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

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Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor

Provenance

  • 1876: sold by Whistler to Alfred Chapman (1839-1917) , Liverpool;
  • 1899: bought from Chapman by Charles Lang Freer (1856-1919) , Detroit;
  • 1919: bequeathed by C. L. Freer to the Freer Gallery of Art.

In 1875 Whistler offered a 'Nocturne in blue & silver' to the London dealer Murray Marks (1840-1918), describing it as 'Fishing smacks putting off - at night - Moonlight - I want 300 gs. for it.' 1 This was a high price for the time, and may have been a mistake on Whistler's part. 2 In any case, it seems Marks did not take him up on this and the price went down rather fast.

In 1876, having seen the picture on exhibition ‘at Deschamps gallery’, Alfred Chapman (1839-1917), wrote to Whistler, 'I should very much like to have the “Blue Waves” to put alongside of Southampton Water - but can only [offer] sixty guineas for it'; by 17 July, the sum had been accepted and Chapman sent Whistler a cheque. 3 He had bought Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water [YMSM 117] two years earlier for 200 gns. Robin Spencer identified the ‘Blue Waves’ as Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor [YMSM 100]. 4 If this is correct, prices were going down dramatically, and continued to decline. Whistler, exaggerating Chapman’s profits, claimed later that Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor was bought by Chapman for at most £50.0.0. 5 The low price reflected the dire state of Whistler's financial affairs.

It was certainly in Chapman's collection in the early 1880s. The American sculptor Thomas Waldo Story (1855-1915) had admired a Nocturne in Chapman's collection, and in 1883, Whistler wrote to Story, saying that the five works he was sending to the Grosvenor Gallery included 'the blue sea you liked so much in Liverpool ... they look splendid.' 6

By 1893 Whistler was urging David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) to think about buying 'the "Bognor" '. 7 In July 1895 Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) of Wunderlich, New York dealers, went to Liverpool to see the painting, and in the August of the same year Whistler asked both Kennedy and Thomson if Chapman was going to sell 'The Bognor'. 8 Kennedy assured Whistler:

'He said he was not particular about selling his Whistlers, but if he got any tempting prices, he would sell them. He may be the deep-dyed villain, of which you speak, but I found him as I have told you. If he hadn't been as I describe him, you would never have been intimate with him at any time, would you?' 9

In 1899 the artist suggested to Christine Anderson (Christiana Barrett, Mrs C. L. Baldwyn, Mrs C. A. M. Anderson) (b. 1865/1866) that it should be sold by Chapman to, or through, Whistler's own sale outlet, the Company of the Butterfly, of which she was manager. 10 It was in fact sold by Chapman to C. L. Freer for £1050.0.0, and Whistler again complained, to another collector, J. J. Cowan, about Chapman:

'the paintings he has turned over and over again, he originally had from me direct! which is a very different thing indeed! and for a mere pittance. bargaining! and screwing down. The famous "Bognor" nocturne, he gave me perhaps £50 for, or perhaps 30 - and he has just sold to Mr. Frere [sic] of Detroit, with great secrecy, for at least £1000!' 11

Exhibitions

  • 1874: Possibly Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 9) as 'Blue Waves'.
  • 1876: 12th Exhibition, Society of French Artists, Deschamps Gallery, London, 1876 (cat. no. 149) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold'.
  • 1883: VII Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1883 (cat. no. 111) 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' (see Nocturne en bleu et argent [YMSM 149]).
  • 1892: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 24) ) as 'Nocturne, Blue and Silver – Bognor'.
  • 1892: Exposition Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, Champ-de-Mars, Paris, 1892 (cat. no. 1067) as 'Nocturne bleu et argent; – Bognor'.
  • 1892: Possibly VI. Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Königlicher Glaspalast, Munich, 1892 (cat. no. 1950b) as 'Symphonie in Silber'.
  • 1901: Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901 (cat. no. 96) as 'Bognor – Nocturne'.
  • 1901: [Exhibition], Montross Gallery, New York, 1901 (catalogue untraced).
  • Comparative Exhibition of Native and Foreign Art, under the auspices of the Society of Art Collectors, New York, 1904 (cat. no. 176) as 'Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Bognor'.
  • 1904: Oil Paintings, Water Colors, Pastels and Drawings: Memorial Exhibition of the Works of Mr. J. McNeill Whistler, Copley Society, Boston, 1904 (cat. no. 65) as ' "Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Bognor" '.
  • 1905: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 68).

                    Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art

There is some confusion about when this and other Nocturnes were exhibited and where.

1874: A painting titled Blue Waves was exhibited at Whistler’s first one-man show in 1874. Alfred Chapman (1839-1917), who had bought Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water [YMSM 117] at that exhibition, referred to Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor [YMSM 100] as ‘Blue Waves’ in a letter in which he told Whistler that ‘I should very much like to have the “Blue Waves” to put alongside of Southampton Water’. 12 Grischka Petri speculates that Chapman might have remembered seeing ‘Blue Waves’ at the 1874 exhibition and now wanted to acquire the former companion piece of Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water [YMSM 117] for his collection. 13 However, no extant review of that exhibition provides independent evidence concerning the painting exhibited as ‘Blue Waves’ in 1874.

1876: The Builder described it clearly as one of 'Mr Whistler's curious dreams in colour, of which “A Nocturne in Blue and Gold” … is noteworthy for the actual sparkle of the lights in the craft on the twilight sea.' 14 This description applies convincingly to Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor.

1883: It was at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883, when it was described by Blackburn as 'calm blue sea; boats with lights'. 15 The Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 10 May 1883 described it as 'a half developed work' but added a fair description of it:

'It is a sea-side or river-side piece. The centre or middle distance of the picture is supposed to represent water, and there the "nocturnity" is the deepest. But there is a delicate suggestive shade of light in the sky, with its few pale stars above, and in the foreground, which catches what light there is in the sky, ghostly figures – shrimp-gatherers or what not – can be descried.'

The London correspondent of the The Ipswich Journal on 1 May 1883 admitted, grudgingly, that Whistler's depiction of these figures showed 'unique cleverness'. The Pall Mall Gazette on the following day, remembering the artist's prickly reaction to certain art critics, was 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.' Whistler's second exhibit was Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel [YMSM 169], about which The Ipswich Journal had been very rude indeed.

The artist himself told Chapman, the owner, 'Your picture hung on the line looks superb! - and very much liked.' 16 In this he appears to have been exaggerating!

In the winter of 1883-1884 Whistler suggested exhibiting 'the large Nocturne of the Sea, that was in the Grosvenor' at the exhibition of Les XX in Brussels, but then he did not hear from Chapman in time and it was not borrowed for the exhibition. 17

1888: In April Chapman sent 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold (Bognor)', insured for £350.0.0 (he was very concerned about the risks to his painting), for exhibition in Paris, where it was probably exhibited as one of two ‘Nocturnes in Blue and Silver’ (‘Nocturne en bleu et argent’). 18

1892: In 1892, in his review of Whistler's retrospective exhibition, Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) praised this painting in passionate and poetic terms, defending Whistler against criticism:

'The 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Bognor' … can never be surpassed. The blue of the summer sea, growing black with intensity at the horizon, the silent stars, the ghostly wreaths of cloud trailing in the watery sky. Four little boats hover like great moths and melt their phantom sails in a dusky sea. Three show lights that glimmer on the water. Though it is night, it is light enough to see the white foam turned over by the bows of the two nearer boats. That on the far right is going about under your very eyes, leaving a white track in the wondrous water. The waves creep in while they seem not to move, except where they curl and break and tumble at your feet on a dusky shore. You are conscious, at the water's edge, of shadowy figures going about their mysterious business with the night. All these things and a million-fold more are expressed in this immortal canvas, with a power and a tenderness that I have never seen elsewhere. The whole soul of the universe is in the picture, the whole spirit of beauty. It is an exemplar and a summary of all art. It is an act of divine creation. The man that has created it is thereby alone immortal a thousand times over. Who are we that we should scribble and nag at him?' 19

                    Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, photograph, 1892, PH4/12
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, photograph, 1892, PH4/12

After the retrospective exhibition, the painting was photographed and considered for publication in the Goupil Album of photographs, but in the end it was not included in the album. On 5 May 1893 Whistler complained to D. C. Thomson of the Goupil Gallery that Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room [YMSM 034] and Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks [YMSM 047] had been included in the album of photographs published after the exhibition, but not Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor 'which surely was one of the most important of the whole collection of pictures!' 20 Thomson replied that the selection was based on Whistler's choice, and the matter was closed. 21

As soon as the catalogue was published by Goupil's in 1892, Whistler wanted to borrow the painting again, for Paris. 22 Chapman promptly agreed to lend it to exhibitions in Paris and Munich. 23 Whistler confused matters when he called 'the "Bognor" ', by mistake, ' "Blue Wave" ' but in the end this was sorted and the Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor went on its travels through Europe. 24

1898-1901: It was listed by Whistler among paintings for exhibition by the Society of Austrian Artists in 1898, but there is no record of it being sent to Vienna. 25

Immediately after it was bought by C. L. Freer in 1901, Whistler requested its loan for exhibition in Paris. 26 Freer explained that this was not possible: ' "Bognor," I regret to say is promised for an exhibition to open in New York next week and from there it is to go to Buffalo for the Pan American Exhibition lasting till October next - so I cannot include it with the Paris lot.' 27 Instead it was, as he said, exhibited in Buffalo and New York in 1901 and, after Whistler's death, it also went to the Whistler memorial shows in Boston and Paris.

By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot now be lent to other venues.

Notes:

1: [May/July 1875], formerly dated [February 1876], GUW #09300.

2: Grischka Petri discusses the problems in dating letters regarding the sale and exhibition of this painting and related Nocturnes. Petri 2011 [more] , pp. 227-28, 644-45, note 413.

3: 5 July 1876, GUW #00576, and 17 July 1876, GUW #00577.

4: Spencer 1994 [more] , at p. 671.

5: Whistler to J. J. Cowan, 6 January 1900, GUW #00739.

6: Whistler to T. W. Story, [1 May 1883], GUW #08151.

7: [20 July 1893], GUW #08254.

8: Whistler to Kennedy, 5 August [1895], GUW #09733; to Thomson, [9 August 1895], GUW #08363.

9: 30 August-15 September 1895, GUW #07259.

10: Whistler to C. Anderson, 4 January 1899, GUW #07598.

11: Whistler to J. J. Cowan, 6 January 1900, GUW #00739.

12: 5 July 1876, GUW #00576.

13: Petri 2011 [more] , p. 644, note 413.

14: 'The Society of French Artists', The Builder, 6 May 1876, p. 429. See See Spencer 1994 [more] , p. 671; and Petri 2011 [more] , pp. 227-28, 644-45 note 413.

15: Blackburn 1883 [more] , p. 28. Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor was not, as implied by Williamson, exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 and given by Whistler to Mrs F. R. Leyland: he was undoubtedly confusing it with Nocturne in Blue and Silver [YMSM 113]; Williamson 1919 [more] , pp. 48-49.

16: [May/June 1883]. GUW #09034.

17: Whistler to Deschamps, [8 January 1884], [9/16 January 1884], and [11 January 1884], GUW #07908, #07902, and #07909; Whistler to Chapman, 15 January [1884], GUW #09038.

18: Chapman to Whistler, 12 April 1888, GUW #00579, and to Dowdeswell, 25 April 1888, GUW #00582.

19: W. Sickert 1892 [more] . Quoted in W. Sickert 2000 [more] , p. 94. Sickert's review was widely read, and this praise was cited in a Canadian paper: 'Whistler and Wilde', Toronto Daily Mail, Toronto, 7 May 1892, p. 6.

20: GUW #08229.

21: 9 May 1893, GUW #05777.

22: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210.

23: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 1 May [1892], GUW #08202.

24: Ibid.

25: 12 February 1898, GUW #12579.

26: 10 February 1901, GUW #03190.

27: 6 March 1901, GUW #01522.

Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret