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.┬áHe (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.