History of American Art
University of North Carolina

"Art for Art's Sake"

(Discussing Whistler's Theory)
By Lynn Salerno

James Whistler's theory of "art for art's sake" is demonstrated in his paintings Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, Arrangement in Black and Gray (Portrait of the Artist's Mother), and Arrangement in Flesh color and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret. Each work reveals the artist's connection with this concept and his ability to employ it in representational and abstract paintings.

The theory of "art for art's sake" was formed by Whistler in reaction to the bourgeois taste for mannered and fussy art popular in the late 1800's. He proposed that art could and should be enjoyed apart from its representational subject matter. The textures, colors and tones that the artist uses in painting could create an emotional impression of their own and move the viewer. This concept was a precursor to the abstract art of the twentieth century.

Whistler's painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, demonstrates his theory eloquently. No definitive subject matter can be seen in the work, yet it suggests fireworks exploding into the misty night sky. The painting is a combination of a storm-like, tonal arrangement in the background with a splash of light dots dancing across the surface. Whistler's talent here is in his ability to create a mood and evoke feelings, instead of merely recording an event.

The "art for art's sake" theory is demonstrated differently in Whistler's Arrangement in Gray and Black, or Portrait of the Artist's Mother. Despite its personal subject matter, he was able to create an innovative art piece instead of a more traditional portrait. There is little to no sentimentality in the painting that is as much a well designed composition as it is a portrait. The negative space around his mother is as interesting as the other objects in the piece and keeps her from being too emphasized. This is not to say that there is no emotional quality in the painting, rather, all of the tones, shapes and colors work together to create a somber, dignified and sensitive mood. The design is striking, with the heavy dark curtain on the right balancing his mother's dark, pyramid-like form near the center and right of the composition. A white rectangular print hangs behind her, serving to break up and soften the strong negative space of the wall.

The painting entitled Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret is a more conventional portrait, although it does demonstrate some elements of the "art for art's sake" theory. As in Whistler's Mother, the composition is very important here. Whistler painted not just a man in formal attire holding a cloak and hat, but a compelling shape that contrasts with the luminous background, harmonizing the whole design. Like some impressionists, Whistler painted here in bold, simple forms, leaving out many details that would interrupt the smooth tones. The Portrait of Theodore Duret is, therefore, somewhat in keeping with the "art for art's sake" theory. In this work, although a traditional portrait, Whistler placed an emphasis on painterly technique and compositional devices.

The three paintings by Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, Arrangement in Black and White: Portrait of the Artists Mother, and Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Theodore Duret, all demonstrate the "art for art's sake" theory. Nocturne is the most abstract and impressionistic of the three works. With its emphasis on tone, texture and color harmony, the painting is designed to evoke feelings and give a sense of atmosphere. The Portrait of the Artist's Mother has some abstract elements, yet the work is a strong representational portrait as well. Whistler uses shape, tone and texture to create and interesting "moment in time." The Portrait of Theodore Duret is a more conventional portrait although its strong forms and smooth tones demonstrate some of his theory that art can be appreciated apart from its subject matter. James Whistler's theory was important not only to his own art, but also in the way that it influenced future artists. Twentieth century artists would go on to explore many abstract concepts in art and see it in a new way and for "it's own sake."

Copyright Lynn Salerno, 1997-2016