An account of Whistler's debts to Charles Augustus Howell (1840?-1890) in 1877 includes a modest payment of £9.1.0 for 'Cremornes', which probably covers the delivery of two paintings of Cremorne to an unspecified location. 2 Certainly by 9 September 1878 Howell had arranged that 'two nocturnes' and several other paintings should be deposited with Henry Graves & Co., printsellers, at 6 Pall Mall. 3 It seems that Howell deposited two Cremorne Nocturnes (Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170]) with Graves & Co. as surety for a loan of £85 made to the artist. This is explained in the statement of account sent to Whistler ten years later by Algernon Graves (1845-1922), on whose information the Pennells and Albert Ludovici, Jr (1852-1932) based their accounts. 4 A letter of 17 March 1881 from Graves to Whistler states: 'I have managed to get back the three nocturnes as I promised I would do - so we can arrange about them whenever you like - but they must not stand over too long.' 5 It is not clear why he mentions three Nocturnes, when most of their correspondence refers only to the two of Cremorne. In the following year Whistler, attempting to sell the pawned paintings, wrote to Graves:
'I want you to lend me the two Nocturnes of Cremorne - the upright one with the fireworks (falling rocket) and the long one with the great Catherine Wheel -
I should like to show them in my Studio on Sunday when I expect some people - You can of course always have them back when you wish - and meanwhile I think it would be advantageous that they should be seen at my place.' 6
Graves delivered the pictures on the condition that if sold the money should be paid to his firm (see Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170]), with any balance over £50 each put to credit on account of payment still to be made on the purchase of Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother [YMSM 101] and Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle [YMSM 137]. 7 Whistler wrote to Graves on 19 June 1882, stating: 'I will send you very soon a cheque on account of the two Nocturnes you were so good as to send.' 8 On 26 April 1883 Whistler made a down payment of £50 towards the re-purchase of this painting and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket from Graves, leaving £35 plus interest of £9.18.4 still outstanding. 9
On 2 March 1889 Whistler suggested that if Graves could 'sell the ... Firewheel for 400 £', he (Graves) could deduct the 10 per cent commission from the sale as well as the £35 still due on the two Nocturnes. 10 At the end of December 1890, Henry Graves (1806-1892) sent an account, including £9.18.4 interest still due on the two Nocturnes. 11 It is likely that Whistler settled the debt soon after this.
By June of the following year the Nocturnes were with David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) of Goupil's who sent them to Paris; a client was interested but the firm wanted to reduce the price to £300. 12 Whistler recommended showing the paintings to Levi Ziegler Leiter (1834-1904), whom he described creatively as an 'archimillionaire.' 13 The paintings made the trip but the sale did not go through. On 11 May 1892 Whistler again wrote to Thomson, suggesting he sell Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel to Bertha Honoré Palmer (1849-1918), Chicago, for 800 guineas. 14 In July of the same year Whistler offered it to the New York art dealer Max Williams (d. 1928):
'The picture you ask about is a "Nocturne in Black & Gold, The Fire Wheel" -
This is and always has been one of my favourite pictures. I want guineas for it - fifteen hundred guineas for it - (£1575 -). If you buy it you may be sure that you are not making a bad stroke of business. The value of these things of mine has not decreased with time, and the days when only "two hundred pounds was charged for a pot of paint flung in the face of the public" by Mr Whistler have gone by.
By the way, this is one of the works that especially roused the ire of Ruskin, resulting in the famous trial.' 15
It appears that for at least a year Max Williams had the option to sell not only this oil but the watercolour, Copy of 'Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel' [M.1359]. Whistler, holidaying in Brittany, enquired, 'Have you sold the little water colour drawing of the nocturne fire wheel. - Have you sold the original?' 16 But apparently Williams failed to sell it, for on 4 February 1894 Whistler told Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) of Wunderlich's, New York dealers, that it was still for sale: 'I have ... the "Fire Wheel, Black & Gold" left - The fire wheel you know I want £1000 guineas for.' 17 By February 1896 Whistler – desperate for money due to the illness of his wife – had consigned it for sale to Kennedy, who also failed to sell it; Whistler asked him to return it, but suggested that he could show it to the architect Stanford White (1853-1906), who 'ought to get it for a museum.' 18
Meanwhile Alexander Reid (1854-1928) in Glasgow expressed an interest in buying it for himself or a client, for 'a modest price', but then refused to consider more than half the 1000gns Whistler asked. 19 Whistler, having told Kennedy that he believed that someone in Scotland was interested, asked him to return it, which Kennedy finally did, rather unwillingly. 20 It arrived, wrote Whistler to Kennedy, 'in pitiable condition! ... Had it at once cleaned - revarnished - Beautiful again!- Sold at once for 1000 guineas.' 21 The purchaser was Arthur H. Studd, an artist and one of Whistler's great admirers, who bought it on 31 March 1896. 22
According to George Hobson, Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) of Detroit was prepared to pay £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 refused to sell. 23 Despite Whistler's declared wish that none of his paintings should stay in England, Studd bequeathed his collection to the National Gallery in London.
After Whistler's bankruptcy, when he was in Venice, he wrote to C. A. Howell enquiring 'about the Nocturnes of Cremorne that were exhibited?', but no record has been located of this painting being exhibited before 1883. 24 It may be that he was a bit confused about what was exhibited when. In a letter to the art dealer Max Williams, in July 1892, Whistler stated: ' "Nocturne in Black and Gold - the Fire Wheel"… always has been one of my favourite pictures. ... the days when "two hundred pounds was charged for a pot of paint flung in the face of the public" by Mr Whistler have gone.' 25 Whistler also added, inaccurately, 'By the way this is one of the works that especially roused the ire of Ruskin's – resulting in the famous trial' (see Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170]). 26
At the time of the Grosvenor exhibition Whistler wrote to a friend, the artist Thomas Waldo Story (1855-1915), 'I am just a little out of it this year - sending only fire works and the blue sea you liked so much in Liverpool - However they look splendid.' 27 Janey Sevilla Campbell (Lady Archibald Campbell) (ca 1846-d.1923) saw Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel [YMSM 169] at the Grosvenor and commented, 'I see you are showing - firing off fireworks & you are harking back to wicked Cremorne.' 28
On 1 May 1883 The Ipswich Journal suggested that it 'would seem to represent a crack piece of Crystal Palace fireworks on a particularly dark night the moment before its final extinction in the blackness,' and on 25 May, the Dundee Advertiser called it 'arrant nonsense.' In contrast, the Pall Mall Gazette of 2 May, remembering the artist's hostile reaction to certain art critics, was conspicuously circumspect in referring to Whistler's exhibits: 'Mr. Whistler obliges the public with two nocturnes, one in "Blue and Silver" (111), the other in "Black and Gold" (115), of both of which we desire to be understood to speak in a respectful and becoming manner.'
Either Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel [YMSM 169] or Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170] was probably exhibited in Edinburgh in 1886 as 'Nocturne' (see also Nocturne [YMSM 171]) and at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1887. It is difficult to distinguish between the exhibition histories of the two Cremorne Nocturnes that Whistler had pawned to Graves.
However, it was definitely sent to the exhibition of Les Vingts in Brussels as ' "Nocturne en noir et or. No. 2.” Souvenir de Cremorne'.
At the request of Octave Maus (1856-1919), Whistler sent a sketch of the painting to be reproduced in the catalogue, Paintings for exhibition [M.0910], as well as instructions on how his panel should be hung. The sketch shows the eight works submitted, some single and some double hung. Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket [YMSM 181] is prominent as the upright in the centre, with Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel underneath it. 29 Admittedly, the drawing is extremely rough and barely serves to identify Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel conclusively as the picture exhibited in Brussels in 1888. 30 In any case, the paintings were well received, Maus assured Whistler, 'Vous avez eu, comme d'habitude le plus grand succès et nous avons été très heureux de votre participation, qui a rehaussé brillamment l'exposition.' 31
1888-1892: Munich and USA.
For exhibition in Munich in 1888, ' "Nocturne in Black & Gold" – The firewheel', was valued at £500. 32 For Wunderlich's in New York in 1889, it remained unsold at the asking price of 350 gns. 33 In May 1892, after further exhibitions, and with American collectors such as Bertha Honoré Palmer in the offing, Whistler raised the price startlingly: 'I am asking 800 for the Fire Wheel', he told D. C. Thomson. 34
1890: Paris. At the time of the Société des artistes français exhibition a curious mix-up occurred during the selection of pictures by the jury, and apparently a report that Whistler's paintings had first been rejected and then re-instated was published in Galignani. Gérard Harry (fl. 1877-1890) told Whistler what appeared to have happened:
'One of my friends (a "Gentleman of the Jury") ... writes me on the subject and I transcribe his exact words:
"Deux petites toiles passent devant la Jury. On ignore le nom de l'auteur - Les uns, sans considerer, la valeur des oeuvres, les trouvent, néanmoins, de trop peu d'importance! des pochades d'atelier, en somme. les autres, une minorité, reconnaissent ou flairent les fantaisies d'un maître. Elles sont refusées, le lendemain on apprend que ce sont des Whistler et sans difficulté - mais non sans regrets, ou sans remorse, elles sont répêchées. Il s'agit des deux petits feux d'artifice. ["]
... As to who were the blind and who the clear-sighted of the Jurymen, my informant says nothing and it would probably be difficult to get him to say anything.' 35
Translation: 'Two small canvasses are put in front of the Jury. The name of the artist is not given - Some, without considering the value of the works, find they are nonetheless not important enough! studio sketches in short. Others, a minority, recognize or suspect the fancies of a master. They are rejected, the next day it is learned that they are Whistlers and without difficulty - but not without regret or remorse, they are fished out. They were the two little fire-works.'
The description of Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel by Gustave Geffroy (1855-1926) at the Paris show in 1890 was detailed and appreciative:
'La Nocturne en noir et or s'élabore au-dessus des pelouses, autour de chevelures d'arbres, au long d'un haut édifice. Des feux courent au raz du gazon, tombent en pluie lumineuse à travers les feuillages, dorent les tours entr'aperçues trouant l'obscurité. Des voiles de deuil s'entrecroisent, de déchirantes lueurs traversent l'espace, le sol frissonne, devient phosphorescent, d'une pâleur verdâtre. C'est infiniment délicat et tendre. Par un prodige de sensitivité et de virtuosité, la nuit reste despotique et mystérieuse, tout en étant clarifiée et pénétrée de lumière.' 36
A very rough translation of this poetic description follows:
'The Nocturne in black and gold is developed over the lawns, fringed by trees, beside a tall building. Fires run along the grass, fall like luminous rain through the leaves, gild the towers piercing the darkness. Veils of mourning intersect, heartbreaking glimmers cross the space, the ground trembles, becomes phosphorescent, with a greenish pallor. It is infinitely delicate and tender. By a miracle of sensitivity and virtuosity, the night remains mysterious and despotic, yet clarified and penetrated by light.'
On 2 May 1892 Whistler wrote to D. C. Thomson regarding Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket: 'The two firework picture[s] are marvellous! - and are wonderful proof of the completeness of those works.' 37
1892: London, Paris, Munich.
Due to some confusion about loans to the Paris exhibition in 1892, Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel was sent at the last minute, as a replacement for Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Chelsea Snow [YMSM 174], which Alfred Chapman (1839-1917) refused to lend, so that Whistler, in a panic, urged D. C. Thomson to pack and send the 'Nocturne Black & Gold the Fire Wheel' by any means possible. 38 From the Paris office of Goupil's, Maurice Joyant (1864-1930) reported 'J'ai envoyé aujourd'hui au Champ de Mars: 1o. Nocturne - Roue de feu 2o. Marine - Harmonie en bleu et argent'. 39 Boussod Valadon & Cie did not think the painting would reproduce well ('la "Roue de Feu" ne donnerait rien en typographie') in 'le Figaro Salon' or its own publication, 'le Salon de 1892'. 40
The painting had, however, been successfully reproduced for the Goupil Album in London in 1892.
It must have gone straight on from Paris to Munich, being returned, insured at Whistler’s request for £800, after the show ended late in October 1892. 41
1893: Chicago, Hamburg, Antwerp.
Whistler suggested the painting might be exhibited in the World's Columbian Exposition, Department of Fine Arts, Chicago, 1893 but it was not included. 42 It did, it would seem, go to Hamburg in 1894, and then, after a slight delay, was 'beautifully placed in the Exposition in Antwerp.' 43 A newspaper reported that Whistler had insisted his work was not to be exhibited 'near the Burlington House faction': Whistler, however, stated (in a letter possibly intended for publication, but not published): 'I am sending my pictures to Antwerp that they be seen - among my distinguished confreres.' 44 Whistler's work was placed 'Hors Concours' owing to rules stating that to be eligible for a medal, works had to have been painted after 1885. 45 It was, Whistler told D. C. Thomson, a unique opportunity for a prospective patron to see an important group of his works, including 'the superb "Firewheel".' 46
Whistler then suggested sending the painting back to Kennedy in New York for exhibition, after the Antwerp show. 47
The artist Anders Leonard Zorn (1860-1920) and Eugène Napoleon Nicolas Bernadotte (1865-1947), Prince of Sweden and Norway, both visited Whistler's London studio in 1896 and discussed potential loans to the Allmänna konst- och industriutställningen in Stockholm.
Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel was almost certainly the painting shown in Stockholm under the title 'Fyrverkeri' (fireworks); it was lent, with Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl [YMSM 052] by the generous owner, Arthur Haythorne Studd (1863-1919). 48 The painting was described by one journalist as 'a night scene which at first captivates the gaze through its impenetrable darkness, but when the eye has acclimated, one sees how a deep blue sky vaults over a city, where thousands of people are in motion to behold a firework.' 49
However, another writer called it 'ett meningslöst färgbizarreri' (meaningless and bizarre) and an American critic said 'it attracts, but few comprehend or feel the beauty of the coloring … It is certainly odd.' 50
It appears at upper right in the photograph of the Boston 1904 exhibition reproduced above.
29: [20/26 January 1888], GUW #09244; drawing repr. in Maus 1926 [more] , p. 70. The drawing is in the Archives de l'Art Contemporain en Belgique, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Bruxelles, Fonds Van der Linden, archives Octave Maus, 5076-77.
30: Laughton suggested that it was Cremorne Gardens, No. 2 [YMSM 164] that was sent to Brussels, but this is unlikely. Laughton, Bruce, ‘The British and American contribution to Les XX 1884-93’, Apollo, vol. 86, November 1967, pp. 373-79.
36: Geffroy, Gustave, ‘Le Salon des Champs-Elysées’, Revue d'Aujourd'hui, 1 May 1890, p. 295.
48: 'Now this is really very nice and kind of you ... I am so glad you have done this about the Copenhagen Exhibition and I think I would let them have the Firewheel too', Whistler to Studd, [March/April 1897], GUW #03158. However, the painting went to Stockholm rather than Den Internationale Kunstudstilling i København, Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 1897.
49: Allmänna konst och industriutställningen i Stockholm, Stockholm, Central-Tryckeriet, 1897, p. 207; translation and original text quoted in Stone, Elizabeth Doe, ‘American Art at the 1897 Stockholm Exhibition’, Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History, 2020; DOI: 10.1080/00233609.2020.1848913. Stone's article assumes that the exhibited work was related to Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170].
50: Hasselgren, Andreas, Utställningen i Stockholm 1897: beskrifning i ord och bild över Allmänna Konst- & Industriutställningen, Stockholm, 1897, p. 471; 'Scandinavia’s Fair', The Chicago Daily Inter Ocean, 5 September 1897, p. 35. Quoted in Stone 2020, op. cit. Stone also cites general approval of Whistler's work as expressed in 'Konstutställningen. Internationell konst', Dagens Nyheter, 6 September 1897, p. 3. See also Anon. 'Från Konsthallen. IV', Svenska Dagbladet, 2 June 1897, p. 2. Many thanks to Eva Mebius, Department of English Literature, University College London, for these references.
Last updated: 20th May 2021 by Margaret