Music and Movement: A Survey of Whistler's Lesser-Known Images of Music, Theatre and Dance

Article excerpt


James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was one of many 19th-century artists who looked to music as a paradigm for the beauty and expressive value of self-sufficient artistic technique. This paradigm offered an alternative to the narrative model provided by epic poetry, and stimulated new ways of making and appreciating visual art. For Whistler, the musical framework was a highly significant influence on his approach to subject matter, colour, composition, and nomenclature.

Whistler used musical titles such as Symphony, Harmony and Nocturne from 1867 onwards. Generally applied to works without musical subject matter, the titles were intended to convey the artist's interest in freestanding pictorial technique (and his simultaneous disinterest in narrative), and to guide the viewer's engagement in a manner akin to a listener's appreciation of pure music. Additionally, in major public statements such as 'The Red Rag' (1878), the Ruskin trial (1878) and the 'Ten O'Clock' lecture (1885), Whistler employed musical analogy to explain his theory and practice, emphasizing his interest in the interrelationship between art and music. (1)


Whistler acquired a sound understanding of musical operations by attending performances, befriending prominent musicians, and engaging with the general climate of interest in musical modelling. Indeed, his patronage of the performing arts was very eclectic--he enjoyed music and dance within his own home and studio, and he attended smoking concerts and soirees; music-hall, cabaret and shows by popular solo entertainers; concert music, opera and operetta; can-can, ballet and the beginnings of modern dance; and historical drama, comic drama and burlesque. (2)

Many of these experiences were captured by the artist in images ranging from casual sketches--such as the early drawings Musicians (1849/51, private collection) and Jem Bugs (1852/53, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)--to the highly finished oil paintings At the Piano (1858-59, Taft Museum, Ohio), Arrangement in black, no. 3: Sir Henry Irving as Philip II of Spain (1876-85, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Arrangement in black: Portrait of Senor Pablo de Sarasate (1884, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburg). While the latter have received due attention, others--particularly works on paper--have been largely neglected in published studies (although Pamela Robertson's Beauty and the Butterfly is a recent exception). (3)

This paper will explore a selection of Whistler's smaller-scale and lesser-known images of music and dance that clearly convey his interest in performance and in the interrelationship between music, movement and visual art. As primary sources they document Whistler's relationships with amateur and professional performers, and his presence at particular events. Furthermore, they indicate the ways in which Whistler engaged with performance, showing his interest in its physicality and theatricality, in the performer's absorption, and in the similarities between his own activity as an artist and that of the performer.

Whistler's interest in theatrical performance is entwined with his interest in music: not only does dance imply the presence of music but its depiction imbues the fixed format of visual art with the temporal qualities of movement and change. In Music and Morals (1871) the Revd Mr Haweis (a musician, preacher and acquaintance of Whistler) had challenged artists to develop a 'Colour-art exactly analogous to the Sound-art of music'. (4) By this, he envisaged an art of colour in which pictures not only depended solely upon colour for their merit, as symphonies depend solely upon sound, but that somehow incorporated velocity and change into their presentation of colour. Whistler's ongoing interest in the expressive potential of colour, and his depiction of fireworks in a number of his Nocturnes might be considered a response to Haweis' challenge (given that the writer used the example of fireworks to explain his vision). …