Several possible titles have been suggested:
'Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea' is the preferred title.
The series of 'Nocturnes in Blue and Silver' was first mentioned in 1876-1877 when Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] was listed as Number 5. The next to be numbered was Number 3 (Nocturne in Blue and Silver [YMSM 118]) in 1878. The painting under discussion here, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea [YMSM 103], which dates from earlier than either of these, was not listed as the first in the series until 1884. There may well have been a 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver, No. 2' and a No. 4, but there is no record of these titles. Little reliance can be placed on Whistler's numbering!
A view across a river, in horizontal format. The shore in the foreground is at a slight diagonal from lower left up to right. A figure stands on the shore at right, holding over his shoulder a pole with a net or flag draped over it. At left, a long lighter or small barge, very low in the water, is moored near the shore, with a small light towards the bow, reflected in the water. Across the river are the silhouettes of buildings and a square tower, which casts a long reflection at right. In the foreground, to right of centre, is a rectangular cartouche with a stylised butterfly and '71' painted on it.
The River Thames, London. If this is the painting described by Whistler's mother, then it was a view of Battersea on the south side of the river, from Whistler's house in Chelsea. However, the tower in the distance at right, reflected in the water, has not been identified. It may be that Whistler exaggerated the height of an existing warehouse or that he moved a feature from one part of the riverside to another. There were chemical works and other factories, wharves, timber yards and saw mills, flower mills and St Mary's Church along that shore. The church, completed in 1777, has a tower surmounted by a small spire, so the tower in his painting cannot be that church.
On the other hand, if the nocturne was painted from the Battersea shore, looking towards Chelsea (and was not the picture described by Mrs Whistler), then the tower could be the clocktower of Old Chelsea Church. Whistler painted this several times but he usually included the clock.
Frances Fowle comments:
'In the foreground, a low barge and the figure of a fisherman are indicated with the minimum of detail, and the influence of Japanese art is evident in the restricted palette, the economy of line and the characteristic butterfly signature.' 6
1: 5th Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, under the Management of the Committee of the Dudley Gallery, London, 1871 (cat. no. 265).
2: Label on verso.
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. 31).
Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret