The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 117
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1872
Collection: Art Institute of Chicago
Accession Number: Stickney Fund, 1900.52
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 50.3 x 76 cm (19 7/8 x 30")
Signature: butterfly
Inscription: '187[2?]'
Frame: Grau-style, American, ca 1919

Date

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water probably dates from 1872. 1

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago

It appears to be dated '1872' on the faint cartouche at lower right, but the last number is indistinct. It was probably first exhibited in the 6th Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery, London, 1872 (cat. no. 187) as 'Nocturne in Grey and Gold'.

Images

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago

Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water, Freer Gallery of Art

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, Tate Britain
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, Tate Britain

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

'Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water' is the preferred title, based on the 1892 Goupil Gallery catalogue.

It was at an exhibition in the Dudley Gallery in 1872 that Whistler first exhibited paintings under the title of 'Nocturnes' (Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water y117 and Nocturne in Blue and Silver y118). The terminology was suggested by his patron Frederick Richards Leyland (1832-1892), and Whistler wrote to thank him:

'I say I can't thank you too much for the name "Nocturne" as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me - besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all I want to say and no more than I wish. The pictures at the Dudley are a great success.' 18

Description

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago

A harbour scene at night, in horizontal format. In the bay are several small boats at left, and tall sailing ships further out at right. At left and right, in the distance, there is more shipping, and at left and right, the sides of the bay. A large golden moon has just risen behind the left-hand promontory. A few lights reflect across the water from buildings on each side of the bay.

Site

Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Southampton Water, Art Institute of Chicago

Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water, Freer Gallery of Art

Southampton, a major port on the south coast of England, UK.

In 1872 The Athenaeum called Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water y117 'a pair' with Nocturne in Blue and Silver y118, adding that it was 'the same part of the Thames under very different effects of light', which is not correct. 19

Whistler painted another, much darker nocturne of Southampton Water several years later (Nocturne in Black and Gold: Entrance to Southampton Water y179) and in the past their history has been confused.

Comments

The Art Institute of Chicago 'guide' comments:

'Although the work is based on his experience of the location, the specifics of place are inconsequential to it. Instead, Whistler was interested in the subtle harmony of shades of blue, punctuated by touches of gold. By blurring and obscuring the shapes of the distant boats, he made color and form the primary focus of the painting. Often misunderstood and sometimes openly ridiculed when they were first exhibited, Whistler’s luminous nocturnal visions were forerunners of the experiments in abstraction that would follow in the next century.' 20

Technique

Technique

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago

The medium and technique have been analysed by Kimberley Muir at the Art Institute of Chicago. 21

The plain-weave canvas was prepared with a dark grey ground. 22 The paints used include lead white, cobalt blue, Prussian blue, iron oxide or earth pigments, vermilion, and bone black. Rubbing and scraping down was part of the painter's process, and in some areas, such as along the horizon, the weave of the canvas is conspicuous. It is painted very thinly, mostly in sweeping horizontal brushstrokes across the canvas. Muir's description of Whistler's technique is very helpful:

'In some areas, the artist applied additional layers of thin, fluid paint on top of the abraded paint, which form more continuous, smooth layers. Overall, the surface ... is very smooth and flat, with only localized use of thick, brush-marked paint: the light-gray streaky clouds in the upper left corner and the local touches of color used for the tiny, flickering lights and reflections in the water and for the moon. The moon was created with relatively thick pale-yellow paint; when this paint was still slightly soft Whistler applied a very thin layer of orange-red paint using a fairly dry brush. The first strokes were applied horizontally and then, over the right third, a final diagonal stroke was added. ... Finally, a stroke of gray paint, used for the mast of the boat below, was pulled through the soft paint.' 23

Conservation History

The conservation and condition of the painting are discussed by Kimberley Muir in the Art Institute of Chicago online catalogue. The paint surface appears uneven, possibly due to earlier cleaning. The painting has a slightly yellow and natural-resin varnish. There are small areas of craquelure and retouching. The canvas has been lined, and is in good condition. 24

Frame

1874: the original frame may have been painted and decorated by Whistler, as were Nocturne in Blue and Silver y113 and Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights y115.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago

1900/1919: the painting is currently in a Grau-style American-made frame, probably dating from after 1900, possibly about 1919.

History

Provenance

' "Nocturne in Grey & Gold" (Southampton Water)' was sold with Nocturne: Battersea Reach y160 by Whistler to Alfred Chapman on 22 June 1874, for 200 guineas. 25 In late September 1894 Chapman asked David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) of the Goupil Gallery to sell it for him for £400. 26

On 19 September Whistler advised Alfred Atmore Pope (1842-1913) to buy it from Thomson: 'Mr. Chapman (of Liverpool, another of my English "Art Patrons"!) has at their place, Goupil, two of my pictures for sale! ... The "Southampton Waters - Blue and Gold" (No 20) is a beauty.' 27

It was eventually sold by Chapman to E. G. Kennedy, of Wunderlich's, New York dealers, and purchased from that firm with the Stickney Fund for the Art Institute of Chicago, 5 February 1900. 28

Exhibitions

1872: It may have been the 'Nocturne in Grey and Gold' shown at the Dudley Gallery in 1872, priced at £315, and described in the The Athenaeum:

'multitudinous shipping on either side with the "silent highway" in the centre and nearly deserted. The air might be said to be visible, so dense is the deep, warm twilight which obscures all things here ... the moon [is] near the dim horizon on our left ... The strength of this picture lies not in its verisimilitude, but in the super-subtle arrangement and exquisitely delicate nature of its colour.' 29

The only trouble with this description is that there really is not all that much shipping!

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago
Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, Art Institute Of Chicago

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights, Tate Britain
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights, Tate Britain

The Athenaeum called Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water y117 'a pair' with 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver', describing it as 'the same part of the Thames under very different effects of light.' 30 This has not been identified with certainty, but was probably Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights y115 (illustrated above). The Builder, discussing both paintings, wondered 'that such a pretty pale blue or pale-grey fog could necessitate the lighting up of the moon and other lamps ... how the small craft so near should be merged in mist, and yet that a forest of masts should be more visible miles away.' 31 The Times expressed modified approval, but with a sting in the tail:

'Mr Whistler sends two of his subtle studies of moonlight (187, 237), in which form is eschewed for harmonies of gray and gold and blue and silver so delicate that they require a disciplined perception to follow; ... for the few their rare qualities of truth and beauty are as unquestionable as the strange gifts of the painter, who, in his special sense of these infinite delicacies of misty tone and silvery or golden colour, seems disposed to reduce art to the expression of them, to the exclusion alike of detail, form, and all that is commonly understood as "subject." In a word, painting to Mr. Whistler is the exact correlative of music. … Rare as is the power the painter shows in this work of his predilection, his success cannot disguise the fact that he is really building up art out of his own imperfections.' 32

Although contemporary reviews of the painting exhibited as a 'Nocturne in Grey and Gold' at the Dudley Gallery in 1872 are not sufficiently clear to identify Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water conclusively, it appears by far the most likely candidate and undoubtedly represents Southampton Water and not the Thames.

After the Dudley exhibition, Whistler wrote to Charles William Deschamps (1848-1908) asking if his Dudley exhibits were now 'safely hanging in your care up stairs in my gallery', presumably meaning in the Fifth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists [Winter Exhibition], Deschamps Gallery, London, 1872. 33

1873-1874: According to William Stephen Marchant (1868-1925), the artist Walter Greaves (1846-1930) described the 'Nocturne in grey and gold' shown at the 1873 International Exhibition in London as 'a moonlight on Southampton Water.' 34 This painting, or Nocturne in Grey and Gold y116, may have been shown in Whistler's one-man show in the following year.

1879: It was certainly included in the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition in 1879, identified by a cartoon in The Mask. 35

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, Tate Britain
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, Tate Britain

It was, however, very little discussed in the papers, and while the North British Daily on 1 May 1879 remarked that it represented 'the Thames on a foggy morning' and was almost identical to Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea y103, this is hardly helpful, since it has little similarity to that painting.

1883: four years later Whistler asked Chapman to lend the painting again, explaining:

'while things are hot I am asked to send several pictures to the Exposition Internationale - Rue de Sèze - very swell where each year different painters are chosen to represent different countries - last year Millais - etc - and I want ... the Southampton Water - Do be very nice and let us continue the success that has been so long in coming!' 36

As a result it was probably exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in 1883 as 'Nocturne en bleu et or', since the description published in a newspaper matches it convincingly: 'Le bleu domine; mais je ne vois d'or que dans la pleine lune et la réflexion des lumières des maisons et des bâtiments dans l'eau du pont.' 37 Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) described the same exhibit as 'représentant une vue de la Tamise au-dessus de laquelle, dans une féerique brume, une lune d'or éclaire de ses pâles rayons l'indistincte forme des vaisseaux endormis à l'ancre.' 38 On the other hand, these descriptions of the painting exhibited in Paris in 1883, although they correspond most closely to Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water, could also, if a clock face was mistaken for the moon, apply to Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Battersea Reach y152 or Nocturne: Grey and Silver y156.

1892 and 1898: Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water was shown in Whistler's major retrospective at Goupil's. Confusingly, Whistler kept changing the title. He immediately wanted to borrow it for exhibition in Munich but this did not materialise. 39 It was probably also at Goupil's in 1898 as 'Nocturne – Blue and Gold', which was described poetically in the Pall Mall Gazette on 8 March: 'the two profound depths of sky and water are divided by a mysterious shore set with sparse lights touched in with a delicious delicacy that drops them wavering and tremulous into the bottom of an infinite abyss of space.' 40

When it was bought by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1900, it was the first of Whistler's Nocturnes to be acquired by a public institution and the only nocturne to enter a public collection during the artist’s lifetime. 41

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

COLLECTION:

EXHIBITION:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: '1871/2' in YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 117).

2: 6th Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery, London, 1872 (cat. no. 187).

3: International Exhibition, South Kensington Museum, London, 1873 (cat. no. 1556).

4: Mr Whistler's Exhibition, Flemish Gallery, 48 Pall Mall, London, 1874 (cat. no. 10).

5: Whistler to Alfred Chapman, 22 June 1874, GUW #11251.

6: Whistler to Anderson Rose, [November 1878], GUW #08784.

7: III Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1879 (cat. no. 193).

8: Whistler to Alfred Chapman, 19 August [1879], GUW #07899.

9: Exposition Internationale de Peinture, Galerie George Petit, Paris, 1883 (cat. no. 7).

10: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4 January 1892], GUW #08214.

11: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 28 February [1892], GUW #08213.

12: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 20).

13: A Collection of Selected Works by Painters of the English, French & Dutch Schools, Goupil Gallery, London, 1898 (cat. no. 25).

14: Art Institute of Chicago, Twenty-First Annual Report of the Trustees, 1 June 1899-1 June 1900, pp. 15, 18.

15: 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. 9) in ordinary and deluxe editions respectively.

16: Œuvres de James McNeill Whistler, Palais de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1905 (cat. no. 67).

17: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 117).

18: Whistler to Leyland, 2/9 November 1872, GUW #08794.

19: Anon., 'The Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery', The Athenaeum, 2 November 1872, pp. 568-69, at p. 568.

20: Entry, Essential Guide, Art Institute of Chicago, 2013, p. 36.

21: Muir, Kimberley, 'Muir, Kimberley, 'Cat. 16 Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water, 1872: Technical Summary,' in Whistler Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2020, URL.

22: Muir 2020, op. cit., records this as 'a mixture of lead white and a carbon-based black, but it also contains a range of relatively large, colorful (red, yellow, orange, and brown) iron oxide or earth pigments.'

23: Muir 2020, ibid.

24: Muir 2020, ibid.

25: Whistler to Chapman, GUW #11251.

26: 'Mr Chapman tells us to ask £400 for Southampton Water', Thomson to Whistler, [19/20 September 1894], GUW #05814.

27: [19 September 1894], GUW #09343.

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

29: Anon., 'The Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery', The Athenaeum, 2 November 1872, pp. 568-69, at p. 568.

30: Anon., 'The Winter Exhibition of Cabinet Pictures in Oil, Dudley Gallery', The Athenaeum, 2 November 1872, pp. 568-69

31: Builder, London, 23 November 1872, p. 929.

32: 'The Dudley Gallery', The Times, London, 11 November 1872, p. 4.

33: [December 1872], GUW #07905.

34: Marchant 1911 [more], pp. 19, 20.

35: The Mask, vol. 2, 17 May 1879, repr. p. 4. Press cutting kept by Whistler, GUL Whistler LB 11/21.

36: [May/June 1883], GUW #09034.

37: Translation: 'Blue dominates; but I see gold only in the full moon and the reflection of the lights of houses and buildings in the water of the bridge.' Unidentified press cutting in GUL Whistler PC 4, pp. 63, 115.

38: Translation: 'representing a view of the Thames over which, in a magical mist, a moon of gold illuminates with its pale rays the indistinct form of the vessels asleep at anchor.' Huysmans 1889 [more], p. 67.

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

40: See also Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Cremorne Lights y115.

41: Exhibition catalogue Atlanta, After Whistler, 2003 [more] (cat. no. 4). Stephanie L. Strother, 'Cat. 16 Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water, 1872: Curatorial Entry,' in Whistler Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2020, URL.