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

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Nocturne: Grey and Gold – Westminster Bridge

Provenance

  • 1875: bought from Whistler by Percy Wyndham (1835-1911) , London, for £210.0.0; 1
  • From 1875: jointly owned by Percy Wyndham and Madeline Caroline Frances Eden Campbell (Mrs P. Wyndham) (1835-1920) ; 2
  • 1920: probably passed by family descent to their oldest daughter, Mary Constance Wyndham Charteris, Countess of Wemys (1862-1937) ;
  • 1937: probably sold after the death of Mrs Charteris, or of her husband, Hugo Richard Charteris, 11th Earl of Wemys (1857-1937);
  • 1938: bought on 28 July 1938 from Adams, London art dealers, by William Burrell (1861-1958) ;
  • 1944: Sir William and Lady Burrell signed the Deed of Gift giving their collection to the City of Glasgow;
  • 1967: the Trustees of the Burrell Collection agreed on a site conforming to the spirit of Burrell's will, for a new museum to be built in Pollok Estate, Glasgow;
  • 1983: The Burrell Collection opened.

According to press reports of the Whistler v. Ruskin trial, Whistler stated in evidence that he had sold the painting to Percy Wyndham for £200, and he complained that since the criticism of his work by John Ruskin (1819-1900) he had been unable to get a comparable price for his pictures. 3

Though authentic, with a well-established provenance, the proveance of the painting is not completely established. 4 It is highly likely that it passed by family descent to one or more of the children of Percy Wyndham (1835-1911) and Madeline Caroline Frances Eden Campbell (Mrs P. Wyndham) (1835-1920) at the latter's death. It is also likely that the painting went to their eldest daughter Mary Constance Wyndham Charteris, Countess of Wemys (1862-1937). She was one of The Wyndham Sisters, painted by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) in 1899. 5 She died on 29 April 1937, and her husband Hugo Richard Charteris, 11th Earl of Wemys (1857-1937), died in the same year, on 12 July. Their children included Hugo Francis Charteris (b. 1884), Guy Lawrence Charteris (b. 1886) and Cynthia Charteris (b. 1888). Given that the painting was on the market by 1938, it is most likely (though it could be a coincidence) that it stayed in the Wyndham and Charteris families until sold through Adams to the great Glasgow collector, William Burrell (1861-1958).

Exhibitions

  • 1875: Ninth Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery, London, 1875 (cat. no. 160) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold, No. 3'.
  • 1877: I Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1877 (cat. no. 6) as 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold'.
  • 1892: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 19) as 'Nocturne. Grey and Gold – Westminster Bridge'.
  • 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. 36) as 'Nocturne, Blue and Silver'.

William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), in a review of the 1875 Dudley exhibition, was very enthusiastic about this painting, asserting that it would 'be long remembered by visitors, and will always count as one of its author's chief masterpieces, and in its way never to be superseded and not often rivalled.' 6 The Times' critic, Thomas Taylor (1817-1880), was less enthusiastic, criticising the 'pretentious titles' and the muted colours:

'Two of Mr. Whistler's "colour symphonies" – a "Nocturne in blue and gold," and a "Nocturne in black and gold." If he did not exhibit these as pictures under peculiar and, what seem to most people, pretentious titles, they would be entitled to their due meed of admiration. But they only come one step nearer pictures than delicately graduated tints on a wall paper do ... he must not attempt, with that happy, half-humorous audacity which all his dealings with his own works suggests, to palm off his deficiencies upon us as manifestations of power.' 7

Grischka Petri comments that it was unusual for a nocturne to be bought for the asking price direct from an exhibition, as happened to this painting in 1875. 8 It may be that it was bought by Percy Wyndham as a present for his wife, although their correspondence suggests they both had a strong interest in it ('We are very fond of the picture' wrote Mrs Wyndham when it was damaged in 1892). 9

The Scotsman on 23 October 1875 described Whistler's nocturnes as 'marvellous and bizarre' but The Examiner's art critic was more perceptive, observing:

'… the golden lights along the distant embankment, and the mingling blues of mist and night, are rendered with the artist's long liquid sweeps of the brush, so easy and so true that one would hardly give him credit for the labour such consummate work must cost him. Mr. Whistler, we think, has chosen too coarse a canvas; its rough surface, while giving this work a cerain harmony of its own, impedes the otherwise melting flow of colour, and the execution becomes a little too apparent.' 10

In another review of the Dudley Gallery show, one art critic commented that, since Whistler's dark paintings were glazed, 'serve only as a mirror in which the unpoetic forms of the visitors to the gallery are reflected.' 11 However, by 1877, Sidney Colvin (1845-1927) could apparently distinguish the subtleties of the work:

'[it] not only presents a lovely and satisfying sight to the eye, but expresses with a perfect justice the silvery mystery of the night, the subtly varied monotony of the great glimmering river surface, the soft profundity of the sky, and that indefinable atmosphere above the houses, half duskiness, half glare, which is the affluence of the city's life.' 12

The Scotsman art critic also admired Whistler's nocturnes:

'Familiar, but none the less welcome, are J. Whistler's studies of colour and tone – nocturnes as he pleases to call them – in black and gold or blue and silver. Let not the oddity of the titles blind anyone to the charm of that luminous evening effect in which the whole field of view is occupied with delicate gradations of blue, or that still more impressive twilight over a vista of broad river, with lights glimmering here and there along the banks.' 13

Despite provisional arrangements to show the painting to jurors at the Whistler v. Ruskin trial in November 1878, the owner, Mrs Wyndham, was out of town, and it was not possible. 14

What appears to be a comment on this painting, published in 1891, was used by Whistler as commentary on Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] in the Goupil catalogue in 1892. It reads as follows: 'His Nocturne in Blue and Gold, No. 3, might have been called, with a similar confusion of terms: A Farce in Moonshine, with half-a-dozen dots. Life.' 15

In the same 1892 catalogue, Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Westminster Bridge itself was illustrated by Tom Taylor's review of the 1875 Dudley show in The Times (though Whistler mistakenly said it was from the Daily Telegraph) quoted above.

Notes:

1: Whistler to A. S. Cole, [2/19 December 1875], GUW #07788.

2: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 19).

3: Merrill 1992 [more] , p. 143.

4: See MacDonald 2008, What is a Whistler [more] , at pp. 4-5.

5: Ormond, Richard and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent, Portraits of the 1890's, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 155-59.

6: Rossetti 1875 [more] .

7: Tom Taylor, 'Winter Exhibitions: The Dudley', The Times, London, 2 December 1875, p. 4 (GUL Whistler PC 1, pp. 81, 83, 85). Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 19); Merrill 1992 [more] , p. 179.

8: Petri 2011 [more] , pp. 226-27, 250. Whistler asked, and received, a similar price for Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea [YMSM 103].

9: Mrs Wyndham to Whistler, 23 February 1892, GUW #07342.

10: 'The Dudley Gallery – Winter Exhibition', The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 23 October 1875, p. 7. 'The Dudley Gallery', The Examiner, London, 13 November 1875, p. 21.

11: ' J. F. R.', 'The Dudley Gallery Winter Exhibition', Pictorial World, London, 30 October 1875, p. 135; quoted by Goebel 1988 [more] , and by Simpson, Marc, 'Whistler, Modernism, and the Creative Afflatus', in Simpson, Marc, Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, 2008, pp. 24-51, at pp. 36, 47 note 50..

12: Colvin 1877 [more] , at pp. 831-32. Petri 2011 [more] , p. 653, n. 137: Petri comments that Colvin avoided the fact that the 'inescapable atmosphere' was clearly fog.

13: Anon., 'The Grosvenor Gallery', The Scotsman, Edinburgh, 2 May 1877, p. 7.

14: Merrill 1992 [more] , pp. 126, 359, n. 15.

15: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 4). Review of the Society of Portrait Painters, Life, 18 July 1891; Getscher 1986 [more] , J.139.

Last updated: 22nd May 2021 by Margaret