Several possible titles have been suggested:
'Nocturne: Blue and Gold – St Mark's, Venice' is the preferred title. The alteration of title between 1886 and 1892 probably reflects the fact that it had been cleaned.
The façade of a church, at night, in horizontal format. There is scaffolding on the building.
The best known of Venetian subjects, this is the view from in front of the famous café, Florian's, looking diagonally across the Piazza, north-east towards San Marco (partially covered in scaffolding) and the Piazzetta dei Leoni. Grieve points out that the recently installed gas lighting illuminates the gold on the façade. 6
John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896) had established a Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings, and there was considerable press coverage of the controversy about the extent and efficiency of the long-running restorations to St Marks. 7
While Whistler was in Venice, the north corner of the façade of San Marco was covered with the scaffolding from the controversial conservation programme. This is seen both in the oil and in an etching, The Piazzetta , which was included in the first Venice set of etchings published by The Fine Art Society. Ernest George Brown (1851-1915) commented 'I think the time is just ripe for the Venice etchings as there has been a devil of a row here about St Marks and any drawings of Venice we have had have sold immediately.' 8
On showing him the painting in Whistler's studio in 1887, Whistler asked Booth Pearsall 'if Ruskin would admit he could draw architecture.' 9
The American artist Otto Henry Bacher (1856-1909) stated that Whistler's 'very few paintings' made in Venice were done 'mostly from memory.' 10 However, the underlying structure of the cathedral and scaffolding is complex and may well have required making studies on site, even though none have survived.
1: Winter Exhibition, Society of British Artists, London, 1886 (cat. no. 331).
3: Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Champ-de-Mars, Paris, 1892 (cat. no. 1071).
4: 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) (cat. no. 2) as 'Nocturne, St. Mark's', and, in deluxe edition, 'Nocturne, Blue and Gold, St. Mark's'.
7: Dorment, Richard, and Margaret F. MacDonald, James McNeill Whistler, Tate Gallery, London, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 1994-1995 (cat. no. 59). Grieve, 2000, op. cit., p. 172; MacDonald 2001, op. cit., p. 32.
Last updated: 16th December 2020 by Margaret