Archive for January 17th, 2023

James McNeill Whistler Nocturne in Grey and Gold

James McNeill Whistler- Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow, 1876

Why should not I call my works ‘symphonies’, ‘arrangements’, ‘harmonies’, and ‘nocturnes’?… The vast majority of English folk cannot and will not consider a picture as a picture, apart from any story which it may be supposed to tell. My picture of ‘Harmony in Grey and Gold’ is an illustration of my meaning – as snow scene with a single black figure and lighted tavern. I care nothing for the past, present, or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot. All that I know is that my combination of grey and gold is the basis of the picture. Now this is precisely what my friends cannot grasp.

–James McNeill Whistler, In a letter to ‘The World’, London 22 May, 1878

The painting at the top from James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) is called Nocturne in Grey and Gold: Chelsea Snow. He originally called it Harmony in Grey and Gold and has also used the titles Nocturne: Grey and Gold Snow and Chelsea Nocturne.

But the fact that the title jumped around a little bit is not the point here. It’s his description of how he viewed his work during the process of creation as compared to how others viewed it after it was complete that interests me.

He often described and titled his work in musical terms such compositions, harmony, nocturne, symphony, and so on. His work was very much more about capturing rhythms, mood, and harmonies than on narrative or subject matter.  He describes just that in the excerpt from his letter to a London newspaper shown above. He doesn’t care that the dark figure in the snow approaching the light of the Chelsea pub creates a narrative.

His interest in that figure is in how it creates a balance and harmony within the composition. The storyline means nothing until the harmony and balance is created.  The narrative is formed afterwards and is as much the creation of the viewer as it is of the artist.

This is a way of working and creating that I can understand. Generally, the driving concern of my painting is to find rhythm, harmony, and balance on the surface. Or mood. Sometimes in doing this, elements are added to the painting that give rise to a storyline. But that doesn’t matter at that point in the process because the primary purpose for that element at that time is as a way of creating balance or harmony in the composition.

Like adding a note or phrase that seems to be missing in a line of music.

I’ve always admired Whistler’s Nocturnes and Harmonies, especially those that had no apparent narrative. They are all harmony and balance, pure mood and feeling. No story needed. It’s good to spend some time looking at these now. They remind me of the aspects of painting that sometimes get less attention than they deserve or need. There’s always something to be taken away from such work.

James McNeill Whistler nocturne-grey-and-silver-1875

James McNeill Whistler- Nocturne in Grey and Silver,1875

James McNeill Whistler Nocturne-in-Black-and-Gold-848x530

James McNeill Whistler- Nocturne in Black and Gold, 1877

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