Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Whistler in the Dark

With so much about painting dependant upon lighting, it would seem strange today for an artist to paint in the dark.  However rare, such paintings have long been called "nocturnes," or more commonly, simply night scenes.  I've painted one or two, but for the most part, very few artists, even landscape painters, ever indulged in such work now days.  However, in the nineteenth century, as the impressionists enjoyed playing with light and paint during the day, more radical artists, tried doing the same, only at night.  One of the most notable, while not usually termed an impressionist, is, oddly enough, more famous for painting his mother than for his nocturnes.

Symphony in White
No. 1, The White Girl,
1862, Whistler

Although we like to think of James Abbot McNeill Whistler as an American artist, the truth is he lived in the U.S. for a grand total of only six years in his late teens.  Born in 1834, even in childhood he was something of an international figure, sometimes referred to as an expatriate.  His father was a railroad engineer and spent time working in Russia as well as a number of other European countries.  As a young man, James settled in Paris, took up a Bohemian lifestyle, and became a painter.  His early work was heavily influence by the French realists, Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet.

Whistler was not much interested in subject matter in his paintings. He considered it only a means to an end.  Instead, he explored the formal qualities of the painting itself--colors, composition, tonalities, values, textures, and the pigments themselves.  His 1862 painting of his mistress, titled The White Girl, a woman dressed in white on a white background, he subtitled Symphony in White.  His most famous work, the painting of his mother further illustrates this tendency.  It was titled Arrangement in Gray and Black. In later years he moved to London and became fascinated by the work of J.M.W. Turner and the abstract, painterly qualities of his work, which Whistler quickly integrated into his own.

Nocturne in Black and Gold:
the Falling Rocket, 1874,
James McNeill Whistler

In England, he painted the London "night life," though not quite  as Toulouse-Lautrec later did in Paris.  Whistler painted a number of nocturnes including Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.  This painting depicts a fireworks display over the Thames River and can only be termed an "adventurous use of pigment."  Never one to accept criticism easily or take rejection lightly, the artist was outraged when the English critic, John Ruskin, wrote that Whistler had "flung a pot of paint in the public's face."  Whistler sued for libel, and won the case after a much-publicized trial.  He was awarded one farthing in damages.

No comments:

Post a Comment