Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea | James McNeill Whistler | 1871
James Whistler was born in the US, but developed his all career in the England of the en don the 19th Century. Victorian society considered that art should serve both morally and socially, but the impulsive and feisty Whistler thought different. He believed in the “art for art’s sake” and rejected all kinds of judgments of the reality he portrayed. Beyond that, Whistler sustained that reality, for itself, was messy. He himself is going to say that “nature is rarely right” and that the mission of the artist is “to bring chaos into a glorious harmony”. His obsession for the idea of harmony will take him to name his paintings with titles related to music: “nocturnes”, “harmonies” or “compositions”.
When he returns from Paris in 1866, he starts thinking in his series of “nocturnes”, paintings that will portrait, for 10 years, tranquil views of the Thames River in the evening or night. Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea is the first work of the series and illustrates a view of the city from the Battersea Bridge. In the foreground, we see two greenish strokes: one horizontal and one vertical. They represent a boat and a fisherman looking at it, respectively. In the background, we can see the silhouette of the city, with its factories, windows and the tower of the church suggested at the right. Forms are reflected in the river and this gives the work an aura of mystery. The composition lacks of perspective and it is strictly bidimensional. This commonly is associated to the influence of the Japanese painting, traditionally flat, in the artist. Whistler, for his “nocturnes”, used thin layers of paint, one over the other, in order to slowly achieve the tone he wanted. This technique let us see the streaks left by the paintbrush by painting horizontally. Below in the centre, we can see the seal of the artist, also taken from Japanese painting, showing a butterfly with a sting. This symbol, according to Whistler himself, would represent his delicacy for painting as well as his acute wit to defend his artistic theories and to answer to the critics they aroused.
With Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, Whistler transforms the industrial facade of the city into a beautiful dreamy landscape. Thus, coherently with his mission, turns chaos into harmony, leaving us a masterpiece, like other English landscape masters John Sell Cotman or JMW Turner.