Art Term Tuesday: Nocturne

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

The days are shorter, the nights are colder, and the ghouls are coming out to play. Sue Slick, our Collection Information Specialist, recently shared a new art word with me: gloamin’. A Scottish term referring to the twilight hour when ghosts and witches are about, it’s applied to artworks depicting an atmosphere of “Celtic gloom”. As a contemporary American art museum we don’t hold any artworks that feature Celtic gloom, but we do have a few nocturnes.

French for “of the night”, a client of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Frederick Leyland, first used the word to describe Whistler’s moonlit scenes. Whistler adopted it, alongside other musical terms like symphony, harmony, study, and arrangement, because they allude to the tonality of the works instead of their narrative. A slow and reflective ensemble piece that maintains a pensive melancholy throughout its several movements, a nocturne is usually played during an evening party. What would you expect a painting that embodies those tonal qualities to look like?

An oil painting of ships on water, with land in the far background. The composition is blues, greens, and grays, blurred to suggest early morning and fog on the water.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903. Nocturne: Blue and Silver–Battersea Reach. Oil on canvas, 1870-1875. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. PD. In the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Whistler’s nocturnes certainly have a feeling of gloamin’, though the dark color palette suggests a time before dawn. Pinpricks of yellow light dot the far shore, but the majority of the composition is swathed in blues and grays that create a shadowy visual field. Focusing on tone and mood over subject, we can just discern the shape and form of boats and a far off building; what is being depicted is the feeling of a quiet, solitary morning on the water.

Not all nocturnes are titled as such, but Robert Kipniss did refer to a number of his compositions as nocturnes (above, left). In Nocturne with Six Trees, Kipniss presents a zoomed-in landscape of trees, the subjects blurred by brushstrokes that interrupt our field of vision like falling leaves. Re-examining the depiction of natural elements, in place of the bold colors of Impressionism Kipniss has drained the composition of all color, using a restricted palette of whites, greys, and blacks. Instead of foliage bursting with colors, we have an almost absence of light that leaves us wondering what lurks between the trees. Similarly, Night Reflections (above, right) uses limited light and color to create an eerie, indoor scene.

Associated with the late 19th century Tonalist movement in America the term, borrowed from Frederic Chopin, combines musicality with the American landscape aesthetic: soft, diffused light and muted tones to create a hazy, moody atmosphere around objects to focus on the emotional qualities of the composition. Whistler’s nocturnes were neither the first night scenes nor the last, Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn regularly painted night scenes and Frederic Remington is recognized for his nocturnes featuring the American West. In honor of spooky season, let’s look at some contemporary nocturnes (or are they?) in the FWMoA permanent collection.

Purple skeletons party against a colorful desert landscape against a purple-pink setting sun as the moon rises against the mountains on the horizon line.
David Martinez, Mexican, b. 1943. Fiesta de las Calacas. Screenprint on paper, 1995. Museum purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2013.44.3. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Despite taking place at night, does this screenprint by David Martinez (above) meet the definition of a nocturne? Colorful and joyous, these dancing skeletons are throwing a party in the desert as the moon rises and the stars descend. Despite taking place at night, the light is bright and the colors are even brighter, banishing any semblance of a somber mood and drawing the eye directly to the narrative content: the partying skeletons. A nocturne isn’t simply an artwork whose subject is night, as it isn’t focused on the subject at all, it must capture that undefinable quality that characterizes the night.

What about Noel Mahaffey’s screenprint, below, Night-Times Square? While bright, the light of the neon billboards and signs obscure each other (can you read what’s on the marquee?) and the subjects. The panel van, the center of the composition, is made visible in the reflected light on its side while the people milling on the street are left as shadowy groups: is it a person, a trashcan, or a parking meter? While early nocturnes, in the 1860s and 1870s, were inspired by the moon and stars, Mahaffey’s screenprint embraces technology and the city at night. While it doesn’t have the tonality and opaqueness of Kipniss, it still upsets perception trough shadow and reflection, capturing the mood of city nightlife.

A screenprint of a sidewalk lit up at night, featuring neon lights and a marquee board. People walk down the street and peer in the shop windows while a panel van is paralleled park front and center.
Noel Mahaffey, American, b. 1944. Night-Times Square, from the City-Scapes portfolio. Screenprint on paper, 1979. Gift of Mr. Arthur Johnson. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Is Yvonne Jacquette’s etching a true nocturne? While it embraces more color than Whistler and Kipniss, the subtle palette and moody atmosphere is present. Here, we can see a harmony between the spots of light and the darker, obscuring cloud cover that captures the stillness of seeing the world from above. The first proto-abstract artwork, the nocturne renounced the values of academic painting, which focused on guiding the viewer to contemplate the display of a naturally rendered landscape, in favor of drawing attention away from the subject and to the emotionality and mood. What mood is Jacquette depicting? An arrangement of line, color, and form first, the nocturne prioritizes artistic interest over subject, epitomizing the “art for art’s sake” movement that defines today’s modern art. Clouds Obscuring San Diego captures the flickering light of a night scene blurred from above by floating dark clouds, a scene and style characteristic of a nocturne.

Yvonne Jacquette, American, 1934-2023. Clouds Obscuring San Diego. Color spit bite aquatint with soft ground and hard ground etching on paper, 1987. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Arts United Renaissance Campaign, 1988.04. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Robert von Sternberg’s photograph, below, is also representative of a nocturne. A night scene, we see a softly lit trailer whose end vanishes into deep shadow. The light reflects dimly off other trailers in the park, but as they fade into darkness it makes us wonder, are they other trailers? Other buildings? This night vision, transformed into photographic form, upsets the viewer’s perception, subjecting them to a different, often disorientating, spatial experience. In Rockview Trailer Park, Morrow Bay, California, for example, is the reflection on the back of the trailer from the rising sun in the east (or setting sun in the west) or a decorative shade cover? What lives in the shadows where the light doesn’t touch, as we squint to make out oblique forms both big and small.

A photograph of a trailer park in darkness, the trailer dimly lit by a porch light and the rising sun reflecting off a panel window in the back.
Robert von Sternberg, American, b. 1939. Rockview Trailer Park, Morrow Bay, California. Inkjet print on paper, 2014. Gift of the Artist, 2014.43. Image courtesy of the FMWoA.

Visit FMWoA Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm, Thursday 10am-8pm, and Sunday 12pm-5pm to see if you can find any nocturnes on display this spooky season!

One Reply to “Art Term Tuesday: Nocturne”

  1. For anyone wanting to explore more nocturne paintings by American artist or the American genre of tonalism, David Cleveland’s book American Tonalism 1880-1920 is a great reference.

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