, The Solent [Oil Painting]. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, United States. https://collections.gilcrease.org/object/011185


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1873). Nocturne in Silver and Grey [Oil Painting]. https://www.tonalism.com/bios-interviews/james-abbott-mcneill-whistler


McNeill Whistler, J. A. (1879–1880). Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice [Oil Painting]. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, United States. https://collections.mfa.org/objects/32837/nocturne-in-blue-and-silver-the-lagoon-venice


References

hisour. (n.d.). Nocturne painting. Hisour.com. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.hisour.com/nocturne-painting-21619/


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Photopic. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/photopic

—————————. (n.d.). Scotopic. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scotopic


Valance, H. (2018). Introduction. In J. M. Todd (Trans.), Nocturne Night in American Art, 1890–1917 (pp. 1–15). Yale University. https://cloudflare-ipfs.com/ipfs/bafykbzaceaex23gl6oitdqzpjrthtvjfhzm73r3p72pe5rlmv37vyy6guwpgk?filename=Todd%2C%20Jane%20Marie_Valance%2C%20Hélène%20-%20Nocturne_%20Night%20in%20American%20Art%2C%201890-1917%20%282018%29.pdf

Originally published as Nuits américaines: l’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917.


——————. (2018a). A Paradoxical Aesthetics. In J. M. Todd (Trans.), Nocturne Night in American Art, 1890–1917 (pp. 19–31). Yale University. https://cloudflare-ipfs.com/ipfs/bafykbzaceaex23gl6oitdqzpjrthtvjfhzm73r3p72pe5rlmv37vyy6guwpgk?filename=Todd%2C%20Jane%20Marie_Valance%2C%20Hélène%20-%20Nocturne_%20Night%20in%20American%20Art%2C%201890-1917%20%282018%29.pdf

Originally published as Nuits américaines: l’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917.


——————. (2018b). The Image in Crisis. In J. M. Todd (Trans.), Nocturne Night in American Art, 1890–1917 (pp. 33–49). Yale University. https://cloudflare-ipfs.com/ipfs/bafykbzaceaex23gl6oitdqzpjrthtvjfhzm73r3p72pe5rlmv37vyy6guwpgk?filename=Todd%2C%20Jane%20Marie_Valance%2C%20Hélène%20-%20Nocturne_%20Night%20in%20American%20Art%2C%201890-1917%20%282018%29.pdf

Originally published as Nuits américaines: l’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917.


——————. (2018c). Visions of the Mind and Spirit. In J. M. Todd (Trans.), Nocturne Night in American Art, 1890–1917 (pp. 69–85). Yale University. https://cloudflare-ipfs.com/ipfs/bafykbzaceaex23gl6oitdqzpjrthtvjfhzm73r3p72pe5rlmv37vyy6guwpgk?filename=Todd%2C%20Jane%20Marie_Valance%2C%20Hélène%20-%20Nocturne_%20Night%20in%20American%20Art%2C%201890-1917%20%282018%29.pdf

Originally published as Nuits américaines: l’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890–1917.



Additional Readings

Hélène Valance. (n.d.). Americanart.si.edu. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://americanart.si.edu/research/fellowships/fellows/helene-valance


Kitson, M. W. L. (n.d.). Claude Lorrain. Britannica.Com. Retrieved March 2, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Claude-Lorrain


Mazaheri, P. (2022, January 27). Tonalism in Fine Arts: The Legacy of a Subtle Art Movement. Byarcadia.org. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.byarcadia.org/post/tonalism-in-fine-arts-the-legacy-of-a-subtle-art-movement

——————. (2021, November 12). An Introduction to Impressionism: A Legacy of Bright Shadows. Byarcadia.org. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.byarcadia.org/post/an-introduction-to-impressionism-a-legacy-of-bright-shadows


Sutton, D. (n.d.). James McNeill Whistler. Britannica.com. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/James-McNeill-Whistler


The National Gallery. (n.d.). Chiaroscuro. Nationalgallery.org.uk. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/chiaroscuro



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Neyra Behi

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