James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, 1872/73, oil on canvas, 68.3 x 51.2 cm, Tate.
Whistler developed his series of Nocturnes in the 1870s, having been inspired by night-time paintings such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum). The oils and etchings he produced of the nocturnal River Thames recreate the atmosphere of the murky water flowing through industrial London, and the hazy silhouettes that emerged through the moonlight. In his own words, Whistler describes the term Nocturne as an indication of ‘artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it … the picture is throughout a problem that I attempt to solve. I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature, that will bring about this symmetrical result’.
The Nocturne featured here is perhaps Whistler’s most famous, and was used as evidence in his libel case against John Ruskin. The critic accused Whistler of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ in response to his Nocturnes, and this painting was used by Whistler to demonstrate his artistic process to the jury. Whistler won the case, although the court fees led to his bankruptcy as he was awarded only a farthing in damages. RE
Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge is currently on loan from Tate to Dulwich Picture Gallery and is the climax of the new exhibition, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. PWP have published a full colour catalogue to accompany the exhibition.
Rebecca England is Exhibitions Officer at Dulwich Picture Gallery.