I recently took a pal to the Isabella Garder Museum in Boston. It is simply one of the most beautiful, sublime environments to take in art — it’s an indelible reminder of how central decor & architecture are to the experience of a particular artwork. That experience is especially powerful and acute in the famous “Yellow” and “Blue” rooms, where furniture, small doodles, ephemera, exquisite wallpapers, surround and mingle with masterworks by Rossetti, Sargent, Whistler and Degas.
My collegue was particulary taken with a smallish, glittering portrait of a woman (above) by Thomas Wilmer Dewing. Further research hauled up a lovely cache of paintings — most stranger & more fetching than the one in the Gardner. Turns out Dewing was a tonal painter heavily influenced by James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s work, especially his famous Nocturnes (which I also dig. I wrote about them a few years back, here. There’s also one in the Yellow Room) There’s a gauzy texture to his paintings I absolutely adore & sets them well apart from the usual parade of society portraiture and pastoral vingettes. Enjoy.
I love the dynamics of things caught in the balance between representation and abstraction – the way recognition, whether visual or melodic, phases in and out of focus. It’s why I’m so taken with the series of Nocturnes by James McNeill Whistler. Painted from memory, composed as “impressions,” they function as little ambient pocket movies, with details and forms taking shape and then submerging again as your attention wanders.
Cool cat, too, this Whistler, fervently devoted to beauty, art for it’s own sake, lusty bohemianism, etc., and produced a beautiful, quirky and singular body of work. Prescient as well – his linkages of art to music, representation to abstraction, and incorporation of chance and accident where strikingly modern. Furthermore, his cranky confidence in the value of his work in the face of critical dismissal led to one of the great kerfuffles of art history. Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for remarking, upon seeing Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, “I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected a coxcomb to ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (Coxcomb! there’s one to remember – a conceited, foolish dandy or pretentious fop. Its synonyms are equally wonderful – popinjay and jackanapes.) More on the trial here.
Above: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874), Nocturne Grey and Gold Snow, Nocturne: Grey and Gold – Westminster Bridge (1871), Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights (1872), Nocturne (1875)