One Wonderful Thing

The Falling Rocket

Whistler (American, 1834-1903) painted his “Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket” in 1875, after the advent of photography changed the landscape of art. For Whistler, realism was no longer the standard by which art was to be judged; photography captured the realistic, and “it [was] for the artist to do something beyond this.” The move towards a certain moody impressionism is clear in this work: its blurry forms, its vaguely industrial landscape, and the stark chiaroscuro explosions of the fireworks give the painting an almost tangible mood. He (and many others in the “Art for Art’s Sake” movement) were influenced by Japanese art and design. The Asian influence can be seen in the poise of the ghost-like figures at the bottom of the painting, and it is revealed in the calligraphic form of his signature. But most of all, Whistler captures a kind of Japanese aesthetic in his famous splattered fireworks: he uses a seemingly casual, or even careless, technique, but with a precision that gives the work a delicate and exact clarity. The result is startling and ephemeral, like the fireworks he depicts.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket (1875) by James Abbott McNeill Whistler is part of the permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

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