Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1875
Oil on panel 23 ¾” x 18 3/8”
Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
Today I am showing you what I think is a significantly important painting in the history of Modern Art. Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket, painted in 1875, broke visual ground as a precursor to abstract, or non-representational art. James Abbott McNiell Whistler (1834 -1903) painted this picture using an abstracted style; a completely different style from any accepted, academic painting of the time. Whistler believed in “art for art sake”, or that art need serve no other purpose than beauty alone.
Art academies began to form in Europe in the 18th century. These academies instructed and encouraged artists in the visual arts. They held exhibitions of juried works, called ‘Salons’ and were very influential in molding the public’s taste of art. As time went on, artists who did not agree with the confines of academic art began to publicly display art that broke the rules.
Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket is pinnacle in challenging the status of accepted artwork. A leading art critic named John Ruskin was deeply disturbed by Whistler’s work and thought this piece looked unfinished and devoid of moral purpose. He publicly criticized Whistler’s work and Whistler in turn sued Ruskin. Whistler’s case against Ruskin was a defining moment as he publically justified the value of abstracted work by stating that a painting has no need for an identifiable subject matter and can be solely about beauty and devoid of a moral message. Whistler won the case, but went bankrupt due to all of the legal fees.
From this time forward, I believe the scope of ‘what is art?’ began to expand and gave the artist more power to express him or herself beyond the imposed academic rules.
Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael W. Cothren. Art: A Brief History. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2012