"River Nocturne," done on the brown paper James McNeill Whistler favored for his pastels, was made while Whistler was working on his 1877 "Nocturnes" series of paintings based on views of the Thames at night. Beginning in 1866, Whistler began to use musical nomenclature for his titles. These musical designations were meant to suggest the analogy between the visual arts and the abstract art of music. He felt that art should be independent, purely aesthetically pleasing without the confusion caused by specific emotions or reminiscences. He often used titles like "Arrangement," "Harmony," and, in this case, "Nocturne," to distance his works from specific themes.