The Portraits Project

In the early 1870s, the American Artist James McNeill Whistler began a series of works called Nocturnes. The paintings are moody, dramatic, often sombre in tone and sometimes quite daring in their execution. So much so, that the critic John Ruskin, on seeing one of Whistler’s Nocturnes at a showing in London and sensing their abstract modernity wrote of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ During the infamous libel trial which followed, Whistler, when questioned, described his paintings as simply ‘an arrangement of light, form and colour’. Perhaps for these reasons, Whistler’s use of musical terms reflected his own growing attraction to abstract form.

However there is nonetheless a highly evocative world created by Whistler in these works that suggests a musical connection deeper than mere abstraction. Thus, inspired by these haunting works, I have set about composing twelve Portraits - each modelled after a particular Nocturne as painted by Whistler. Below, you will find the first three: with links to performances. The next three will be added in December 2019.

Whistler Nocturne 3.jpg

Portrait No. 1

The first portrait is modelled after Whistler’s Nocturne in Black And Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) which was made famous in the Libel trial Whistler brought against John Ruskin. Whistler won the case but was awarded damages of just a farthing. The painting depicts the Thames at night with fireworks in the distance.

Portrait no. 2

The scene here is stiller yet full of atmospheric gloom. As with many in Whistler’s series, Nocturne in Grey and Silver (1873-75) brings the river Thames front and centre, while a translucence covers the whole work powerfully capturing the sense of some rolling mist.

Whistler Nocturne 2.jpg


Portrait No. 3

This particular work - Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Fire Wheel (1875) - depicts a fire wheel throwing sparks into the night sky. It was one of six Nocturnes that Whistler painted of Cremorne Gardens situated only some few hundred yards from Whistler’s residence in Lindsey Row. The Gardens offered an array of entertainments including a nightly display of fireworks. Both this work and The Falling Rocket (as seen in Portrait no. 1) show the climax of these displays as a crowd (their backs turned to us) watch the extraordinary Catherine Wheel as it spins, throwing off sparks into the night sky. A tiered fountain strung with fairy lights is also just visible to the left of the of the picture. As with many of Whistler’s Nocturnes a distinctive atmosphere pervades the work; though the fire-wheel injects it with dynamism and energy, lending the work a strong, dramatic quality.