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

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Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge

Provenance

  • 1877: sent by Whistler to William Graham (1817-1885) ;
  • 1886: after Graham's death in 1885, sold at his sale, Christie's, London, 3 April 1886 (lot 120) as 'A Nocturne in Blue and Silver' and bought by Robert Hichens Camden Harrison (1837-1924), Liverpool, for 60 gns (£63.0.0);
  • By 1905: sold by Harrison to the National Art-Collections Fund for £2000;
  • 1905: presented to the National Gallery, London, in July, and transferred to the Tate Gallery, also in 1905.

In July 1877 Whistler wrote to the collector William Graham, M.P., 'I send herewith a picture which many are pleased with and which I myself prize - "Nocturne in Blue & Silver No 5-" May I beg that you will accept it meanwhile as a small amends for my long accumulated debt and apparent neglect and ingratitude.' The nocturne was sent in the place of Annabel Lee [YMSM 079], for which Graham had already paid £100, but which Whistler never completed. 1

In 1878, during preparations for the Whistler v. Ruskin trial, the value of the painting was recorded by Whistler's attorney, James Anderson Rose (1819-1890), as 150 guineas (£164.10.0). 2 Whistler's statement was modified to specify that it 'was sent by me to Mr Graham in about 1877 in lieu of a picture which he had from me a commission to paint for 150 gns.' 3

After Graham's sale at Christie's in 1886, The Observer on 4 April 1886 reported: 'The next work on the easel was "A Nocturne in Blue & Silver," by J. M. Whistler. It was received with hisses. This nocturne, which was used in evidence at the trial of Whistler versus Ruskin, fetched 60gs.' Whistler wrote excitedly to D. C. Thomson of Goupil's:

'Did you buy the "Nocturne in Blue & Silver", at the Graham sale the other day at Christie's? -

If not you have missed it!! - I relied on your getting it - and just think of the unheard of success!! It was received with hisses!!! So the Observer says -

This you know is the very first example of the kind.' 4

He also wrote ironically to the editor of The Observer: 'It is rare that recognition, so complete, is made during the lifetime of the painter, and I would wish to have recorded my full sense of the flattering exception in my favour.' 5

Exhibitions

  • 1875: Second Annual Exhibition of Modern Pictures in Oil and Water Colour, Royal Pavilion Gallery, Brighton, 1875 (cat. no. 97) as 'Nocturne in blue and silver'.
  • 1876: 12th Exhibition, Society of French Artists, Deschamps Gallery, London, 1876 (cat. no. 147) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver No. 5'.
  • 1877: I Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1877 (cat. no. 6A) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver'.
  • 1888: Exposition Brown, Boudin, Caillebotte, Lepine, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Whistler, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1888 (cat. no. 39 or 42) as 'Nocturne en bleu et argent'.
  • 1892: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 4) as 'Nocturne Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge'.
  • 1905: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of the late James McNeill Whistler, First President of The International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, New Gallery, Regent Street, London, 1905 (cat. no. 12; de luxe edition., repr. f.p. 54) 'Nocturne, Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge'; and 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver' (ordinary edition).

The generic title makes it difficult to identify the exhibition history of this painting fully. It was probably exhibited in Brighton in 1875 as 'Nocturne in blue and silver', priced at £315, and as 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver No. 5' at the Society of French Artists in the following year.

1875: Brighton.

Reviews of Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge were not totally unsympathetic, and one critic attempted to give both sides of critical opinion:

'Everyone will be struck by two pictures [Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140], Nocturne in Blue and Gold [YMSM 141]], all blue, almost monotone, which will stand alone, and not a few perchance, may be inclined to ridicule them. Some may think that a guinea would be poorly spent over such works, and will be amazed when they find one of them valued at ... four hundred guineas! ... Viewed by close inspection they appear like very bad attempts at scene painting ... But we have need to retreat to a distance and let the subject grow upon the eye; then the charm of the work comes out and the significance of every stroke tells; there is nothing superfluous; nothing wanting; there is nature itself painted in so few strokes that they can almost be counted, and truthful work, though but a single colour has been used in different tones.' 6

1877: Grosvenor Gallery, London.

Mixed reviews heralded the painting when it was exhibited in the first exhibition of Sir Coutts Lindsay’s new Grosvenor Gallery. Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge hung with other Thames subjects – Nocturne in Blue and Silver, Nocturne: Grey and Gold – Westminster Bridge and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket – in the gallery.

Among reviews in 1877 Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) wrote that Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] was 'rather prettier' than Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170] and 'worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute.' 7 Both these paintings drew the fire of the influential critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), who wrote in Fors Clavigera that he ‘never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.' 8

1878: London, continued.

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, and the ensuing court case was widely reported in the press. Ruskin's solicitors, Walker Martineau & Co., asked to see the paintings that had been shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, before the trial, and did so on 16 November 1878. 9 Whistler begged Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890) to come and see his paintings and appear as a witness at the trial:

'On Monday next my battle with Ruskin comes off - and I shall call on you to state boldly your opinion of Whistler generally as a painter - colorist - and worker ...what I gather is that I must have with me some of my own craft to state that what I produce is Art - otherwise Ruskin's assertion that it is not, remains - Moreover he is prepared with an army of volunteers ready to swear that Whistler's work is mere impudence and sham - and among these gentlemen prominent is Stacey Marks. 'RA -' ready it is said to assert that he can paint a Whistler Nocturne in five minutes in Court! ... I know you wont hesitate ... Meantime ... take fresh confidence in your pal as a painter while you see again the works I have gathered together in my studio!' 10

The case was heard at the Queen's Bench of the High Court on 25-26 November 1878. On the morning of the 25th, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge and Nocturne in Blue and Silver [YMSM 113] were compared in court to Ruskin's main target, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, as evidence in the libel suit.

Press reports of the Whistler v Ruskin trial suggest that Whistler's replies about it under cross-examination were considerably expanded in his own version of the trial proceedings, published in pamphlet form in 1878, and elaborated in 1890. 11 During the trial, Whistler was called on to explain ‘the meaning of the word “nocturne” as applied to your pictures’. He replied:

‘By using the word “nocturne” I wish 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 colour first. The picture is throughout a problem that I attempt to solve. I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature, that will bring about this symmetrical result.’ 12

According to the accounts published in several newspapers, Whistler was asked by the Attorney-General, counsel for the defendant, 'Do you say that this is a correct representation of Battersea Bridge?' and he replied:

'I did not intend it to be a correct portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene. What is that mark on the right of the picture, like a cascade – is it a firework? – Yes. What is that peculiar dark mark on the frame ? – That is all a part of my scheme. It balances the picture. The frame and the picture together are a work of art.' 13

Whistler sent his pamphlet on the trial, Art and Art Critics, to friends, and the writer Welbore St Clair Baddeley (1856-1945) responded, 'I gathered ... that what were liked most among your Grosvenor pictures were the nocturnes ... Your wondrous night atmosphere first arrested my gaze until I felt a curious fascination towards the objects so mysteriously and truthfully reposing in it.' 14

1887-1888: London and Paris.

It was possibly considered for exhibition at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1887, but it was neither included in their 64th Annual show nor listed in a proposed retrospective of Whistler's work. 15 However, it was certainly exhibited with Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1888, when Theodore Child (1846-1892), who needed illustrations for an article about Whistler, asked him, 'Why not tell Durand-Ruel to lend us one of those lovely nocturnes e.g. The Bridge or the other one?' 16

'Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Fragment of Old Battersea Bridge', Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1889, engraving
'Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Fragment of Old Battersea Bridge', Harper's New Monthly Magazine, September 1889, engraving

In response, 'Le Pont' (or according to Child, 'The nocturne of the Bridge') was sent by Paul Durand-Ruel to Charles Baude (1853-1935) to be engraved, and was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in September 1889. 17

1892: Goupil Gallery, London.

Whistler was keen to have what he described as Harrison's 'Nocturne. "Blue & Gold." Old Battersea Bridge' in his Goupil retrospective, and on 25 February 1892, D. C. Thomson reassured him 'Mr Harrison has also at last consented.' 18 On the other hand, Harrison refused to pay for the cleaning, saying, 'The cleaning was done solely because Mr Whistler thought it would look better, & had I wished it cleaned, I should have had it done myself before I moved it into the Country.' 19

In the exhibition catalogue, Whistler mocked his earlier critics by quoting from reviews that in some way related to the painting. A review from Life, used to illustrate Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, stated that one of Whistler's nocturnes ‘might have been called, with a similar confusion of term: A Farce in Moonshine, with half-a-dozen dots.' 20 It was followed by a quotation from evidence given by Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) – for which Whistler never forgave him – at the Whistler v. Ruskin trial on 16 November 1878:

' "The picture representing a night scene on Battersea Bridge has no composition and detail. A day, or a day and a half, seems a reasonable time within which to paint it. It shows no finish – it is simply a sketch." ' 21

Notes:

1: Whistler to Graham, [23/30 July 1877], GUW #01784; Graham to Whistler, 23 July 1877, GUW #01783.

2: J. A. Rose, [6 December 1877/18 November 1878], GUW #12061; see further drafts of Whistler's statement (GUW #11950, #12065 and #12066), and Affidavit dated 6 November 1878, GUW #13279.

3: J. A. Rose to Walker, Martineau & Co., 6 and 16 November 1878, GUW #13279; see also Whistler's statement, sent by the High Court of Justice to J. A. Rose, 25 November 1878, GUW #11911.

4: [5/9 April 1886], GUW #08639; see also Saturday Review, 10 April 1886; and Pennell 1908 [more] , vol. 2, p. 59.

5: Whistler to Edward Dicey, published in The Observer, 11 April 1886, and GUW #11342; also in Whistler 1892 [more] , p. 176. See also Merrill 1992 [more] , pp. 5, 324 note 9.

6: Brighton Gazette, 9 August 1875.

7: Wilde 1877 [more] .

8: Ruskin 1877 [more] .

9: Walker Martineau & Co. to J. A. Rose, 28 October 1878, GUW #12096.

10: Whistler to J. E. Boehm, [22 November 1878], GUW #11985. Merrill 1992 [more] , p. 110 (in fact Marks was very reluctant to appear as a witness); Moore's enthusiastic testimony is summarised in notes written for J. A. Rose, [November 1878], GUW #12112, and recorded in full by Merrill 1992, op. cit., pp. 158-59.

11: Whistler 1878 A [more] ; Whistler 1890 [more] . The most comprehensive account of the trial is given in Merrill 1992 [more] .

12: Merrill 1992, op. cit., p. 144.

13: The interrogation was published in, for instance, 'Mr. Whistler's Action against Mr. Ruskin', Edinburgh Evening News, 26 November 1878, p. 4; 'Mr. Whistler's Action against Mr. Ruskin', North Briton, 30 November 1878, p. 8. Whistler kept several press cuttings including the Daily Telegraph, 26 November 1878, in GUL Whistler PC 2, pp. 15 ff; see also L. Bell 1987 [more] .

14: [25 December 1878 / January 1879], GUW #00232.

15: Whistler to [H. H. Cauty], [February 1887], GUW #08188

16: T. Child to Whistler, 12 July 1888, GUW #00615. See also T. Child to Whistler, 7 November 1888, GUW #00617; J. R. Osgood to Whistler, 2 May 1888 and 20 June 1888, GUW #02041, GUW #02042.

17: P. Durand-Ruel to Whistler, 11 July 1888, GUW #00980; T. Child to Whistler, 12 July 1888, GUW #00616. Child 1889a [more] , repr. p. 494.

18: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4 January 1892], GUW #08214. Thomson to Whistler, 25 February 1892, GUW #05688.

19: R. H. C. Harrison to Boussod, Valadon & Co., 22 September 1892, GUW #02045.

20: Review of the Society of Portrait Painters, Life, 18 July 1891; Getscher 1986 [more] , J.139.

21: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 4); later published in Whistler 1892 [more] , p. 299-300.

Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret