Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold

An abstract painting featuring a primarily black background with Gold and faint blue highlights. There is a suggestion of a body of water with something massive floating on its surface.

Figure 1. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit

A Personal Interpretation

One might say that for some artworks, seeing beyond the artist’s intention to form a more indefinite, personal interpretation is, ironically, the creator’s ultimate objective after all. Much like Alice stepping tentatively through the two-dimensional plane of the looking glass into the possibilities beyond, the viewer is invited to deduce his own meaning, to form his own associations, thus essentially taking part in the creative process itself. While ambiguity is standard in the conceptual contemporary pieces of today, what mattered most in early American art was what could be read on the surface: narrative clarity, illusionistic detail, realism, and straightforward moral instruction. When did things change? Perhaps, it seems, around the time avant-garde artists began to pursue abstraction, flirt with modernism, and challenge the aesthetic standards of the past.

Consider Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket of 1875. In the mass of shadowy dark hues, vague wandering figures, and splashes of brilliant color, museum-goers might construe myriad meanings from the same scene: perhaps sparks from a blazing campfire, flickering Japanese lanterns, or visions of far-off galaxies mystically appearing on a clear summer night. Indeed, while the Massachusetts-born artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was inspired by a specific event (a fireworks display over London’s Cremorne Gardens) the intangibility, both in appearance and theme, of the oil on panel was deliberate. The questions it conjures, the emotions it evokes, may differ from one viewer to another, and frankly, that’s the point.

“Flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”

The Falling Rocket resonates with many 21st-century beholders, yet when it was first exhibited at a London gallery in 1877, detractors deemed the paintin too slapdash, incomprehensible, even insulting. Art critic John Ruskin dismissed Whistler’s effort as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face,” as in his opinion it contained no social value. In response, Whistler—cheeky man that he was—sued Ruskin for libel, and though he won the case in court, he was awarded only a farthing in damages. During the highly publicized trial, the artist defended his series of atmospheric “noctures” as artistic arrangements whose worth lay not in any imitative aspects but in their basis in transcendent ideals of harmony and beauty.


Whistler saw his paintings as musical compositions illustrated visually, and delineated this idea is his famed “Ten O’Clock” lecture of 1885:

Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick and choose . . . that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he brings forth from chaos glorious harmony.

Many of his titles incorporate allusions to music: “nocturnes,” “symphonies,” “arrangements,” and “harmonies.” The immaterial, the spiritual—these principles are subtly interwoven throughout Whistler’s oeuvre, and he preached his ideas on the new religion of art throughout his career.