“Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear,” said the iconoclastic painter James McNeill Whistler. Born in the United States, Whistler spent most of his adult life in Paris and London. To emphasize that his paintings have no narrative overtones—that instead they are aesthetic arrangements of color and shape on flat surfaces—he gave them titles derived from music, such as “arrangements,” “symphonies,” and “nocturnes.” One of his first such paintings, “Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water” depicts a hazy, moonlit night on an inlet of the English Channel, southwest of London. Although the work is based on his experience of the location, the specifics of place are inconsequential to it. Instead, Whistler was interested in the subtle harmony of shades of blue, punctuated by touches of gold. By blurring and obscuring the shapes of the distant boats, he made color and form the primary focus of the painting. Often misunderstood and at times openly ridiculed when they were first exhibited, Whistler’s luminous nocturnal visions were forerunners of the experiments in abstraction that would follow in the next century.


  • Title: Nocturne: Blue and Gold—Southampton Water
  • Creator: James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903)
  • Creator Lifespan: 1834/1903
  • Date Created: 1872
  • Physical Dimensions: 50.5 × 76 cm (19 7/8 × 29 15/16 in.)
  • Type: Painting
  • External Link: The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Media: Oil on canvas
  • Credit Line: The Art Institute of Chicago, Stickney Fund, 1900.52
  • Artist: James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903)

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