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Down by the river

The Thames fascinated James McNeill Whistler, and his studies of it exemplified a belief that art should be enjoyed for its own sake and shouldn't have to engage the emotions or tell a tale. Joanna Banham reports

James McNeill Whistler


Whistler was born in Lowell, Massachusetts. After an early life in Russia, where he studied drawing, he returned to America and joined a military academy. In 1855, he decided to become an artist and studied in Paris, then moved to London in 1859. He exhibited major figure paintings at the Royal Academy in London and in Paris. In 1871, Whistler began a succession of Thames "nocturnes". He spent the rest of his life between Paris, London and Venice and was awarded numerous prizes, including the Legion d'Honneur in the late 1880s and 1890s. He was elected president of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers in 1898.

James McNeill Whistler's "Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge" (1872-75) was one of a series of paintings he produced in the mid-1870s, aiming to convey the beauty and tranquillity of the River Thames at night.

The central motif is the tall structure of Old Battersea Bridge, which bisects the composition vertically. To the left can be seen the riverfront at Chelsea with the square tower of the Old Church; to the right, the construction site for the new Albert Bridge, which was started in 1871. A light blue tonality indicates that it is early evening. There are fireworks in the sky; one rocket ascends as another falls. Shadowy shapes representing carriages and other traffic make their way across the bridge; in the foreground is the silhouette of a boat.

Whistler trained in Paris, where he became a friend and admirer of the Realist painters Gustave Courbet (1819-77) and douard Manet (1832-83). He was drawn to the contemporary urban landscape as a means of portraying the poetry of modern life. He was particularly attracted by the Thames and made several etchings and paintings of the area around Wapping and the Pool of London in the late 1850s and 1860s. From 1863 he was also resident in Chelsea at 7 Lindsey Row, a house that overlooked the river, just above Battersea Bridge.

This part of the Thames was not an especially attractive or salubrious area in the 1870s. A busy thoroughfare by day, it was horribly polluted, notorious for its filth and noxious odours and as a source of disease. The riverfront opposite Whistler's house was heavily industrialised with an iron foundry, a chemical works, and numerous other factories spewing out waste. Battersea Bridge itself was widely regarded as an eyesore, devoid of architectural merit or picturesque charm. And to many of his contemporaries, Whistler's choice of subject must have seemed both unsightly and unseemly. Yet "Nocturne: Blue and Gold" avoids many of the more obviously unattractive features of its subject. Early evening twilight obscures the ugliness of the construction site and riverfront, while the subtle depiction of mist and fog creates a flattering haze to soften the outlines of building and disguise the effects of pollution. Critics objected to the picture's lack of topographical detail, but Whistler himself declared: "I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene."

More stylised features, such as the emphasis on decorative surface pattern, and the use of bold, simplified outlines, reflect the influence of Japanese art. Whistler was one of a small group of artists and connoisseurs who began collecting Japanese prints, textiles and porcelain from the mid-1860s. The example of the woodcut artist Hiroshige was particularly important. The distinctive curve of Battersea Bridge was borrowed directly from one of his prints, although the immense height of the pier was Whistler's own invention. In Japanese art there were no clear distinctions between fine and applied art. Around this time Whistler began designing frames to harmonise with his paintings, so the delicate blue and gold wave decoration and the stylised butterfly motif in the frame for "Nocturne: Blue and Gold" were derived from details observed in oriental prints.

Several of Whistler's earlier views of Battersea had been painted from the artist's first-floor studio window. He also employed the Greaves family, who had previously worked for JMW Turner (1775-1851), to row him out on the river between Cremorne Gardens and the Houses of Parliament so he could make sketches and oil studies outdoors.

Painting at night, however, presented difficulties and although he was able to sketch on these expeditions it was not possible to work in oils.

Increasingly, therefore, he worked from memory, studying the scene in front of him with intense concentration before returning to the studio to commit the mental image to canvas.

Whistler's reliance on memory represented an important departure from Realist principles of direct observation espoused by older artists such as Courbet, and coincided with his desire to capture the sensation, rather than the exact appearance of the Thames at night. It allowed him to eliminate detail and simplify design, and drew him closer to an understanding of a picture as first and foremost an objet d'art. Rejecting the conventional view that a painting should tell a story or engage the emotions through its subject, Whistler argued that it should be judged on its formal properties - colour, tone, brushwork, texture and composition.

The word "nocturne" - taken from the titles of the piano pieces by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) - was one of several musical terms used by Whistler as titles for his paintings. It highlighted his belief in the close relationship between colour and sound and drew on ideas first proposed by the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) that painting, like music, relied on formal qualities rather than mere description for its effect. "By using the word 'nocturne'," Whistler declared, "I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it."

This claim, encapsulated in the famous slogan "art for art's sake" - usually credited to French symbolist poet Theophile Gautier (1811-1872) - had radical implications for the future of painting. Its emphasis on a formalist aesthetic and its insistence on the primacy of abstract properties, such as colour and composition, prefigured many of the concerns of modernism.

* Joanna Banham is head of public programmes at Tate Britain

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