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Nocturne in Grey and GoldJames Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1876

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), born in America, was a moody child whose parents found that painting settled his temper and therefore encouraged his young talent. After his father died, his mother sent him to school in hopes of his training for a career in the church. But this was not to be, and he left school to attend a military academy. Here he was not a success either, being considered poorly disciplined, messy and insolent. He was eventually dismissed after which he took up painting.

Setting himself up in Paris, and then later in London, he enjoyed growing success and recognition as an innovative painter of landscapes, everyday scenes of life, and portraits. He did not believe in flattering his sitters however, and being painted by him was something of a trial as he worked very slowly and demanded lengthy modelling sessions from all his patrons. For these reasons he was not as popular a portraitist as he might have been. His most famous portrait is that of his mother, a monochromatic, deceptively simple and stylish composition that has been much parodied since its first appearance. Initially the painting enjoyed mixed reactions, because of its unsentimental approach during a Victorian age when sentiment and decorative clutter were the vogue.

Whistler was a self-publicist and said to be rather egotistical, but there is no doubt that he had a unique style that influenced many artists around him.

In this painting, Whistler uses his characteristic titling deriving from music. He was very interested in the parallels between music and art, and titled many of his works along these lines.


James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wrap Up Your Painting

  • What caught your eye immediately about the painting?
  • How did you describe the character of the built environment to yourself?
  • How did the air smell, in your imagination?
  • Did you think the person you focused on was affluent or not? How could you tell?
  • In what way, if any, did this guided noticing activity add to your original impressions of the painting?
  • How do you feel now you’ve completed this activity? If you enjoyed it, why not add more Look at Paintings audio guides to your week? And don’t forget, you can take these guides with you to your local gallery and try them whilst standing in front of ‘real life’ art

Wrap Up Your Painting

  • Did you notice all the points of light immediately, or did this activity help you to notice more?
  • What do you imagine is the building with the lit window?
  • Where did you think the man was going?
  • Do you feel any different at the end of this activity than you did at the beginning?
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