Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by James Whistler

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by Whistler (1874-7)

My featured painting today has the unusual title of Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket.   This oil on canvas painting was by the American-born artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler in the 1870’s and now hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The artist believed strongly that there was a parallel between painting and music, and many of the titles of his paintings include the words “arrangements”, “harmonies” and “nocturnes” in their titles, highlighting the dominance of tonal harmony.   Another reason for these titles with a musical connotation was that one of Whistler’s patrons at the time was Fredrick Leyland, a wealthy Liverpool ship-owner and amateur musician, who loved the music of Chopin, and Whistler credited him, for his musically inspired titles.

This painting may not be his most famous painting but was one which was to become very controversial and has an interesting story attached to it – and you know how I like paintings with a story!

James Whistler was born in 1834 in Lowell, Massachusetts.  He was brought up by his mother, Anna Matilda McNeill and his father, George Washington Whistler who was an important railroad engineer.  Reports of Whistler’s childhood often concentrated on his unruly and disruptive nature and that his parents only way of calming him down was to allow him time to draw which seemed to soothe the young boy.  When he was almost eight years of age his father was contracted to work on a railroad in Russia and a year later, the rest of the family moved to St Petersburg.  When he was eleven years old Whistler was enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg and it was there that his artistic talent flourished.  When he was thirteen Whistler and his mother visited London and stayed with relatives.  Whistler had by the age of fifteen decided that he wanted to become an artist and he wrote with some trepidation to his father telling him of his desire, saying:

“…I hope, dear father, you will not object to my choice….”

Sadly, his father died that year of cholera whilst still working on the Russian railroad and his wife had to return to America, to her hometown of Pomfret, Connecticut, with her sons.  His mother had wanted Whistler to become a minister in the church but she soon realised that this was not going to happen.  He eventually was admitted to the West Point Military Academy not because of academic qualifications nor because of his physical prowess but because of his name as his father had taught there and also some of his relatives had been former students.  However his lack of academic ability, his bucking of authority and his ill discipline forced his departure after just three years.

After a short time as a military draughtsman he decided to continue with his dream of becoming an artist.  He moved to Baltimore and with the help of a wealthy friend, Tom Winans, set himself up in a studio and started selling some of his paintings.  He made enough money to go to Paris to study art, and got himself a small studio in the Latin Quarter.  He was never to return to America.  Whistler remained in France until 1859 at which time he decided to move to London where he remained for the rest of his life.  Whistler died in London in 1903, aged 69.

So to today’s featured painting.   In 1874, whilst in London, Whistler started his painting entitled Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, which depicted a firework display in the night sky of London.  This was the last of his series of London Nocturnes.  Whistler inspiration for this painting was his love of Japanese prints.   The painting was to prove controversial when it was completed in 1877 and was exhibited at the newly-opened Grosvenor Gallery in London founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay.   At this time one of the foremost art critics was the English art critic and social thinker, John Ruskin.  Ruskin was a wealthy and powerful man within the art world, who had come to prominence with his support for the works of Turner and later his backing for the Pre-Raphaelite Movement.  On seeing Whistler’s painting, Ruskin was horrified and, according to Ronald Anderson a co-author with Anne Koval of the Whistler biography James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth, Ruskin wrote in his journal, Fors Clavigera in July 1877:

“…For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face…”

Whistler when he heard of these comments was outraged and sued Ruskin accusing of libel and demanded £1000 plus legal costs in reparations.  This, to Whistler, was a matter of artistic pride.  This legal battle was a great risk for Whistler whose wealth had declined rapidly and was facing financial hardship but he believed he had been wronged by Ruskin and was determined to right the wrong.  Whistler believed that he and other artists must assert the primacy of artistic vision in other words Whistler believed that an artist should be allowed to create unfettered by the bonds of the critics.  This was a battle between “brush and pen”, the artist and the critic.  Whistler with ever-deteriorating finances hoped for a quick trial and a successful outcome but his hopes were dashed as the trial kept being postponed due to Ruskin’s bouts of mental illness.  The trial was eventually held, a year later in November 1878.  Reports of the trial commented on Whistler’s well-rehearsed answers to his counsel’s questions and he used the trial as a way to convey his artistic views.  At one point, Whistler was cross-examined about the time it took to complete the painting and the justification of the 200 guineas price tag.  Commenting on the two days it took him to complete the work he justified it by saying that the money was not for the actual two days of physical painting but it was payment for his lifetime of artistic knowledge.  Whistler had trouble in getting fellow artists to take his side publicly at the trial as they feared they would be besmirched by the sordid affair.  Ruskin’s counsel performed well and his arguments seemed to find favour with the jurors.  Ruskin himself was not in court due to his on-going illness but the Pre-Raphelite painter Edward Burne-Jones proved a very impressive witness for the Ruskin side.

The jury found in favour of Whistler but awarded him just one farthing in nominal damages and the court costs were split.  This financially ruined Whistler who had to sell his house, his works of art and the art he had collected.  A month after the trial Whistler wrote his account of the trial in a pamphlet entitled Whistler v Ruskin: Art and Art Critics which was sold at six pence per copy.  This proved highly successful and went through six editions.

After the trial Whistler’s hopes that there was no such thing as publicity and that the trial would enhance his standing as an artist proved fanciful as patrons steered clear of him for many years to come.   He did eventually get a commission to Venice from one of his supporters.  This helped him to start on the road of financial recovery and in fact led to, some would say, his best paintings, the “moonlights” such as Nocturne in Blue and Silver: The Lagoon, Venice.   For Ruskin, the trial brought him no glory and in many ways tarnished his image as a critic and almost certainly caused deterioration in his mental health.

So who really won this legal battle?  In some ways they both won and they both lost!

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

2 thoughts on “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket by James Whistler”

  1. Hi Jonathan;
    I was wondering if you have any details as who owned James Whistler’s “The Falling Rocket” or whom could I contact to learn more about this painting and its whereabouts and or who owns it today. It is always wonderful to truck a painting since the day it was painted. I sincerely hope you can help me further in my investigation and or give me a hint or two.
    Best regards,

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