Several possible titles have been suggested:
'Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket' is the preferred title, although after seeing the painting in the Goupil Gallery exhibition in 1892, Whistler wrote to his wife, 'it ought not to have been called Black & Gold - but Blue - of the most lovely - The sky is a marvel.' 12
A night scene, in vertical format. Groups of figures and individuals are faintly seen, at left and in the foreground, watching the display of fireworks. In the middle distance, lights are reflected in a pool at left, and smoke rises in the centre; above and to right, rise two pointed towers illuminated with lights, and above, the sparks of rockets cascade across the sky.
At the Whistler v. Ruskin trial, the defendant’s counsel, the Attorney-General Sir John Holker (1828-1882), described his own impression of the painting: ‘I see the blackness of night with a falling star or some fireworks coming down from the top, and a sort of blaze at the bottom, perhaps a bonfire. That is all.’ 13
Cremorne Gardens, the pleasure gardens by the river Thames in Chelsea. The gardens closed to the public in 1877. The pointed towers in the painting are the four turrets that rose from the fireworks platform. Whistler's paintings of Cremorne include Cremorne, No. 1 [YMSM 163], Cremorne Gardens, No. 2 [YMSM 164], Nocturne: Cremorne Gardens, No. 3 [YMSM 165], Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Gardens [YMSM 166], Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel [YMSM 169], and Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170]. Despite these recognisable features, Whistler said the Nocturne ‘was not painted to offer the portrait of a particular place, but as an artistic impression that had been carried away.' 14 In other words, it was painted from memory.
Whistler exhibited eight pictures at the Grosvenor Gallery in the summer of 1877: Nocturne in Blue and Silver [YMSM 113], Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle [YMSM 137], Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140], Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Westminster Bridge [YMSM 145], Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket [YMSM 170], Arrangement in Black and Brown: The Fur Jacket [YMSM 181], Arrangement in Brown [YMSM 182], and Arrangement in Black, No. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain [YMSM 187].
Of these, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, showing fireworks in Cremorne Gardens, is generally regarded as the main target of attack in the criticism of Whistler's work published by John Ruskin (1819-1900) in Letter 79 of Fors Clavigera for 2 July 1877. It was perhaps not the first comment on the painting but the most momentous, and certainly the most notorious:
'Lastly, the mannerisms and errors of these pictures [by Edward Burne-Jones], whatever may be their extent, are never affected or indolent. The work is natural to the painter, however strange to us; and it is wrought with utmost conscience of care, however far, to his own or our desire, the result may yet be incomplete. Scarcely so much can be said for any other pictures of the modern schools: their eccentricities are almost always in some degree forced; and their imperfections gratuitously, if not impertinently, indulged. For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.' 15
In a Statement of Claim delivered on 21 November 1877 Whistler claimed that Ruskin's criticism was libellous and had been 'falsely and maliciously printed and published by the Defendant of the Plaintiff. The Plaintiff's reputation as an artist has been much damaged by the said libel. The Plaintiff claims – 1. £1,000. 2. the costs of this action.' 16
The case of Whistler v. Ruskin was finally heard at the Queen’s Bench of the High Court on 25 and 26 November 1878, before Baron Huddleston and a Special Jury. Due to Ruskin's state of health he remained absent. Accounts in the press of the trial vary as to detail. Linda Merrill has compiled a transcript of the proceedings from contemporary London newspapers. 17 Whistler's own account was published with expansions and variations in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and in part by the Pennells in their biography of the artist. 18
In his examination by the Attorney-General, Sir John Holker (1828-1882), Ruskin's counsel, Whistler was asked:
'HOLKER: The only picture you had in the Grosvenor Gallery for sale was the Nocturne in Black and Gold?
HOLKER: I suppose you are willing to admit that your pictures exhibit some eccentricities. You have been told that over and over again?
WHISTLER: Yes, very often. (Laughter)
HOLKER: You sent your pictures to the Grosvenor Gallery to invite the admiration of the public?
WHISTLER: That would have been such a vast absurdity on my part that I don't think I could have. (Laughter)
HOLKER: You don't expect your pictures not to be criticized?
WHISTLER: Oh, no, certainly - not unless they are altogether overlooked.
HOLKER: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off? (Laughter)
WHISTLER: I beg your pardon?
HOLKER: I was using an expression which is rather more applicable to my own profession. (Laughter)
WHISTLER: Thank you for the compliment. (Laughter)
HOLKER: How long do you take to knock off one of your pictures?
WHISTLER: Oh, I "knock one off" possibly in a couple of days (Laughter) - one day to do the work and another to finish it. ...
HOLKER: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
WHISTLER: No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime. (Applause)' 19
Under examination by his own Counsel, John Humffrey Parry (1824-1880), Whistler stated:
'WHISTLER: The Nocturne in Black and Gold, which has now been sent for, was the only picture at the Grosvenor for which I asked 200 guineas, and is therefore, I suppose, was the picture referred to in the libel. …
PARRY: Do you conscientiously form your idea and then conscientiously work it out?
WHISTLER: Certainly. I do not always sketch the subjects of my pictures, but I form the idea in my mind conscientiously and work it out to the best of my ability.
PARRY: And these pictures are published by you for the purpose of a livelihood?
PARRY: Your manual labour is rapid?
WHISTLER: Certainly. The proper execution of the idea depends greatly upon the instantaneous work of my hand. The pictures would not have the quality I desire to produce if I did not go on hammering away .' 20
After Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket was produced in court, Whistler stated under cross-examination by Ruskin's counsel:
'WHISTLER: The picture represents a distant view of Cremorne, with a falling rocket and other fire-works.
HOLKER: How long did it take you to paint that?
WHISTLER: One whole day and part of another. It is a finished picture. … The frame is traced with black, and the black mark on the right side is my monogram, which was placed in its position so as not to put the balance of color out.
HOLKER: You have made the study of art your study of a lifetime. What is the peculiar beauty of that picture?
WHISTLER: I daresay I could make it clear to any sympathetic painter, but I do not think I could to you, any more than a musician could explain the beauty of a harmony to a person who has no ear.
HOLKER: Do you not think that anybody looking at that picture might fairly come to the conclusion that it has no peculiar beauty?
WHISTLER: I think there is distinct evidence that Mr. Ruskin did come to that conclusion.
HOLKER: Do you think it fair that Mr. Ruskin should come to that conclusion?
WHISTLER: What might be fair to Mr. Ruskin I can’t answer. No artist of culture would come to that conclusion. I have known unbiased people to recognize that [the nocturne] represents fireworks in a night scene.' 21
Whistler's first witness, William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), had already written about Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket when it was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1875, and his notice was quoted during the trial. 22
‘Another contribution of the same painter is named Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket. This is also extremely good, and in some sense even a bolder attempt than the firstnamed work [Nocturne: Grey and Gold - Westminster Bridge [YMSM 145]]; it cannot be properly called ad captandum, but its artificial subject-matter places it at a less high level. The scene is probably Cremorne Gardens; the heavy rich darkness of the clump of trees to the left, contrasted with the opaque obscurity of the sky, itself enhanced by the falling shower of fire-flakes, is felt and realised with great truth. Straight across the trees, not high above the ground, shoots and fizzes the last and fiercest light of the expiring rocket.’ 23
At the trial, W. M. Rossetti was less enthusiastic. Cross-examined by Sir John Holker, he testified that the painting was neither exquisite nor very beautiful, but ‘unlike the work of most other painters.’ However, he said, it was a work of art ‘because it represents what was intended. It is a picture painted with a considerable sense of the general effect of such a scene and finished with considerable artistic skill.’ 24 Further opinions of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket were expressed at the trial by Whistler's other witnesses, Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893) (‘Most consummate art … There is a decided beauty in the painting'), and William Gorman Wills (1828-1891) (‘I have never seen the Nocturne in Black and Gold before and it is too dark for me to see it now.’ 25 Witnesses for John Ruskin (1819-1900) also commented on the painting, namely Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898) (‘It would be impossible to call it a serious work of art … This is only one of a thousand failures that artists have made in their efforts at painting night’), William Powell Frith (1819-1909) (‘The Nocturne in Black and Gold is not, in my opinion, worth two hundred guineas’), and Thomas Taylor (1817-1880) (‘I should not consider the Nocturne in Black and Gold a good picture; I do not think it a serious work of art.’). 26
Whistler's immediate riposte to the verdict (damages of one farthing without costs) came with the publication in December 1878 of his first brown paper pamphlet, Whistler v. Ruskin, Art & Art Critics, which he dedicated to Albert Moore. 27 Although Ruskin was not present at the trial, a manuscript by him, headed 'My own Article on Whistler' was posthumously published in Cook & Wedderburn's edition of Ruskin's Works. 28
The opinion of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket expressed by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was scarcely more flattering than Ruskin's, and was not quoted during the trial. He had written that Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge [YMSM 140] was 'rather prettier' than Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket but both were 'worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute.' 29
According to the artist Sidney Starr (quoted by Pennell), Whistler showed Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket to him when he visited him in his Tite Street studio:
' "Well now, what do you think of that? What is it?" [Whistler asked.] I said fireworks, and I supposed one of the Cremorne pictures. "Oh, you know, do you? It's the finest thing that ever was done. Critics pitch into it. But bring tots, idiots, imbeciles, blind men, children, anything but Englishmen or Ruskin, here, and of course they know." ' 30
Linda Merrill, in her brilliant analysis of Whistler's trial against John Ruskin (1819-1900), describes the painting as:
'the most abstract, and thus the most difficult to comprehend, of all Whistler’s paintings. To many observers it looked like nothing but “a tract of mud,” as Punch described it: “Above, all fog; below, all inky flood; For subject – it had none." ' 31
The Detroit Institute of Arts commented:
'Whistler made this “artistic impression” based on an actual scene of fireworks (or “rockets”) exploding over London’s Cremorne Gardens at night. At the time, the public considered the fleeting display a questionable subject for a painting. For Whistler, it made a perfect theme for a Nocturne; as an urban, ephemeral, indescribable spectacle, fireworks were beautiful but meaningless. For American artists, the subject was intrinsically modern. As one critic observed, Whistler’s notorious Nocturne vindicated “the abstract appeal of painting, divorced as far as possible from any idea conveyable in words. Whistler never intended for the painting to be a realistic depiction of the lights over the gardens. Rather, he wanted it to convey the atmosphere and his memory of the place." ' 32
John Siewert noted that 'For all its singularity, the fireworks theme perfectly embodies the painter's effort in all the Nocturnes to preserve the ephemera of perception through the resources of art.' 33
1: Ninth Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery, London, 1875 (cat. no. 170).
2: I Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1877 (cat. no. 4).
3: Exposition Internationale de Peinture, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 1883 (cat. no. 8).
4: International Exhibition, Edinburgh, 1886 (cat. no. 1399).
5: Exposition Internationale de Peinture et de Sculpture, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1887 (cat. no. 212).
6: Exposition Générale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1890 (cat. no. 840).
7: Ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure et lithographie des artistes vivants, 105th exhibition, Salon de la Société des artistes français, Palais des Champs Elysées, Paris, 1890 (cat. no. 2440).
8: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 10).
9: Sixty-ninth Annual Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1900 (cat. no. 30).
10: Twenty-fourth Annual Exhibition, Society of American Artists, New York, 1902 (cat. no. 241).
17: The transcript is published in Merrill 1992 [more] , pp. 133-61, with source notes on pp. 299-321. The following newspaper sources were used for the compilation: Globe, 25 November 1875 [more] (press cutting ,GUL Whistler PC 2, p. 28), Pall Mall Gazette, 25 November 1878 [more] , Pall Mall Gazette, 26 November 1878 [more] , Times, 26 November 1878 [more] , Times, 27 November 1878 (Law Report)[more] .
25: Ibid., pp. 159-60.
26: Ibid., pp. 173, 177, 179.
32: 'American Attitude, Whistler and his followers', Detroit Institute of Arts website, 2004, at http://www.dia.org/exhibitions/whistlersite/nocturne.htm (acc. 2015).
33: Siewert, John, 'Art, music, and an aesthetics of place in Whistler's Nocturne paintings', Lochnan, Katharine, Turner, Whistler, Monet, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Tate Britain, London, 2004-2005, pp. 141-47, at pp. 143-44 (cat. no. 50).
Last updated: 8th June 2021 by Margaret