Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water


James McNeill Whistler

American, 1834–1903
Painted 1872
“Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear,” said the daringly unconventional painter James McNeill Whistler. Born in the United States, Whistler spent most of his adult life in Paris and London. To emphasize that his paintings have no narrative overtones—that they instead are aesthetic arrangements of color and shape on flat surfaces—he gave them titles derived from music, such as arrangement, symphony, and nocturne. One of his first such paintings, Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water, depicts a hazy, moonlit night on an inlet of the English Channel, southwest of London. Although the work is based on his experience of the location, the specifics of place are inconsequential. 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.