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.
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.