Learning to Look : Whistler, Fireworks, and a New Way of Seeing

 

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, ca. 1875. Oil on panel, 23.7 × 18.3 in. (Photo courtesy the Detroit Institute of Arts-Click to Enlarge)

I’ll never forget the first time I saw James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold. I was still in high school when I stumbled across the painting in an art history book and was immediately stunned. I had never seen night captured so perfectly in an artwork before. Even as a teenager, I sensed that Whistler had caught those falling skyrockets at exactly the right time—not at the point when they were at their most garish and outrageous, but at the poignant moment when the fading sparks were falling into water.

Whistler’s style and composition owe something to Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which were popular with many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Monet was a collector and Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo owned over four hundred Japanese prints. One of my favorite ukiyo-e artists, Utagawa Hiroshige, had a lasting influence on James McNeill Whistler. Hiroshige’s extraordinary series, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, was of particular importance. As the Brooklyn Museum website explains, Whistler was inspired by the Hiroshige prints that he once owned. “As the West entered a new century, Japanese woodblock prints provided an artistic alternative—in the use of color, perspective, and spatial structure—for presenting changes in society.”

It’s interesting to compare this Hiroshige print, Fireworks at Ryogoku (below) with Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold (above). Both images are striking in their own way, but the difference between painting  and woodblock printing techniques allowed Whistler to depict the fireworks and night sky with greater delicacy, as well as a deeper, more complex palette.

 

Utagawa Hiroshige. Fireworks at Ryōgoku (Ryōgoku Hanabi) (8th Month, 1858). From the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, c. 1856–58. Woodblock print. (Photo courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

Whistler’s loose, impressionistic depiction of fireworks at night was not to everyone’s liking when his painting made its public debut. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket sparked an infamous feud between the artist and the Victorian critic John Ruskin. In 1877 Whistler sued the Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned the painting in his publication Fors Clavigera:

“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.”

The trial produced this hilarious exchange between John Ruskin’s lawyer, Attorney General Sir John Holker, and Whistler during cross-examination:

Holker: “What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?”

Whistler: “It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens.”

Holker: “Not a view of Cremorne?”

Whistler: “If it were A View of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement. That is why I call it a nocturne.…”

Holker: “Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?”

Whistler: “Oh, I ‘knock one off’ possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it…”

Holker: “The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?”

Whistler: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

 

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, c. 1872–1875. Oil on canvas, 26 7/8 in × 20 1/8 in. (Photo courtesy of the Tate Britain, London. Click to Enlarge)

Hiroshige’s influence on Whistler can also be seen in his breathtaking piece Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge. Here again, Whistler uses the golden sizzle of fireworks over the river Thames to wonderful effect. The compositional similarities between Whistler’s painting and Hiroshige’s print, Kyobashi Bridge, are unmistakable.

Whistler and Hiroshige taught me a new way of seeing. From both of these artists, I learned that less is often more. The best art, regardless of its medium, captures the essence of a thing, and leaves out all of the right parts. This idea was pushed to its limits by the minimalist artists of the 20th century. The gap between Whistler and Ellsworth Kelly or Hiroshige and Agnes Martin is not as great as it may appear at first glance.

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bamboo Yards, Kyōbashi Bridge (12th Month, 1857). From the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, ca. 1856–58. Woodblock print. (Photo courtesy the Brooklyn Museum. Click to Enlarge).

I think of these artworks by Whistler and Hiroshige each year when the Fourth of July holiday rolls around.

As an ardent lover of fireworks, New Hampshire is an ideal place to live. Each town has its own fireworks display (some shows are larger and better than others, but regardless, the crowds are never a problem). The local villages are kind enough to stagger their events on different nights so there are no scheduling conflicts. Before the show, there is typically an ice cream social, music, swimming, and other community activities. As locals gather around the lakes with their glow necklaces and bottles of bug spray, so do the mosquitoes, followed immediately by the bats.

In the past four days, I’ve seen two local fireworks shows—one over Dublin Lake by Mt. Monadnock and the other over Norway Pond in my old neighborhood in Hancock. In the case of Dublin Lake, I decided to make the mile-long journey on my bicycle. The hills were steep and the bugs intense, but the moon was bright—bright enough to throw shadows onto the empty road.

During my night ride, I spotted a fox, two porcupines, an owl, and a deer. Other mysterious creatures lurked in the bushes. I never saw them, but I heard their rustling. The number of dramas playing out in nature each night while we lie in our beds is staggering. (I’m reminded of this fact each time I hear the coyotes howling outside my open bedroom window.)

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

At Dublin Lake, I perched myself on a rock and waited. In a brilliant stroke of Yankee ingenuity, the woman behind me swatted bugs away with a tree branch. I buttoned up my shirt and rolled down my pants to protect myself from the swarms. Just as the fireworks began, a bat skimmed over the top of my head.

I’ve never heard a boom so loud before. Each explosion ricocheted off the side of Mt. Monadnock and bounced over the water. I can only imagine what the foxes, porcupines, and deer were thinking. The excited children, on the other hand, made their thoughts very clear: Those are my favorite. I like the purple ones! I like the one that looks like a splash in the water (little girl)! I like the giant red ones that look like a bomb going off (little boy)! Today I learned that there are more exacting names for these firework effects: peony, chrysanthemum, dahlia, ground bloom flower (there are lots of flower names). Also, willow, palm, crossette, spider, horsetail, time rain, fish.

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

Whenever possible, I prefer to be in nature without the distraction of electronic devices. This means no camera. No cell phone. No i-Pod. When it comes to fireworks, though, I make a rare exception.

Each year I photograph the local fireworks, and each year the photographs are a surprise, even to me. While these images aren’t “art” in the strictest sense, I do think they capture artful moments. Like Whistler, I’m particularly fond of the less dramatic scenes, the golden criss-crossing tails, the juxtaposition of colors, the unusual patterns captured by the camera, though not always visible to the naked eye.

Sometimes the point of taking a picture is the end result. We want a record of where we’ve been or who we’ve seen. Or maybe we are setting out to create art or capture something larger than ourselves. But often I find that the actual process of taking a picture is just as important. A camera can focus our attention and allow us to see things we might have missed otherwise. It sharpens our senses and also opens us to the happy accidents that often occur when we click the shutter.

“I sit for a long time and watch one thing,” says the writer Barry Lopez. “If you don’t do that homework, you don’t make yourself vulnerable enough to a place, and it never releases itself into you.”

Learning to look is perhaps the most under-appreciated skill of our generation. Do I love the fireworks for themselves? Of course. But I also love the fact that for a few days each year, individuals gather together in one place, expose themselves to the elements, and for a short time, stare at the sky, not their computer screen or cell phone.

We see what we expect to see. But if we’re still and patient, if we take time to turn off our devices and get out into the real world, we leave room for so many more possibilities.
 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

 

Photo by Michelle Aldredge (Click to Enlarge)

 

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Happy Fourth!

 

Further Reading…

 

 

 

 

 

By | 2016-11-11T21:52:51+00:00 07.04.12|Events, Greatest Hits, Images, Process, Words|10 Comments

About the Author:

I'm a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, a crowd-funded arts & culture journal that covers contemporary art, music, books, film, and the creative process. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as an arts enabler, helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I’ve also done time at an arts magazine, a library, and an art museum in Atlanta. For two years I cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, consulting, and creative projects full-time. (You can check out my recent projects here.) I’ve appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, served as the judge for A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Literary Prize, and received fellowships from the Hambidge Center and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. My writing and photography have appeared in RISD XYZ magazine, 2Paragraphs, Psychology Today, Born Journal, and other publications. I offer one-on-one coaching sessions, group workshops, and speak to businesses, arts groups, and students about overcoming the psychological and practical barriers to producing your best work. (Read more here .) If you'd like to work with me one-on-one or hire me to speak at your school, business, or organization, please contact me at michelle (at) gwarlingo (dot) com. -

10 Comments

  1. Sigrun July 5, 2012 at 4:46 am

    Fantastic – & happy 4th!
    I love your pictures!!!
    The work of Utagawa Hiroshige is new to me, I’d love to see more, better check out the literature …
    Thank you!

    • Michelle Aldredge July 5, 2012 at 8:56 am

      Thanks so much, Sigrun. It makes my day to learn that I’ve turned you onto the work of Utagawa Hiroshige. I know you have an interest in landscape and place, like I do. You’re going to love his prints. The series I mentioned, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, was incredibly influential in the Western art world in the second half of the 19th century. You might also like his series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which is also stunning.

      This Hiroshige print, Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge and Atake has always been a personal favorite, and was copied by Vincent van Gogh…


      Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake by Hiroshige

      • Sigrun July 7, 2012 at 8:20 am

        I’m off to Amsterdam in a week! I believe works by Hiroshige are to be found both at the Rijksmuseum & Van Gogh Museum. I’m so much looking forward to visiting them!

  2. Mary Devincentis July 5, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Thank you Michelle for this wonderful posting. Your photographs are stunning and your thoughts on Whistler’s Nocturnes and Hiroshige’s woodcuts are of great interest. This is a topic close to my heart, as I am currently working on the series One Hundred Not Famous Views: monotypes inspired by and in contrast to Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. If so inclined, you can see this work at my website: marydevincentis.com.

    • Michelle Aldredge July 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Mary, and for the link to your site. Nice work!

  3. Jeffrey Gross July 5, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Thanks for a lovely post, Michelle. Some of New Hampshire’s best ended up down here in NY, but never mind that. I can’t tell if your terrific photos more resemble organic forms or cloud-chamber tracks. But it’s great to see Whistler, whom I somehow feel doesn’t receive enough attention. Three questions for you: if it’s not a trade secret, how did you achieve that stop-action in the firework photos? Do you think Whistler and Turner, in their very different ways (and times), could be viewed as proto-impressionists? And are you also a lover of Hokusai? Cheers and happy belated 4th.

    • Michelle Aldredge July 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm

      Hi Jeffrey. Thanks for your comments and questions. A friend sent me a photograph of some amazing NYC fireworks that resembled jellyfish. Alas. No jellyfish here in New Hampshire yet.

      Knowing how much you love classical music, it doesn’t surprise me that you have a soft spot for Whistler. It’s true that he doesn’t get much attention today. When I was searching for monographs of his work online, there were shockingly few. As I’m sure you know, Whistler saw many parallels between visual art and music. He believed in the idea of “tonal harmony,” and later in his career, he made the radical decision o re-title many of his early paintings using musical terms like “nocturne,” “symphony,” “arrangement,” etc.

      I saw Symphony in White, No. 1 (a.k.a. The White Girl) at the National Gallery in DC when I was a teenager (not long after I discovered his fireworks painting in a book, as I describe). Reproductions, like this one, can’t do his paintings justice. His brushstrokes and use of texture are best appreciated in person. I remember standing in front of Symphony in White, No. 1for quite some time. I loved the way he captured the light in the room, her smooth skin combined with the rough texture of the rug. And all of that white is marvelous. It makes her red hair all the more dramatic.


      Whistler's



      I do think Whistler and Turner paved the way for the impressionist movement, Turner in particular. Did you see that fabulous Turner show at the Met a couple of years ago? I was particularly struck by his watercolors. Even the unfinished works at the end of the show were spectacular. How can you look at paintings like these and not see the seeds of Monet and other impressionists to come? And to think that Turner was painting images like these in the 1830s! Talk about radical…


      Turner's


      Turner's



      Thanks for mentioning Hokusai. Yes! I love his work. His images of waves and Mt. Fuji are my favorites. I should write a Gwarlingo post on his work at some point!

      As for the geek tech talk… The secret to good fireworks photos is a long exposure. Keeping the shutter open for as long as possible is the first step. If your camera has easy-to-use shortcut settings, you can try the “night” mode. Some cameras even have a “fireworks” setting. “Night” mode is often useless without a tripod, but in the case of fireworks, the more “blur” the better. The other secret is anticipating the shot. If you wait until the fireworks actually explode, it’s too late. You have to release the shutter at the same time the fireworks are exploding. This means you don’t know what you’re going to get, of course, but that’s part of the fun. Having a decent zoom on your point-and-shoot or your SLR is also helpful. I hope this helps!

      Thanks for your comments and questions. You always add a lot to the conversation at Gwarlingo. It’s good to hear from you. Happy fourth!

      • Jeffrey Gross July 6, 2012 at 2:57 pm

        Thank you in turn, Michelle. That Symphony in White is extraordinary, even in reproduction. It somehow manages to be both dramatic and understated. Some of the acid-y colors towards the bottom remind me a bit of Degas (another fave). As for Turner, whenever I have the good fortune to be in London, the Tate collection is always high on my list. Here’s a favorite Hokusai, slightly off the beaten path: http://www.katsushikahokusai.org/Old-Tiger-in-the-Snow-large.html

  4. Anna Dibble July 10, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Fantastic post, Michelle. I love Whistler and Hiroshige but had never made the connection. And Turner too. The Clark in Williamstown, MA had a nice Turner show a few years ago. Love your fireworks photographs. Better than real fireworks – or at least the ones I’ve seen! Thanks for this.

  5. Debra Levie December 8, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    Dear Michelle,

    Please add my address to your notices and updates. I don’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, so the link on your site woudn’t work for me.

    Best Wishes,
    Debra Levie.

Comments are closed.