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Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel, 60.3 × 46.7 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts) A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

(peaceful music) - [Steven] We're in the Detroit Institute of Art, looking at a painting by James McNeill Whistler called "Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket," and it was painted in 1875. It's depicting a display of fireworks in the evening, along the river Thames, but because it's night, all form is obliterated. We can't make out anything definite, it's only the sparkle of the remnants of the rocket that had sent forth the fireworks that really catch our attention, and these are ephemeral. - [Beth] The first thing to notice, I think immediately, is that the title doesn't refer to some historical or mythological subject. It's not a portrait or a genre scene. Nocturne is a term derived from musical compositions that evoke nighttime, that are inspired by the evening. - [Steven] It's interesting to think about what darkness and what nighttime meant in 1875. And although we take evening illumination for granted now, we just flip a switch and the lights come on, this is the moment when the cities become illuminated, when night is beaten back, when scientific advancement is encroaching on one of the most essential experiences of the human condition. And so it's no surprise that Whistler and other artists are turning to the night as a subject. - [Beth] But imagine the typical exhibition-goer approaching this painting expecting a narrative, a painting of figures or a landscape that was decipherable, with things that you could recognize, it told a story. - [Steven] It is very modernist in that way. And I think an important clue is, again, the title's reference to music. In music, we don't expect a narrative. We don't need to have a story. It's the notes and the rhythms and the texture of the music itself that can be enough to create beauty. It seems as if Whistler is asking the same kinds of questions. Can color, can tone, can their relationships be enough to create a profound emotional experience? - [Beth] The great art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of flinging a pot of paint in the public's face. Art was expected to show craftsmanship. to depict reality, to create illusions, to show the painter's skill in creating those illusions. And so Whistler then took Ruskin to court and during the trial, Ruskin's lawyer immediately got to the heart of the matter. And he said to Whistler, "Did it take you much time to paint 'Nocturne in Black and Gold?" And Whistler replied, "Oh. I knock one off possibly in a couple of days. One day to do the work and another to finish it." Ruskin's lawyer responds, "The labor of two days is that for which you ask 200 guineas?" And Whistler replies, "No, I ask 200 guineas for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime." - [Steven] This speaks to the idea that the paintings are the product of a kind of philosophical inquiry. And this is still an issue for us today in the 21st century. Where do we locate the value of a work of art? Is it in its craftsmanship, in the ability of the artist's hand to render, or is it in a set of ideas that are the foundation for the painting? But we shouldn't dismiss craftsmanship entirely. Whistler took great care in rendering this composition and he draws on important precedents, most specifically Japanese printmaking. The Japanese artist Hiroshige specifically renders fireworks in the night sky, and this rejection of narrative, of storytelling is often referred to as art for art's sake. - [Beth] This was something that was important to many artists in England beginning in the 1860s especially, artists like Albert Moore. And so artists are looking to the formal qualities of art itself and reducing the importance of subject matter, of narrative. (upbeat music)