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

Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold

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Key Points

  • The emergence of the Aesthetic movement in Britain in the 1860s signaled a turning point for painting and other art forms. Artists moved away from expected portrayals of narrative scenes that underscored moral or historical lessons. Instead they focused on more philosophical portrayals of beauty, exploring the formal qualities of visual imagery such as color, tone, shape, and line, and striving for the creation of “art for art’s sake.”
  • Artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler employed the metaphor and language of music to describe his images, emphasizing how the formal qualities of his artwork convey emotion and beauty. Whistler’s nocturnes conjured the experience of nighttime at a moment when scientific advances in electrical lighting and pyrotechnics were intensifying the brilliance of after-dark illumination.

Go Deeper

This painting the Detroit Institute of Arts

Whistler Nocturnes at the Tate Britain

Hélène Valance, Nocturne: Night in American Art, 1890–1917  (Yale University Press: 2018).

The Aesthetic Movement

Ruskin vs. Whistler

Mary Zajac, “How James McNeill Whistler Became a Brand and Fought for it in Court,” HUMANITIES 35 no. 5.

Learn more about Japonisme, the interest in and influence of Japanese art and design on Western art in the late 19th century

More to Think About

How is Nocturne in Black and Gold an example of “art for art’s sake”?

Where do you locate the most value in a work of art–in the ideas expressed, the technical skill of the artist, or somewhere else? Debate this question as a class and cite examples of artworks that support your case.

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.