Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights


  • Date unknown: bought from Whistler by Gerald Potter (1829-1908) ;
  • 1893: sold through David Croal Thomson (1855-1930), Goupil Gallery, London;
  • 1894: owned by Arthur Haythorne Studd (1863-1919) , London;
  • 1919: bequeathed by Studd to the National Gallery, London;
  • 1949: transferred to the Tate Gallery, London (Tate Britain).

It is not known for sure what happened to it at the time of Whistler's bankruptcy in 1879, but it is likely that it was on deposit with H. Graves & Co., as security for a loan. However, it was available for exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in May 1882, and on 11 June 1882 Alan Summerly Cole (1846-1934) noted in his diary having seen 'Cremorne Symphonies' in Whistler's studio. 1

Whistler told two art dealers, Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) of New York and Alexander Reid (1854-1928) of Glasgow, that Gerald Potter had originally bought the painting for 'fifty or may be thirty' pounds sterling. 2 Whistler later described Potter as paying '£30 or 40' and complained to another former patron, Alexander Ionides (1840-1898), of what he saw as unfair profiteering. 3 And in one draft of a letter to Potter himself (which may never have been sent) he said the price had been '100 - or was it 80', but he seems to have had second thoughts, and in another draft he wrote, 'what was the bargain you made of The Nocturne? did you at last get it for £50 - or 30?' 4 So it is not at all clear exactly when or for what price Potter actually bought the nocturne.

The process of selling it, however, is excessively well documented. Potter put his collection in the hands of D. C. Thomson of Goupil's, who took the paintings to Glasgow in 1893. Described as a 'nocturne, "Battersea Reach", in blue and gold' by the Glasgow Herald, it was exhibited in Glasgow in 1893, with Whistler's tacit agreement, since he wanted no works to remain in England. 5 However, after Thomson returned from Glasgow in October, having failed to sell Potter's pictures ̶ Blue and Silver: Blue Wave, Biarritz [YMSM 041], Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052], Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf [YMSM 054] and Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights [YMSM 115] – Whistler complained,

'I hear that things are "very bad" in Glasgow! How did you get on? why do you always drag about the pictures of Potters?? Why? Why? Why! ! !

It annoys me very much to think that works of that distinction should be hawked in this persistent way from one end of the land to the other!' 6

Whistler demanded to know the selling price,'I want to know what the shop keeping "art patrons", Potter and others, are making out of my labour - my brain - my name!!' 7 D. C. Thomson asked the new owner (A. H. Studd, an artist and a staunch admirer of Whistler) if he would divulge the price, and Studd apparently agreed, saying that Goupil's had asked £650 for the 'Nocturne in silver and gold' but settled for a lesser sum. 8 Whistler was both pleased with the enhanced prices and furious that his former patrons had benefited: 'Just fancy Potter must have made at least a clean sweep of twelve hundred out of me! - & he has had the advantage of looking at my pictures all these years besides!' 9

According to Hobson, C. L. Freer of Detroit would have given £250,000 for Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052], Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights [YMSM 115], and Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel [YMSM 169], but Studd would not sell. 10 They were all bequeathed by Studd to the National Gallery in 1919, and this painting was transferred to the Tate Gallery in 1949.


  • 1872: possibly 6th Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery, London, 1872 (cat. no. 237) as 'Nocturne, in Blue and Silver'.
  • 1873: possibly [Exposition], Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1873.
  • 1875: possibly Second Annual Exhibition of Modern Pictures in Oil and Water Colour, Royal Pavilion Gallery, Brighton, 1875 (cat. no. 98) as 'Nocturne in blue and gold'.
  • 1882: probably VI Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1882 (cat. no. 2) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver'.
  • 1892: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 34) as 'Nocturne. Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights'.
  • 1893: [Exhibition], Boussod, Valadon & Cie., of the Goupil Gallery, London, at Wellington Studios, Glasgow, 1893.
  • 1898: possibly A Collection of Selected Works by Painters of the English, French & Dutch Schools, Goupil Gallery, London, 1898 (cat. no. 25) as 'Nocturne – Blue and Gold' (see Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water [YMSM 117]).
  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 56) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver / "Cremorne Lights" '.
  • 1905: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 69) as 'Nocturne en bleu et argent. Les lumières de Cremorne. (Nocturne in Blue and Silver. – Cremorne Lights'.

1872: It is difficult to identify the works exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, the reviews being rather non-specific, as for instance, that in The Times:

'Mr Whistler sends two of his subtle studies of moonlight (187, 237), in which form is eschewed for harmonies of gray and gold and blue and silver so delicate that they require a disciplined perception to follow; ... for the few their rare qualities of truth and beauty are as unquestionable as the strange gifts of the painter, who, in his special sense of these infinite delicacies of misty tone and silvery or golden colour, seems disposed to reduce art to the expression of them, to the exclusion alike of detail, form, and all that is commonly understood as "subject." In a word, painting to Mr. Whistler is the exact correlative of music. … Rare as is the power the painter shows in this work of his predilection, his success cannot disguise the fact that he is really building up art out of his own imperfections.' 11

1873: Whistler exhibited a number of Thames views with Durand Ruel in Paris, and it is quite likely that this painting, dating from the previous year, was among them (see [Views of the Thames] [YMSM 138]).

As he told G. A. Lucas:

'They are not merely canvasses having interest in themselves alone, but are intended to indicate slightly to "those whom it may concern" something of my theory in art - The science of color and "picture pattern" as I have worked it out for myself during these years … Go and see and also fight any battles for me about them with the painter fellows you may find opposed to them - of whom by the way there will doubtless be many - Write me what you may hear and in short as I am not there to see, tell me what effect my work produces, if any ...

This exhibition of mine you will see clearly is especially intended to assert myself to the painters - in short in a manner to register among them in Paris as I have done here, my work.' 12

The possible changes of title make it difficult to track the early exhibiting history of this painting. It is quite likely that it was at Durand-Ruel's in 1873, and somewhat less likely that it was in Brighton in 1875, when a 'Nocturne in blue and gold' was priced at £420: other contenders include Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach [YMSM 119] and Nocturne in Blue and Gold [YMSM 141].

'Fantasie...', Society, 13 May 1882, GUL Whistler PC4/113
'Fantasie...', Society, 13 May 1882, GUL Whistler PC4/113

1882: Society, having lyrically described ' "A Nocturne in Blue and Silver" ' as 'a dream of delicate tones dotted with dancing light', published a cartoon of the painting as a piece of music, the lights and reflections being the notes and bars. 13 Whistler's exhibits were much talked about. Modern Society described them as 'a new crop of Mr. Whistler's little jokes', and the Daily Telegraph called it 'inscrutable', and 'a very remarkable production, seemingly based on linear and chromatic canons not yet understood by the vulgar', by which their art critic probably did not intend to be flattering. 14

The Athenaeum, however, found it perfectly comprehensible, and, though commenting that it rendered 'mists' rather than night, described it enthusiastically:

'with exquisite gradations and perfect truth one of these lovely effects of dimly illuminated morning mists on the Thames which nature evidently intended Mr. Whistler to paint. Pallid azure vapours fill the vista just before dawn. On the shores are gleams of orange light. With much skill a drifting raft, giving due solidity to the whole, has been placed in front.' 15

And on 21 June 1882, the gossip column of the Nottingham Evening Post reported that M. Whistler had 'attended the Almack's Sabbath solemnity in the hope of giving tone to the assemblage, and also with a side-view of painting a companion picture to his nocturne of Cremorne'! 16

1883-1884: A year later, in 1883, Whistler wanted to borrow the painting for the Exposition Internationale de Peinture at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris, but it does not seem to have been exhibited there. 17 He also sent the Belgian art critic Octave Maus (1856-1919) to see Potter's paintings 'especially the Nocturne' but if this was with the intention of borrowing it for Les XX in Brussels, it failed. 18

1892: In London, Whistler and the manager of the Goupil Gallery, D. C. Thomson, considered two exhibitions, running consecutively, 'Nocturnes' from 12 or 19 March for three weeks followed by the other paintings on 16 April, and Potter was prepared to lend both his 'nocturnes', Grey and Silver: Chelsea Wharf [YMSM 054] (which was not really a nocturne at all) and Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights [YMSM 115]. 19 Eventually only one exhibition, a major retrospective, was held, opening on 19 March and including Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights. In the catalogue entry, Whistler printed short excerpts from the Whistler v. Ruskin trial of 1878. He quoted Thomas Taylor (1817-1880), The Times art critic, as comparing Whistler's nocturnes to 'tinted wall paper.' 20 Whistler also, in the 1892 catalogue, quoted Frederick Wedmore (1844-1921) as claiming that people mistakenly thought that the nocturnes would be 'famous to-morrow because they are not famous to-day.' 21 Goupil's were also planning to sell a set of photographs of works exhibited in the retrospective, but Whistler thought the photograph of this particular nocturne 'too murky and dark' for the Goupil Album. 22

No sooner was the Goupil catalogue printed than Whistler was planning to borrow the painting for an exhibition in Munich; J. C. Potter agreed, but again, arrangements fell through. 23

1893: A year later, the Glasgow Herald of 9 November 1893 described 'nocturne, "Battersea Reach", in blue and gold' as being exhibited in Glasgow by Boussod, Valadon & Cie. (Goupil Gallery), of London. Whistler was prepared to sell to a Scottish collector: 'I want nothing to remain in England - Scotland is another thing', he said. 24 No Scottish collector appeared, and the painting returned to England, where it remains to this day.


1: Diary, [27 March 1872-18 April 1885], mss copy, GUW #13132.

2: 4 February and 3 March 1894, GUW #09715 and #13510.

3: [15 August 1895], GUW #02364.

4: [January/February 1894] and [21 February 1894], GUW #13346 and #05010.

5: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [20 July 1893], GUW #08254; Glasgow Herald, Glasgow, 9 November 1893.

6: [10 December 1893], GUW #08287.

7: [22/23 January 1894], GUW #08276.

8: Thomson to Studd, 24 January 1894, GUW #02674; Whistler to Thomson, [25 January 1894], GUW #08275; Studd to Whistler, 27 January 1894, GUW #05610.

9: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 12 February [1894], GUW #08285.

10: Hobson, G. D., Some Thoughts on the Organisation o f Art after the War, London, [1946], pp. 37-38.

11: 'The Dudley Gallery', The Times, London, 11 November 1872, p. 4.

12: Whistler to G. A. Lucas, [18 January 1873], GUW #09182.

13: Society, 3 and 13 May 1882, press cuttings in GUL Whistler PC 4, pp. 105, 113.

14: Modern Society, 20 May 1882; 'The Grosvenor Gallery', Daily Telegraph, London, 1 May 1882 (press cuttings GUL Whistler PC4, pp. 103, 101). Other reviews kept by Whistler included Court Journal, 6 May 1882; 'L. S. D.', [unidentified newspaper], 12 June 1882 (GUL PC Whistler 4, pp. 115, 117, 113, and numerous others).

15: The Athenaeum, 6 May 1882, p. 576 (GUL Whistler PC4, p. 123).

16: 'London Gossip', Nottingham Evening Post, 21 June 1882, p. 2.

17: Whistler to C. W. Deschamps, [11 January 1884], GUW #07909.

18: Whistler to G. Potter, [1884/1885], GUW #09336.

19: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4 January 1892], GUW #08214; Thomson to Whistler, 20 February 1892, GUW #05685.

20: Cross-examination of Taylor, 26 November 1878, as quoted in Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 34). Merrill gives the quotation as 'if you bring art down to delicacy of tone, it is only like the tone of wall paper.'Merrill 1992 [more] , p. 180.

21: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 34).

22: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 2 May 1892, GUW #08205.

23: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210; J. C. Potter to Whistler, 21 April and 1 May 1892, GUW #05007 and #05008; W. Marchant to Whistler, 29 April 1892, GUW #05733.

24: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [20 July 1893], GUW #08254.

Last updated: 22nd November 2020 by Margaret