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In 500 Words - Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket

In the midst of what we now call the Aesthetic Movement, James Abbot McNeil Whistler exemplified the concept of art for art's sake, a movement developed by Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire. First shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket was inspired by the Cremorne Gardens in London and is the last of the London-based Nocturnes Whistler painted.

Whistler's depiction of the industrial city park in The Falling Rocket depicts a fireworks display on a foggy night, but it is also famously known as the initiation of the lawsuit between Whistler and the art critic John Ruskin. Composed of bleak blue, green, and yellow tones, The Falling Rocket’s restricted use of colour creates the experiential quality of darkness. Smoke billows, dividing water and sky, while daubs of yellow explode as fireworks in the night air. Transient human spirits watching the spectacle are almost translucent, their comings and goings a virtue of scale more than anything, though the dark expanse is predominantly ambiguous.

In 500 Words - Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket Megan Kennedy

Whistler maintained that many of his paintings were not just pictures but moments. Defying contemporary narrative trends, Whistler argued for painting's separation from literature, capitalizing on colour and tone to minimise hints of narrative and/or moral insinuation and focusing more on the void of night rather than the detailed depiction of a specific space.

As part of the Aesthetic Movement, Whistler painted to draw out complex emotions that surpassed the rigid technicalities of painting. Believing that certain experiences were often best expressed in nuance and suggestion, Whistler sought to build compositions that served as a means of evoking deeper truths, reaching the essence of intangibility.

The Falling Rocket was received with much controversy. Affronted by the painting, leading writer and art critic John Ruskin stated that Whistler had “[flung] a pot of paint in the public's face[1]". Ruskin stirred an uproar among owners of other Whistler works, and it quickly became reprehensible to own a Whistler piece. Whistler sued the critic for libel after he condemned his painting. At one point, Counsel for John Ruskin, Attorney General Sir John Holker, cross-examined Whistler, asking how long it took to paint a painting, Whistler replied that it took him a couple of days. Holkner then exclained:

Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!

To which Whistler replied:

No - I ask it for it for the knowledge of a lifetime [2]

The jury reached a verdict in favour of Whistler, but he was awarded only a farthing in nominal damages, and the court costs were split. Daring to show his Nocturne paintings and faithfully stand up for his ideas in public indisputably hurt Whistler’s career, but he instilled the value and beauty in abstraction, and the magnitude of defying prejudices of the past, influencing countless artists of future generations.




Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or on Instagram.


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