James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834-1903)
United States, 1870-1875
Oil on canvas
H x W: 49.9 x 72.3 cm
Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1902.97a-b
From the time he moved to London in 1859, Whistler always lived within sight of the Thames River, finding it a constant source of inspiration for his art. It was a luminous twilight view of the River in the summer of 1871 that led Whistler to produce thirty-two paintings known as “Nocturnes.” These ephemeral images of urban darkness would become his most original contribution to nineteenth-century painting.
This work depicts the view toward Battersea that Whistler would have seen from his second-story studio in Chelsea. Battersea was an industrial area of London, full of factories, slag heaps, and smog, and Whistler’s interest in the urban scene hints at his ties to the French Realist movement earlier in his career. By the 1870s, however, Whistler had embraced and synthesized a new artistic influence and formal vocabulary: the compositional principles and flattened forms of Japanese prints. Here, he combined these elements—evident in the gracefully asymmetrical arrangement of masts, planar bands of color, and nearly monochromatic palette—with the evocative quality of moonlight to impart a poetic, mysterious beauty to the industrial river view. Victorian viewers, accustomed to clearly rendered visual narratives, found the Nocturnes perplexing. But Charles Lang Freer appreciated what he described as their “refinement and mystery.” He eagerly sought out eight examples and regarded this painting, which he purchased in 1902, as “one of the four greatest masterpieces of the Nocturnes.”