Nocturne in Black and Gold

`Only Connect’ – the epigraph of the novel Howard’s End by E.M. Forster – was a favourite phrase of one of my English teachers at school, and he invoked it whenever he set us one of his creative writing challenges. We were given two apparently disconnected things (usually news items), asked to think of a possible connection between them and write an story joining them together. From time to time when stuck for a topic for a blog post I’ve resorted to playing the same game.

In that vein: (a) I noticed a story last week about a painting by Piet Mondrian which has been hanging upside down for 75 years and (b) today is November 5th, Bonfire Night in the United Kingdom. The connection between these two things that sprang to my mind is this painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by James McNeill Whistler.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold – the Falling Rocket, c1875, oil on panel, 60.3 × 46.7 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

This, the last in his wonderful series of paintings of night-time scenes, first displayed in 1877, is set in the Cremorne Gardens, which was a park in Chelsea, though in a manner typical of Whistler’s work of this period it is more a response to the location than a representation of it. The sombre colours – mainly green and blue, except for the grey smoke of the falling rocket and the gold flames and flashes of fireworks – are layered in such a way as to blur the situational context of the composition so that it’s no longer a purely figurative work. It’s certainly an enigmatic painting, but I think the arrangement of colours and textures is very well balanced as well as intriguing. It is historically important too, because it represents one of the first stirrings of modernism in art in England.

The compositional ambiguity is deliberate. The ghostly figures in the foreground are almost transparent. Are they even people? When asked this question himself, Whistler replied “They are just what you like”. Whistler is encouraging viewers of his work to construe their own meaning in, and interpretation of, what he put on the canvas. As an astrophysicist, the filamentary pattern of sparks reminds me of chains of distant galaxies. What does it remind you of?

Nocturne in Black and Gold is also famous for having been at the centre of a libel case. The influential art critic John Ruskin hated it and accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. Whistler sued for damages (though he couldn’t really afford to). He won the case against Ruskin, but the outcome was financially disastrous for him because he was awarded only one farthing in damages.

Anyway, the connection with the Mondrian story is that Whistler’s case was done no favours when this painting was brought into the courtroom during the Whistler v Ruskin case, as it was was presented for viewing upside down


7 Responses to “Nocturne in Black and Gold”

  1. I’m confused. You’d think the court case would have been the ultimate opportunity for the correct orientation of a painting to be sorted! How can it have been left hanging upside down for 75 years afterwards ?

    • telescoper Says:

      The 75 years was the Mondrian painting, not the Whistler.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      If Ruskin had just accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” then there would have been no grounds to sue, but his full quote is clearly actionable:

      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.

      Whistler was asking 200 guineas for the painting. His cross-examination elicited a more famous quote. He was asked how long he took to “knock off” a painting, and answered two days. He was then asked if two days’ work was worth 200 guineas, and replied: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

  2. Just looking at the Mondrian story now. To be fair, one can see how the error happened. Call me old-fashioned, but it would be a much greater sin to up-end the Whistler!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: