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

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

  • 'Nocturne in blue and silver' (1875, Royal Pavilion Gallery, Brighton). 1
  • 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver No. 5' (1876, Society of French Artists). 2
  • 'Nocturne in Blue & Silver No 5' (1877, Whistler). 3
  • 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver' (1877, Grosvenor). 4
  • Probably 'Nocturne en bleu et argent' (1888, Durand-Ruel). 5
  • 'nocturne in blue and silver of old Battersea Bridge' (1888, T. Child). 6
  • 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Fragment of Old Battersea Bridge' (1889, Harper's New Monthly Magazine). 7
  • 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver' and 'Nocturne, Blue and Gold, Old Battersea Bridge' (1905, ISSPG). 8
  • 'Nocturne Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge' (1892, Goupil). 9
  • 'Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge' (1980, YMSM). 10

The preferred title is 'Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge'.

Whistler confused the titles for his Nocturnes with what sometimes appears like calculated perversity. Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge was first exhibited as a 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver', and indeed as 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver No. 5' in what one might have thought was a numbered sequence in 1877, and it remained an (unnumbered) 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver' for many years, becoming a 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold' only in 1892.

It was the first 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver' to be numbered at all. The next to be recorded was No. 3 in the series, Nocturne in Blue and Silver [YMSM 118], so numbered in 1878, which has not been identified. Finally, in 1883, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea [YMSM 103] was exhibited as 'No. 1' in the series. No others are known from this series and it is doubtful if Whistler kept any record of them.

Furthermore, in his 1892 Goupil catalogue entry for Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Whistler quoted a review originally published in Life about 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold, No. 3' – but Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Westminster Bridge [YMSM 145] had been exhibited with that title in 1875. Not only that, but Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach (the painting under discussion) originally bore a label with the same title. And, although there were several paintings exhibited at times as Nocturnes in Blue and Gold, no other paintings were specifically numbered as part of a series of 'Nocturnes in Blue and Gold'.

Description


                    Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Tate Britain
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Tate Britain

A nocturne in vertical format, a view of the Thames from upstream, with a pier of Old Battersea Bridge, and beyond it, the clock tower of Chelsea Church on the left and the river receding into the distance at right. Lights reflect in the water. A small barge or lighter, with a man standing in the stern, having navigated safely under the bridge, is seen crossing diagonally from right to lower left.

During the Whistler v. Ruskin trial in 1878, Whistler said that the painting was a 'moonlight effect' and that it 'represents Battersea Bridge by moonlight'; asked, ‘Which part of the picture is the bridge?’ he replied:

‘Your Lordship is too close at present to the picture to perceive the effect I intended to produce at a distance. The spectator is supposed to be looking down the river toward London, The picture gives a view of the bridge and, looking through the arch, Chelsea Church in the further distance.' 11

Questioned again, ‘Do you say that this is a correct representation of Battersea Bridge?’ Whistler explained:

‘It was not my intent simply to make a copy of Battersea Bridge. I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene. As to what the picture represents, that depends on who looks at it. To some persons it may represent all that I intended; to others it may represent nothing.’ 12

Questioned about details he stated: 'the cascade of gold colour is a firework', the 'prevailing colour' was blue, the figures on the bridge were 'just what you like', and there was a barge underneath the bridge. And he repeated, 'The thing is in intended simply as a representation of moonlight. My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour.' 13

Later (in 1884) Whistler described it succinctly as 'a Nocturne of mine - tall - arch of Battersea bridge - with falling rocket.' 14

Site

Battersea Bridge crosses the river Thames between Chelsea and Battersea. Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 033] is the earliest oil painting by Whistler depicting the whole bridge. From Lindsey Row he looked south across the river Thames, with the bridge to left. Small boats landed on the shore below his house – the Greaves boatyard was based there – and barges unloaded at the jetties. The factories and parks of Battersea were across the river.

The old timber Battersea Bridge dated back to 1771-1772, and was built by John Philips under the direction of Henry Holland. In 1879 it was described as 'one of the old-fashioned timber structures, which will before long have to be removed and a new bridge built in its place.' 15 The old bridge was closed to traffic in 1883 and demolished in 1890. Sir Joseph Bazalgette's bridge was built to replace it, between 1886 and 1890.

Between 1859 and 1879 Whistler portrayed the old bridge in drawings, etchings, lithographs, lithotints and paintings, as well as on a folding screen and on a wall in his house in Chelsea. Whistler's studies were drawn either from a boat or the shore or from a jetty near his house on Lindsey Row.

Etchings – Under Old Battersea Bridge [168] and Old Battersea Bridge [188] – focus on the massive piers of the bridge. Single piles supporting a section of bridge (making a T-shaped composition) appear in several drawings (The new Albert Bridge, seen through old Battersea Bridge [M.0480], A span of old Battersea Bridge [M.0481], Old Battersea Bridge [M.0482], and Nocturne: Battersea Bridge [M.0485]), and these also relate to Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 139]. The oil under discussion, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] is the most famous of the T-shaped compositions, dating from the early 1870s, and the composition reflects the strong influence of oriental prints.

Two chalk drawings – Old Battersea Bridge [M.0700] and The Tall Bridge [M.0701], dating from 1878 – are studies for two lithographs, The Broad Bridge c011 and The Tall Bridge c012 respectively.

The whole bridge is seen in another lithograph, Old Battersea Bridge, No. 2 c013, and finally in Old Battersea Bridge c018, which was drawn from a boat at high tide, when the water conceals much of the piers. Similarly, the high tide had concealed the considerable height of the piles in the earlier oil, Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 033].

Comments


                    Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Tate Britain
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Tate Britain

                    Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 79, September 1889, p. 494
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. 79, September 1889, p. 494

Theodore Child (1846-1892) was the first to compare Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] with the woodcut by Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) of a fête on a river at night, with fireworks, Moonlight at Ryogoko of 1856/1857. 16 In a number of Hiroshige's prints the composition is dominated by the curve of a great wooden bridge – in, for example, Clear Morning after a Snowfall at Nihonbashu Bridge (Nihonbashu yukibare no asa) from the Hundred Views of Famous Places of Edo, and Plates 39 and 53 from the Fifty-three Views of the Tokaido. 17

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] and Whistler's screen (Blue and Silver: Screen, with Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 139]) as well as several of his etchings (Under Old Battersea Bridge [168], and Old Battersea Bridge [188]) and lithotints (The Broad Bridge c011, The Tall Bridge c012, and Old Battersea Bridge, No. 2 c013) show this influence strongly. Of these etchings, Old Battersea Bridge [188] of 1879 is the most Asian in composition and detail.

Under Old Battersea Bridge [168] and the lithotint The Tall Bridge c012 of 1878 resemble Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (the painting under discussion here) most closely.

Notes:

1: Second Annual Exhibition of Modern Pictures in Oil and Water Colour, Royal Pavilion Gallery, Brighton, 1875 (cat. no. 97).

2: 12th Exhibition, Society of French Artists, Deschamps Gallery, London, 1876 (cat. no. 147).

3: Whistler to W. Graham, [23/30 July 1877], GUW #01784.

4: I Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1877 (cat. no. 6A).

5: Exposition Brown, Boudin, Caillebotte, Lepine, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Whistler, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1888 (cat. no. 39 or 42).

6: T. Child to Whistler, 7 November 1888, GUW #00617.

7: Child 1889a [more] , engraving repr. p. 494.

8: 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) in ordinary and deluxe edition respectively.

9: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 4).

10: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 140).

11: Merrill 1992 [more] , p. 232.

12: Ibid., pp. 150-51.

13: Ibid.

14: Whistler to C. W. Deschamps, [9/16 January 1884], GUW #07902.

15: 'Freeing the Bridges', The Times, London, 24 May 1879, p. 12.

16: Child 1889a [more] , engraving repr. p. 494. See an impression of Hiroshige's woodcut, Victoria and Albert Museum V&A E.2908-1913, website at http://collections.vam.ac.uk.

17: See, for instance, impressions in Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 11.1902, 49.621, website at http://www.mfa.org/collections.

Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret