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Gallery Text

An American living in Britain, Whistler was among the most progressive artists in the West in the late nineteenth century. He believed that works of art should function as musical compositions, through evocation and suggestion rather than description. With its muted, blue-gray tones and diluted paints, Nocturne in Blue and Silver exemplifies the artist’s radically reductive style. Though the painting depicts an industrial section of the Thames, it is less a record of a place than an exploration of atmosphere, color, and tone.

Whistler’s break with the highly detailed, carefully constructed narrative paintings of his contemporaries raised the ire of period critics. In 1877, British writer and critic John Ruskin lambasted Whistler for this and related paintings, accusing him of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” In response, Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. After a much-publicized trial, he won the case, but was awarded only one farthing in damages.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American (Lowell, MA 1834 - 1903 London, England)
Nocturne in Blue and Silver
Other Titles
Former Title: Nocturne in Blue and Silver No. 1
Former Title: Nocturne in Blue and Silver No. 5
Former Title: Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Cremorne Lights
Work Type
c. 1871-1872
Creation Place: North America, United States
Persistent Link
Level 2, Room 2700, European and American Art, 19th century, Impressionism and the Late Nineteenth Century
View this object's location on our interactive map
Physical Descriptions
Oil on wood panel
44.5 x 61 cm (17 1/2 x 24 in.)
frame: 64.8 x 81.3 x 7.6 cm (25 1/2 x 32 x 3 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.r.: Butterfly monogram
Presented by Whistler to Frances (Mrs. Frederick R.) Leyland, before November 1872; acquired by Hunt Henderson after her death, after 1910; his bequest to Tulane University, 1939; its sale to Grenville L. Winthrop through Macdonald Gallery, New York, April 1941; his bequest to the Fogg Art Museum, 1943.
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
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Publication History

Thomas R. Way, The Art of James McNeill Whistler: An Appreciation, George Bell and Sons, Ltd. (London, England, 1903), p. 60, reproduced opposite p. 60

Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, J. B. Lippincott/W. Heinemann (Philadelphia, PA and London, England, 1908), vol. I, p. 234, 239-240, repr. vol I p. 236

Bernhard Sickert, Whistler, Duckworth & Co. (London, England, 1908), no. 45, p. 156

Elizabeth Robins Pennell and Joseph Pennell, The Whistler Journal, J. B. Lippincott and Co. (Philadelphia, PA, 1921), reproduced opposite p. 120

Edgar P. Richardson, "'Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket' by Whistler", The Art Quarterly (Winter 1947), pp. 2-11, ill. p. 11

Fogg Art Museum and Benjamin Rowland, Jr., Real and Ideal in American Art, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA, Summer 1948), cat. 24

Tom Prideaux, The World of Whistler: 1834-1903, Time-Life Books (New York, NY, 1970), p. 109

Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 92, ill.

Stanley Weintraub, Whistler: A Biography, Weybright and Talley (New York, NY, 1974), p. 143

Andrew McLaren Young and Margaret F. MacDonald, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, Yale University Press (New Haven, 1980), vol. I, p. 69, no. 113 and color reproduction vol. II, pl 107

Caroline A. Jones, Modern Art at Harvard: The Formation of the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Collections of the Harvard University Art Museums (New York, NY and Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Art Museums and Abbeville Press, 1985). With an essay by John Coolidge and a preface by John M. Rosenfield. To accompany the inaugural exhibition at the Sackler Museum, Oct 21 1985 - Jan 5 1986, reproduced in color p. 54, fig. 46

Robin Spencer, ed., Whistler: A Retrospective, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc. (New York, NY, 1989), reproduced in color pl. 41, p. 138

Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin, Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, D.C., 1992), reproduced in color pl. 4

Kathleen Pyne, "Whistler and the Politics of the Urban Picturesque", American Art, National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C., Summer 1994 - Fall 1994), vol. 8, pp. 61-77, p. 74, reproduced b/w

Timothy Anglin Burgard, American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, brochure, Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA, 1994), pp. 4, 5, 11, fig. 4, cat. 34

Laurence Madeline, "L'art de se faire des ennemis", Beaux Arts Magazine (January 1995), pp.50-51, ill. p. 50

John Siewert, "Suspended Spectacle: Whistler's Falling Rocket and the Nocturnal Subject", Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Institute of Arts Founders Society (Detroit, MI, 1995), vol. 69, nos, 1/2, pp. 37-48, p. 38

Isabelle Enaud Lechien, James Whistler: Le paintre et le polémiste, ACR PocheCouleur (Paris, France, 1995), pp. 60-65, reproduced in color p. 63

Christopher Newall, The Grosvenor Gallery Exhibitions: Change and Continuity in the Victorian Art World, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1995), p. 135

Susan P. Casteras, ed., The Grosvenor Gallery: A Palace of Art in Victorian England, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT and London, England, 1996), reproduced in b/w fig. 52 p. 97

Martha Tedeschi, "Whistler and the English Print Market", Print Quarterly (London, England, March 1997), vol. XIV, no. I, p. 9, no. 5

Masterpieces of world art : Fogg Art Museum, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Busch-Reisinger Museum, 1997

Harriet K. Stratis and Martha Tedeschi, The Lithographs of James McNeill Whistler, The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL, 1998), vol. I, pp. 44, 63, fig. 8

Linda Merrill, The Peacock Room: A Cultural Biography, Freer Gallery of Art / Yale University Press (New Haven, CT, 1998), reproduced in color, fig. 3.9, p. 126

Chikashi Kitazaki and Mina Oya, ed., Between Reality and Dreams: Nineteenth Century British and French Art from the Winthrop Collection of the Fogg Art Museum, exh. cat., National Museum of Western Art (Ueno, 2002), pp. 218-219, cat. #68, color repr.

Stephan Wolohojian, ed., A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press (U.S.) (New York, 2003), pp. 466-67, cat. 212, ill.

Linda Merrill, After Whistler: The Artist and His Influence on American Painting, exh. cat., SDZ (Belgium, 2003), page 69, repr. in color

Christopher Riopelle, Harvard's Winthrop Collection: Nineteenth-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, exh. cat., National Gallery Company Limited (London, 2003), p. 43, cat. 30, ill.

Stephan Wolohojian, Ingres, Burne-Jones, Whistler, Renoir... La Collection Grenville L. Winthrop, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and Réunion des Musées Nationaux (Paris, France, 2003), pp.482-83, cat. 212, ill.

John Wilmerding, Signs of the Artist: Signatures and Self-expression in American Paintings, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT, 2003), p.123, fig.98

Katharine A. Lochnan, Turner Whistler Monet: Impressionist Visions, exh. cat., Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto, Ontario, 2004), p. 142, repr. in b/w as fig. 51

Charles Brock, Charles Sheeler: Across Media, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art and University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 2006), p. 15, fig. 7

Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Virginia Anderson, and Kimberly Orcutt, ed., American Paintings at Harvard, Volume Two, Paintings, Drawings, Pastels and Stained Glass by Artists Born 1826-1856, Harvard Art Museums and Yale University Press (U.S.) (Cambridge, MA and New Haven, CT, 2008), p. 398-99, cat. no. 429, reproduced in color, p. 399

Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), ill. p. 162

Marc A. Simpson, Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly, exh. cat., Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute/Yale University Press (Williamstown, MA, 2008), pp. 4, 9, fig. 1, fig. 2 (detail)

Christine Dixon, Ron Radford, and Lucina Ward, Turner to Monet: The Triumph of Landscape Painting, exh. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (Canberra, Australia, 2008), p. 35; repr. in color as Fig 18.

Charles Colbert, Haunted Visions: Spiritualism and American Art, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, 2011), pp. 140-152, repr. p. 141 as fig. 44

Greg Stone, Artful Business: 50 Lessons from Creative Geniuses (Boston, 2016), p. 32, ill. (color)

Exhibition History

Unidentified Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, 1877, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 05/01/1877 - 05/31/1877

Loan Exhibition of Paintings and Prints by James McNeill Whistler, courtesy of the Henderson Family of New Orleans, Louisiana State University Museum of Art, Baton Rouge, 04/08/1937 - 04/23/1937

Real and Ideal in American Art, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 06/01/1948 - 09/01/1948

American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972

Modern Art at Harvard, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/21/1985 - 01/05/1986

American Art at Harvard: Cultures and Contexts, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 10/01/1994 - 12/30/1994

The Persistence of Memory: Continuity and Change in American Cultures, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/29/1995 - 05/13/2001

A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, 03/15/2003 - 05/26/2003; National Gallery, London, 06/25/2003 - 09/14/2003; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 10/23/2003 - 01/25/2004

For Students of Art and Lovers of Beauty: Highlights from the Collection of Grenville L. Winthrop, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/16/2004

Re-View: S424-426 Western Art from 1560 to 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011

Ancient to Modern, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2012 - 06/01/2013

32Q: 2700 Impressionism, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/14/2017 - 01/01/2050

32Q: 2100 19th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 07/11/2017

Subjects and Contexts

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