Whistler Moves Toward Abstraction

Changes in artistic approaches through the ages, especially every step that moved closer to abstract art, brought high resistance. Humans are used to seeing what they are used to seeing, and they tend to find it difficult to change their perspective and way of looking at things. During the Gilded Age, James McNeill Whistler struck out in an independent fashion that would prefigure art trends in the 20th century.

"Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" by James McNeill Whistler

“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” by James McNeill Whistler

Influences on Whistler

A non-conformist from his beginnings, Whistler studied art in St. Petersburg, Russia, when his father moved the family there for his work. From there the family moved to London, where he continued his art studies. After attempting to complete studies at West Point, he decided to devote himself entirely to art. He ended up in France and took to the life of a bohemian artist.

One of the personalities who had a lasting effect of Whistler’s approach to art was Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. He put forward two key points that Whistler took to heart and held to for the rest of his life as a painter. The first is that line is more important than color. The second is that black is the basic color of tonal harmony. Whistler worked with black from that point on, a factor that kept him from following down the pathway of the Impressionists, since they felt the use of black should be dropped altogether.

Art for Art’s Sake

Whistler became an advocate of the “art for art’s sake” stance. This aesthetic ran counter to the then current expectation that art should have a moral, didactic, or utilitarian purpose. The thinking that an artist would create a work simply for the thing-in-itself could be counted as one of the first steps on the path toward abstract art.  He felt so strongly about it that at one point he said:

“Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone […] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”

For Whistler, the focus of the viewer should be on the immediate response to the work in front of them, not appeals to other potential reactions. As a way of disengaging the viewer from possible emotional baggage of other concepts, he took to naming his works with musical terms. “Symphony,” “arrangement,” “nocturne” because key terms for his titles.

Whistler’s unconventional style, combined with his extroverted defense of his stance and work, led to a court case against the critic John Ruskin over Ruskin’s critique of Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.”

Whistler’s Defense of His Art

Ruskin felt that the value of a piece of art lay in its ability to serve a didactic or moral purpose. The sketchy appearance of “Nocturne in Black and Gold” provoked Ruskin to a pungent dismissal of the work:

“For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. The trial took longer than Whistler anticipated, and he didn’t get as much support from his colleagues as he’d hoped for. But he defended his aesthetic and won the case. Unfortunately, he didn’t win the jury’s respect, for they awarded him only a farthing in damages. It would seem that some at least of the jury shared Ruskin’s opinion of the painting.

Relating Whistler to Abstract Art

What then did Whistler’s approach have to do with abstract art? In spite of choosing a different path than the Impressionists chose, Whistler’s works moved away from strict representational work. In many paintings, his attention was not on the details of the subject he was painting, but rather the immediate impact of the visual. He often selected a specific color palette to work with rather than trying to capture the exact spectrum in front of him. In essence, he was abstracting from his subject those aspects that appealed to his artistic sense. His intention to provoke a specific, immediate reaction to the work, a response uncluttered by emotional reference to other things, would be a goal that the future abstract artists would raise to an even greater level.

"Some Thoughts on Fragonard" by Diana Hobson

“Some Thoughts on Fragonard” by Diana Hobson

The works of Diana Hobson continue this quest to provoke an immediate response to the art that is not affected by extraneous matters and emotions. Her work uses color and shape to catch the energy she wishes to convey. She lets the work speak for itself. For those interested in seeing more of her work, her studio in Venice can be visited on Abbot Kinney.


“Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” by James McNeill Whistler. Detroit Institute of Arts. Image included here under Fair Use Practices, for the purposes of instruction and information.

“Some Thoughts on Fragonard” by Diana Hobson. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.


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