The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler

YMSM 100
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor

Artist: James McNeill Whistler
Date: 1874/1876
Collection: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Accession Number: F1906.103
Medium: oil
Support: canvas
Size: 50.3 x 86.2 cm (19 3/4 x 33 7/8")
Signature: butterfly
Inscription: none
Frame: Grau-style, American, with W. C. LeBrocq label, ca 1900 [18.1 cm]

Date

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor may have been painted in 1874 or 1875 and completed in 1876. 1

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art

1874-1875: The butterfly signature suggests a date of 1874/1875, but is not a certain indication of the date of the picture. Whistler could perfectly well have visited Bognor on the south coast during this period, but no such visit is recorded.

1875: Whistler wrote from Speke Hall offering a painting to Cyril Flower (1843-1907) as well as to the London dealer Murray Marks (1840-1918). He wrote to Flower:

'Go round one morning to my place and look at a most lovely Nocturne in blue and silver … perhaps the most brilliant of the lot. I want 300 gs. for it … I am delighted with it myself and want to show it. … a large sea piece with some fishing smacks putting off - sky lovely and the sea of an immense distance and gleaming in the soft light of the moon … Go and see if ever you saw the sea painted like that! And the mystery of the whole thing - nothing apparently when you look at the canvas, but stand off … the wet sands and the water falling on the beach in the blue glimmering of the moon - and the sheen of the whole thing.' 2

It was presumably at the same time that Whistler wrote in similar terms to Murray Marks:

'You have several times said you would like to have a small picture of mine. Now here is a chance - There is a Nocturne in blue & silver just finished and at present in the drawing room at my place 2 Lindsey Houses - Chelsea …

It is a sea piece - large - and I think it one of my very finest, perhaps the most brilliant - Fishing smacks putting off - at night - Moonlight - I want 300 gs. for it.' 3

It is just possible, however, that Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor was painted in Bognor when Whistler attended the opening of the Second Annual Exhibition of Modern Pictures in Oil and Water Colour, Royal Pavilion Gallery, Brighton, 1875, on 8 September, before going on to Speke Hall.

1876: On 19 February 1876 William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) reported Whistler as having 'lately completed three interesting studies of landscape', one of which was probably this oil. 4 The dating of this picture relies heavily on what Rossetti meant by 'lately completed': if Whistler was working on site, it seems more likely that the picture was painted in the summer of 1875, but it could have been completed and varnished in 1876.

Images

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, framed, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, framed, Freer Gallery of Art

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, frame detail
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, frame detail

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, photograph, 1892, GUL PH4/12
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, photograph, 1892, GUL PH4/12

Subject

Titles

Several possible titles have been suggested:

The preferred title 'Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor' is based on the 1892 catalogue, with punctuation changed to conform with other titles.

Description

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art

A seascape in horizontal format, with figures on the beach in the foreground and three fishing boats setting off from the shore. Whistler described it as:

'a large sea piece with some fishing smacks putting off - sky lovely and the sea of an immense distance and gleaming in the soft light of the moon. … the wet sands and the water falling on the beach in the blue glimmering of the moon.' 14

On 19 February 1876 William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) reported Whistler as having 'lately completed three interesting studies of landscape', one of which was probably this oil, described as:

'moonlight on the sea, and presents a wide stretch of quiet water, with a few fishing-boats pushing out from the shore. A perfect stillness controls the scene, save where the tide, rippling in upon the sand, catches with its movement the white shine of the moon. One little wing-like cloud hovers above a sea of intensest blue, which seems to reflect and to contain the fairer tones of the star-lit blue sky.' 15

Site

Bognor is to the west of Brighton, on the south coast of England. Whistler was invited to the opening of the Second Annual Exhibition of Modern Pictures in Oil and Water Colour, Royal Pavilion Gallery, Brighton, 1875, on 8 September.

The subject could well be one of oyster smacks putting out to sea, as in an earlier painting of Trouville, Green and Grey. The Oyster Smacks – Evening y070).

Technique

Technique

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art

The sea and sand are painted fairly thickly and smoothly, except for some extremely effective dripping of the paint in the long wave in the foreground. It looks as if the boat was originally between the figures, at the shore, and then repainted further out to sea.

The Athenaeum questioned Whistler's technique in painting this oil:

'we admit the charm and preciousness of the effect of pale azure lustre growing strong with dawn over a still dark sea and ghastly beach and cliffs … we cannot understand how … the sails of the smacks setting forth to sea can be mere diaphanous films, without solidity or power to reflect, much less to intercept, light coming from behind them.' 16

Conservation History

It was in poor condition when it was treated in 1921, and, according to a conservation report of that year, it had been painted over an old painting that had been varnished. 17 Varnish was removed, and the canvas resurfaced and relined in the same year. It was retouched and resurfaced in 1922 and 1931, cleaned and surfaced in 1935 and 1951.

Frame

In 1875 Whistler wrote to Cyril Flower: 'The frame it is stuck in is not its own of course merely for the moment - it will be framed in pale green gold with blue pattern.' 18 A new frame was probably made at this time for the forthcoming exhibition in the following year.

In 1892, Whistler apparently asked for all the paintings then owned by Alfred Chapman to be reframed by Frederick Henry Grau (1859-1892) for the Goupil exhibition. This painting is not specifically mentioned as having a new frame, and in any case, Chapman refused to pay for the new frames and they were returned after the show. 19

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, framed, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, framed, Freer Gallery of Art

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, frame detail
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, frame detail

In 1899 the painting was bought by C. L. Freer and probably reframed shortly afterwards in an American Grau-style frame, which bears the label of W. S. LeBrocq, who made a number of frame for Freer's American paintings, including for instance The Lute, by Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938), which is also in the Freer Gallery of Art (FGA F1913.34).

History

Provenance

In 1875 Whistler offered a 'Nocturne in blue & silver' to the London dealer Murray Marks (1840-1918), describing it as 'Fishing smacks putting off - at night - Moonlight - I want 300 gs. for it.' 20 This was a high price for the time, and may have been a mistake on Whistler's part. 21 In any case, it seems Marks did not take him up on this and the price went down rather fast.

In 1876, having seen the picture on exhibition ‘at Deschamps gallery’, Alfred Chapman (1839-1917), wrote to Whistler, 'I should very much like to have the “Blue Waves” to put alongside of Southampton Water - but can only [offer] sixty guineas for it'; by 17 July, the sum had been accepted and Chapman sent Whistler a cheque. 22 He had bought Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water y117 two years earlier for 200 gns. Robin Spencer identified the ‘Blue Waves’ as Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor y100. 23 If this is correct, prices were going down dramatically, and continued to decline. Whistler, exaggerating Chapman’s profits, claimed later that Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor was bought by Chapman for at most £50.0.0. 24 The low price reflected the dire state of Whistler's financial affairs.

It was certainly in Chapman's collection in the early 1880s. The American sculptor Thomas Waldo Story (1855-1915) had admired a Nocturne in Chapman's collection, and in 1883, Whistler wrote to Story, saying that the five works he was sending to the Grosvenor Gallery included 'the blue sea you liked so much in Liverpool ... they look splendid.' 25

By 1893 Whistler was urging David Croal Thomson (1855-1930) to think about buying 'the "Bognor" '. 26 In July 1895 Edward Guthrie Kennedy (1849-1932) of Wunderlich, New York dealers, went to Liverpool to see the painting, and in the August of the same year Whistler asked both Kennedy and Thomson if Chapman was going to sell 'The Bognor'. 27 Kennedy assured Whistler:

'He said he was not particular about selling his Whistlers, but if he got any tempting prices, he would sell them. He may be the deep-dyed villain, of which you speak, but I found him as I have told you. If he hadn't been as I describe him, you would never have been intimate with him at any time, would you?' 28

In 1899 the artist suggested to Christine Anderson (Christiana Barrett, Mrs C. L. Baldwyn, Mrs C. A. M. Anderson) (b. 1865/1866) that it should be sold by Chapman to, or through, Whistler's own sale outlet, the Company of the Butterfly, of which she was manager. 29 It was in fact sold by Chapman to C. L. Freer for £1050.0.0, and Whistler again complained, to another collector, J. J. Cowan, about Chapman:

'the paintings he has turned over and over again, he originally had from me direct! which is a very different thing indeed! and for a mere pittance. bargaining! and screwing down. The famous "Bognor" nocturne, he gave me perhaps £50 for, or perhaps 30 - and he has just sold to Mr. Frere [sic] of Detroit, with great secrecy, for at least £1000!' 30

Exhibitions

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, Freer Gallery of Art

There is some confusion about when this and other Nocturnes were exhibited and where.

1874: A painting titled Blue Waves was exhibited at Whistler’s first one-man show in 1874. Alfred Chapman (1839-1917), who had bought Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water y117 at that exhibition, referred to Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Bognor y100 as ‘Blue Waves’ in a letter in which he told Whistler that ‘I should very much like to have the “Blue Waves” to put alongside of Southampton Water’. 31 Grischka Petri speculates that Chapman might have remembered seeing ‘Blue Waves’ at the 1874 exhibition and now wanted to acquire the former companion piece of Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Southampton Water y117 for his collection. 32 However, no extant review of that exhibition provides independent evidence concerning the painting exhibited as ‘Blue Waves’ in 1874.

1876: The Builder described it clearly as one of 'Mr Whistler's curious dreams in colour, of which “A Nocturne in Blue and Gold” … is noteworthy for the actual sparkle of the lights in the craft on the twilight sea.' 33 This description applies convincingly to Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor.

1883: It was at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1883, when it was described by Blackburn as 'calm blue sea; boats with lights'. 34 The Sheffield Daily Telegraph on 10 May 1883 described it as 'a half developed work' but added a fair description of it:

'It is a sea-side or river-side piece. The centre or middle distance of the picture is supposed to represent water, and there the "nocturnity" is the deepest. But there is a delicate suggestive shade of light in the sky, with its few pale stars above, and in the foreground, which catches what light there is in the sky, ghostly figures – shrimp-gatherers or what not – can be descried.'

The London correspondent of the The Ipswich Journal on 1 May 1883 admitted, grudgingly, that Whistler's depiction of these figures showed 'unique cleverness'. The Pall Mall Gazette on the following day, remembering the artist's prickly reaction to certain art critics, was circumspect in referring to Whistler's exhibits: 'Mr. Whistler obliges the public with two nocturnes, one in "Blue and Silver" (111), the other in "Black and Gold" (115), of both of which we desire to be understood to speak in a respectful and becoming manner.' Whistler's second exhibit was Nocturne: Black and Gold - The Fire Wheel y169, about which The Ipswich Journal had been very rude indeed.

The artist himself told Chapman, the owner, 'Your picture hung on the line looks superb! - and very much liked.' 35 In this he appears to have been exaggerating!

In the winter of 1883-1884 Whistler suggested exhibiting 'the large Nocturne of the Sea, that was in the Grosvenor' at the exhibition of Les XX in Brussels, but then he did not hear from Chapman in time and it was not borrowed for the exhibition. 36

1888: In April Chapman sent 'Nocturne in Blue and Gold (Bognor)', insured for £350.0.0 (he was very concerned about the risks to his painting), for exhibition in Paris, where it was probably exhibited as one of two ‘Nocturnes in Blue and Silver’ (‘Nocturne en bleu et argent’). 37

1892: In 1892, in his review of Whistler's retrospective exhibition, Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942) praised this painting in passionate and poetic terms, defending Whistler against criticism:

'The 'Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Bognor' … can never be surpassed. The blue of the summer sea, growing black with intensity at the horizon, the silent stars, the ghostly wreaths of cloud trailing in the watery sky. Four little boats hover like great moths and melt their phantom sails in a dusky sea. Three show lights that glimmer on the water. Though it is night, it is light enough to see the white foam turned over by the bows of the two nearer boats. That on the far right is going about under your very eyes, leaving a white track in the wondrous water. The waves creep in while they seem not to move, except where they curl and break and tumble at your feet on a dusky shore. You are conscious, at the water's edge, of shadowy figures going about their mysterious business with the night. All these things and a million-fold more are expressed in this immortal canvas, with a power and a tenderness that I have never seen elsewhere. The whole soul of the universe is in the picture, the whole spirit of beauty. It is an exemplar and a summary of all art. It is an act of divine creation. The man that has created it is thereby alone immortal a thousand times over. Who are we that we should scribble and nag at him?' 38

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, photograph, 1892, PH4/12
Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor, photograph, 1892, PH4/12

After the retrospective exhibition, the painting was photographed and considered for publication in the Goupil Album of photographs, but in the end it was not included in the album. On 5 May 1893 Whistler complained to D. C. Thomson of the Goupil Gallery that Harmony in Green and Rose: The Music Room y034 and Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks y047 had been included in the album of photographs published after the exhibition, but not Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor 'which surely was one of the most important of the whole collection of pictures!' 39 Thomson replied that the selection was based on Whistler's choice, and the matter was closed. 40

As soon as the catalogue was published by Goupil's in 1892, Whistler wanted to borrow the painting again, for Paris. 41 Chapman promptly agreed to lend it to exhibitions in Paris and Munich. 42 Whistler confused matters when he called 'the "Bognor" ', by mistake, ' "Blue Wave" ' but in the end this was sorted and the Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor went on its travels through Europe. 43

1898-1901: It was listed by Whistler among paintings for exhibition by the Society of Austrian Artists in 1898, but there is no record of it being sent to Vienna. 44

Immediately after it was bought by C. L. Freer in 1901, Whistler requested its loan for exhibition in Paris. 45 Freer explained that this was not possible: ' "Bognor," I regret to say is promised for an exhibition to open in New York next week and from there it is to go to Buffalo for the Pan American Exhibition lasting till October next - so I cannot include it with the Paris lot.' 46 Instead it was, as he said, exhibited in Buffalo and New York in 1901 and, after Whistler's death, it also went to the Whistler memorial shows in Boston and Paris.

By the terms of C. L. Freer's bequest to the Freer Gallery of Art, the painting cannot now be lent to other venues.

Bibliography

Catalogues Raisonnés

Authored by Whistler

Catalogues 1855-1905

Newspapers 1855-1905

Journals 1855-1905

Monographs

Books on Whistler

Books, General

Catalogues 1906-Present

COLLECTION:

EXHIBITION:

Journals 1906-Present

Websites

Unpublished

Other


Notes:

1: 'Probably painted 1871/6' according to YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 100).

2: Whistler to C. Flower, [May/July 1875], formerly dated [July/August 1874], GUW #09093. In the letter, Whistler refers to the protracted illness of Whistler's mother, which could apply either to the summer of 1874 or, more likely, that of 1875. It implies that his mother was still kept to her room in Lindsey Row, which indicates that the picture predates August 1875, when she moved permanently to Hastings for her health.

3: [May/July 1875], formerly dated [February 1876], GUW #09300.

4: See the description by Rossetti 1876, Academy [more], at p. 180.

5: VII Summer Exhibition, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1883 (cat. no. 111).

6: Exposition Brown, Boudin, Caillebotte, Lepine, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Whistler, Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris, 1888 (cat. no. 39 or 42); see Nocturne en bleu et argent y149.

7: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [4 January 1892], GUW #08214.

8: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 28 February [1892], GUW #08213.

9: Nocturnes, Marines & Chevalet Pieces, Goupil Gallery, London, 1892 (cat. no. 24).

10: Exhibition catalogue Paris 1892 (Société nationale)[more] (cat. no. 1067).

11: VI. Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Königlicher Glaspalast, Munich, 1892 (cat. no. 1950b).

12: Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, 1901 (cat. no. 96).

13: YMSM 1980 [more] (cat. no. 100).

14: Whistler to C. Flower, [May/July 1875], formerly dated [July/August 1874], GUW #09093.

15: Rossetti 1876, Academy [more], at p. 180. An almost identical description was published in Rossetti 1876, Art Monthly Review [more]. See also Peattie 1995 [more], at p. 86, note 6.

16: Athenaeum 12 May 1883 [more], at p. 610.

17: Conservation records, Freer Gallery of Art.

18: [May/July 1875], formerly dated [February 1876], GUW #09300.

19: Boussod, Valadon & Co. to Whistler, 2 May 1892, GUW #05735. Goupil Gallery to Whistler, 20 May 1892, GUW #05740.

20: [May/July 1875], formerly dated [February 1876], GUW #09300.

21: Grischka Petri discusses the problems in dating letters regarding the sale and exhibition of this painting and related Nocturnes. Petri 2011 [more], pp. 227-28, 644-45, note 413.

22: 5 July 1876, GUW #00576, and 17 July 1876, GUW #00577.

23: Spencer 1994 [more], at p. 671.

24: Whistler to J. J. Cowan, 6 January 1900, GUW #00739.

25: Whistler to T. W. Story, [1 May 1883], GUW #08151.

26: [20 July 1893], GUW #08254.

27: Whistler to Kennedy, 5 August [1895], GUW #09733; to Thomson, [9 August 1895], GUW #08363.

28: 30 August-15 September 1895, GUW #07259.

29: Whistler to C. Anderson, 4 January 1899, GUW #07598.

30: Whistler to J. J. Cowan, 6 January 1900, GUW #00739.

31: 5 July 1876, GUW #00576.

32: Petri 2011 [more], p. 644, note 413.

33: 'The Society of French Artists', The Builder, 6 May 1876, p. 429. See See Spencer 1994 [more], p. 671; and Petri 2011 [more], pp. 227-28, 644-45 note 413.

34: Blackburn 1883 [more], p. 28. Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Bognor was not, as implied by Williamson, exhibited in the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 and given by Whistler to Mrs F. R. Leyland: he was undoubtedly confusing it with Nocturne in Blue and Silver y113; Williamson 1919 [more], pp. 48-49.

35: [May/June 1883]. GUW #09034.

36: Whistler to Deschamps, [8 January 1884], [9/16 January 1884], and [11 January 1884], GUW #07908, #07902, and #07909; Whistler to Chapman, 15 January [1884], GUW #09038.

37: Chapman to Whistler, 12 April 1888, GUW #00579, and to Dowdeswell, 25 April 1888, GUW #00582.

38: W. Sickert 1892 [more]. Quoted in W. Sickert 2000 [more], p. 94. Sickert's review was widely read, and this praise was cited in a Canadian paper: 'Whistler and Wilde', Toronto Daily Mail, Toronto, 7 May 1892, p. 6.

39: GUW #08229.

40: 9 May 1893, GUW #05777.

41: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, [1/8 April 1892], GUW #08210.

42: Whistler to D. C. Thomson, 1 May [1892], GUW #08202.

43: Ibid.

44: 12 February 1898, GUW #12579.

45: 10 February 1901, GUW #03190.

46: 6 March 1901, GUW #01522.