Firecracker: Quick Bite

Today on Museum Quick Bites we’re kicking off July with a closer look at Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) by James McNeill Whistler. Cast against a deep, blue-black sky, Whistler’s painting captures a fleeting moment on a festive, firework-filled night. Like the firecrackers he painted, Whistler lit up the art world with his brilliant artwork and acerbic wit. Let’s zoom in and take a quick tour.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) by James McNeill Whistler, Detroit Institute of Arts

Moving counterclockwise, let’s begin with the colorful bits of light spattered across the night sky. Note how they rain down on the murky water below. On the left, the silhouette of a ship and shadowy tugboat peek out from behind thick swirls of smoke. Anchored on the Thames at Cremorne Gardens, the larger ship is the source of the shooting fireworks. In the foreground, ghostly figures appear to be kneeling along a sandy shore. A vertical, calligraphy-like script is situated in the lower right corner. This is not Whistler’s signature, but instead a nod to his love of ukiyo-e, a type of Japanese woodblock art.

Close-Ups of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) by James McNeill Whistler, DIA

At first glance, Whistler’s painting appears almost monochromatic, simple, and lacking in depth. But as is true with most art, if viewers take their time, zoom in, and dig into the details they’ll notice a rich, colorful moment captured by the artist.

Fun Arty Fact #1:  Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was not one to dig in and see the beauty of Whistler’s creation. Instead, he panned Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875), stating…

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.

~John Ruskin’s review of Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rockets in Fors Clavigera (1877)

John Ruskin (1870) by W & D Downey, Wikimedia Commons

And Whistler promptly sued him for libel. The court ruled in Whistler’s favor and Ruskin was ordered to pay the artist a farthing (mere pennies). This was nowhere near the compensation Whistler had hoped for, especially after he had expended large sums on the trial and his posh lifestyle.

Whistler eventually declared bankruptcy, but decades later was vindicated when his pioneering work was lauded and applauded. To learn more about this groundbreaking case, click on this Whistler vs Ruskin link, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Arrangement in Gray Portrait of the Painter (c1872) by James McNeill Whistler, Detroit Institute of Arts

Whistler’s Brief Bio:  James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born on July 11th, the eldest son of Anna McNeill and George Whistler in Lowell, Massachusetts. When Whistler was 8 years old, his father, a civil engineer, was hired by Tsar Nicholas I (1796-1855) to help design a Russian railroad. The family moved to St. Petersburg and by age 11, Whistler enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. However, four years later his father died of cholera and the family returned to the United States and settled in Connecticut.

Left: A Fire at Pomfret (c1850) by James McNeill Whistler, Freer Gallery of Art, WikiArt

Right: At the Piano (1858-1859) by James McNeill Whistler, Taft Museum of Art, WikiArt

At age 18, Whistler enrolled in West Point Military Academy, but within a year was expelled for failing chemistry and his “aversion to authority”. Whistler subsequently took a job making maps for the US Coast and Geodetic Society. After several years, he moved to Paris, enrolled in private art classes and rubbed elbows with the art world’s up and coming artists. His debuts of At the Piano (1859) and Symphony in White No. 1, The White Girl (1862) were Whistler’s initial breakout works.

Left: Symphony in White No. 1 (The White Girl; 1862) by JM Whistler, National Gallery of Art, WikiArt

Right: The Artist in His Studio (c1865–1866) by JM Whistler, Art Institute of Chicago

In 1859, Whistler moved to London. Talented, dapper, mercurial and combative, Whistler was the toast of the town. He verbally sparred with Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and was so persnickety and brash he often advised women on what to wear when attending his exhibitions so their gowns would not clash with his art.

In 1864, his devoutly religious mother moved in and put a crimp on Whistler’s freewheeling, bohemian lifestyle. However, his new living arrangements weren’t all bad since it resulted in his most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black – Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871).

Arrangement in Grey & Black No.1, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871) by JM Whistler, Musée d’Orsay, WikiArt

Fun Arty Fact #2:  Whistler met Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) in London after they moved from their native France to escape the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Several years later, the Impressionists invited Whistler to exhibit his work at their now famous, first exhibition in 1874, but Whistler declined. To learn more, click on this Museum Bites: Coloring Outside the Lines link.

Left: Morning Glories (1869) by James McNeill Whistler, WikiArt

Right: Violet and Silver: The Deep Sea (1893) by James McNeill Whistler, Art Institute of Chicago

Whistler worked hard, played hard, and frequently lived beyond his means. He experimented and developed his own style, dabbling in Realism, Aestheticism, and Impressionism. At age 54, he married Beatrix Godwin (c1857-1896) and in the latter years of his life, he continued to paint portraits, create lithographs, experiment with photography, and authored two books. Most notably, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies (1892). In 1901, he opened an art school however, Whistler died two years later, less than a week after his 69th birthday. If you’d like to learn more about his life and view more of his work, click on this James Abbott McNeill Whistler link.

Fun Arty Fact #3:  The motto of the Aesthetic Movement was “art for art’s sake”. The Art Story describes it as, “the desire…to exalt taste, the pursuit of beauty, and self-expression over moral expectations and restrictive conformity.

The Gold Scab (1879) by JM Whistler, WikiArt

That wraps up our look at Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. I’ll be off on holiday for the next two weeks, but will be back with more Museum Quick Bites in late July. Until then, be safe, be kind, and take care 🙂

Cover photo by Deborah Ryan, courtesy of Pixabay.


Britannica: James McNeill Whistler

Detroit Institute of Arts: James McNeill Whistler

Detroit Institute of Arts: Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (1875) by James McNeill Whistler

Metropolitan Museum of Art: James McNeill Whistler

National Endowment for the Humanities: How James McNeill Whistler Became a Brand and Fought for It in Court (2014)

Park, Sharon (Spring 2020) LCC Humanities 212: Art History from the Renaissance, Course Notes


TheArtStory: James Abbott McNeill Whistler


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