Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold
- 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.
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).
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.