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

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Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark's, Venice

Provenance

  • 1892: bought by Sebastien-Paul Gallimard (1850-1929) , Paris, through Boussod, Valadon & Cie.
  • 1903: with Agnew's, London art dealers.
  • By 1905: John James Cowan (1846-1936) , Edinburgh.
  • 1912: bought from Wallis, London art dealers, by Gwendoline Elizabeth Davies (1882-1951) , and entered the collection of Gwendoline and Margaret Sidney Davies (1884-1963) , Llandinam;
  • 1952: bequeathed by Gwendoline Elizabeth Davies to the National Museum of Wales.

It may have been among Nocturnes exhibited in Paris in August 1891, when Whistler suggested to David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) of Goupil's in London that two Nocturnes should be shown to Levi Ziegler Leiter (1834-1904). 1 However, on 23 September 1891, Thomson mentioned 'Having to send for the ... Venice scene as arranged with Mr Richards', which suggests it was among additional canvases sent to Goupil's Paris branch, Boussod, Valadon & Cie, at that time. 2 Certainly it was at Boussod, Valadon's in November, when the manager Maurice Joyant (1864-1930) wrote to Whistler:

'mon amateur aime beaucoup St. Marc, je crois qu'il finira par se décider; mais sa femme est très malade en ce moment et alors, il n'a plus la tête à lui. Oh.! les amateurs!'

Translation: 'my amateur [meaning a collector] likes St Marc's very much, I think he will decide to take it in the end; but his wife is very ill at the moment, he is beside himself. Oh.! Collectors!' 3

Whistler also urged John Chandler Bancroft (1835-1901) to go to Boussod, Valadon's to see 'a very fine and most characteristic Whistler ... The Venice Nocturne - The light in their little room upstairs is execrable - but no matter - you look at the Nocturne - it is a beauty - St Marks in the moonlight'. 4 Bancroft did not really appreciate it, and wrote to the artist, 'the light was abominable & I dont believe I got half as good an impression of the moonlight as it deserves - But frankly I am sure I like sunlight best.' 5 However, the next day D. C. Thomson of Goupil's, sent Whistler a cheque for £250 for 'St Marks Venice', which was bought by Gallimard. 6

It is not clear what happened next. Walford Graham Robertson (1867-1948) stated that Whistler left it in his house in Chelsea when he moved to Paris in 1892, and that he rescued it from the estate agents and asked Whistler's frame-maker to put it in his store room. 7 However, Robertson may have been wrong about the picture or the date.

According to D. C. Thomson, it was with Agnew's in London in 1903. 8 Two years later, in 1905, J. J. Cowan lent it to the Whistler Memorial Exhibition in London. It is not known when Cowan sold it. It was bought from Wallis, London art dealers, by Miss Gwendoline E. Davies, Llandinam in 1912, and bequeathed with her very important collection to the National Museum of Wales in 1952.

Exhibitions

  • 1886: Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886 (cat. no. 331) as 'Nocturne in Brown and Gold: St. Mark's, Venice'.
  • 1892: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 38) as 'Nocturne Blue and Gold – St. Mark's, Venice.'
  • 1892: Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Champ-de-Mars, Paris, 1892 (cat. no. 1071) as 'Nocturne bleu et or; – Saint-Marc, Venise'.
  • 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. 2) as 'Nocturne, St. Mark's', and, in deluxe edition, 'Nocturne, Blue and Gold, St. Mark's'.

According to Walter Delaplaine Scull (1863-1915), when this was exhibited at the SBA in 1886-1887, Whistler said, 'I think it is the best of my noctur-n-nes.' 9 This view was not shared wholeheartedly by the press. The Era on 11 December 1886 described it as a 'dissolving view of St. Marks', while the Hampshire Independent on the same day added that it was a 'sketch of St. Mark's, at Venice, done in lamp black, with a few formless touches of grey, even though an imaginative artist calls it a Nocturne in brown and gold! are at once a libel on the objects represented, and insults to the public.'

It was on show privately at Boussod, Valadon & Cie in Paris in 1891. 10 Whistler wrote to Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac (1855-1921):

'allez voir de belles choses que Goupil propose de rendre même commerciales! Il paraît qu'à Paris on veut enfin m'acheter! Ce qui me plairait beaucoup - car nous aimons la porcelaine bleue et les cuillières en argent - et surtout celà ennuyerait tout le monde içi - où il est convenu que l'on ne m'achetera jamais!

Vous y trouverez ... une Nocturne, St Marc que vous ne connaissez pas - quoique vous l'avez souvent regardé dans l'atelier - mais elle était dans un fort mauvais état - c'est à dire sale et négligée - et j'avais cessé de la connaître moi-même. Maintenant elle est superbe! - Voila -'

*Tout ça doit être chez les Goupil là haut sur les Boulevards où était autrefois une Exposition de Monet - Vous direz que vous venez de ma part, car j'avais exgigé qu'on n'en fasse pas Exhibition, comme je ne voulais pas écrémer l'affaire pour plus tard - mais qu'on les montre seulement en cachette pour ainsi dire, à leurs clients choisis.' 11

]Free translation:] 'go and see the beautiful things which Goupil is proposing even to make commercial! It seems that at last people want to buy me in Paris! Which would please me very much - because we like blue porcelain and silver spoons - and above all that would annoy everyone here - where it is agreed that nobody will ever buy me!

There you will find ... a painting ... a Nocturne, St Mark that you do not know, although you have often looked at it in the studio - but it was in a very bad condition - that is to say dirty and neglected - and I had stopped recognizing it myself. Now it is superb! - There -

*All that should be at Goupil's up there on the Boulevards where there was once a Monet Exhibition - You will say that you have come on my behalf, because I did not want my work to be Exhibited, as I did not wish to spoil the business for later - but that they should be shown only in private so to speak, to selected clients.'


                    Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark's, Venice, National Museum of Wales
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark's, Venice, National Museum of Wales

                    Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, The  Frick Collection
Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, The Frick Collection

                    Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water, Freer Gallery of
Art
Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water, Freer Gallery of Art

In 1892, at Goupil's, as D. C. Thomson told Beatrice Philip (Mrs E. W. Godwin, Mrs J. McN. Whistler) (1857-1896): 'The portrait of 'Carlyle' is in the centre of the large room with marines at each side. The Lady Meux is on the other end wall, with the Venice & Madame Coronios Nocturne on each side.' 12 Thus Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water [YMSM 179] and Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice [YMSM 213] flanked Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux [YMSM 229].

In his Goupil catalogue entry for Nocturne: Blue and Gold - St Mark's, Venice [YMSM 213] in 1892 Whistler pointedly quoted John Ruskin (1819-1900), who had criticised the ability of Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1604-1682) to depict architectural ornament, compared to the incomparable 'stone drawing' of Samuel Prout (1783-1852); in the second edition of the Gentle Art of Making Enemies, Whistler added, in the margin, a jubilant butterfly with a barbed tail. He followed the quotation with one from The Athenaeum that he had kept in a press-cutting book for twenty years: 'In Mr. Whistler's productions one might safely say there is no culture.' 13


                    Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark's, Venice, photograph, Goupil Album, 1892, GUL MS Whistler PH5/2
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark's, Venice, photograph, Goupil Album, 1892, GUL MS Whistler PH5/2

Whistler queried the variable quality of photographs intended for the Goupil Album, where this painting was reproduced, and wrote to D. C. Thomson:

'A propos of the Album, you ought to have the proofs reinspected when they are sent to you - for I find that there really are magnificent proofs of each photograph. So that by eliminating the poor proofs, each time, we might have had absolutely perfect sets - It is too bad - In these last batches there were two proofs - one of the "Snow Nocturne" - & the other of "St Marc's - Venice" - that were so shockingly bad that I had to replace them with the copies out of my own set! I could not let the bad go.' 14

Notes:

1: [13 August 1891], GUW #08198.

2: GUW #05678.

3: M. Joyant to Whistler, 18 November 1891, GUW #00380.

4: [5 December 1891], GUW #07603.

5: 17 December 1891, GUW #00246.

6: D. C. Thomson to Whistler, 18 December 1891, GUW #05679; 12 April 1892, GUW #05721; 25 June 1892, GUW #05751.

7: W. G. Robertson 1931 A [more] , p. 200.

8: Thomson 1903 [more] , repr. p. 268.

9: Scull to J. Pennell, 2 January 1909, LC PC.

10: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [13 August 1891], GUW #08198; M. Joyant to Whistler, 18 November 1891, GUW #00380.

11: Whistler to Montesquiou, [20 November 1891], GUW #11554.

12: 19 March 1892, GUW #05705.

13: Whistler 1892 [more] , p. 320 (cat. no. 38). This quotation had already been used in his catalogue for Etchings & Drypoints - Venice. Second Series, Fine Art Society, London, 1883 (cat. no. 31), which was also published in the "Gentle Art...", p. 100. The quotation is from 'The Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery', The Athenaeum, 2 November 1872, pp. 568-69. Whistler's press cutting is in GUL PC1/57.

14: [10/11 July 1893], GUW #08315.

Last updated: 16th December 2020 by Margaret