Mrs. Erdleigh compared to a Whistlerian Nocturne

Jenkins describes Mrs. Erdleigh in her old age: “Lighter than air, disembodied from a material  world, the swirl of capes, hoods, stoles, scarves, veils, as usual encompassed her from head to foot, all seeming of so light a texture that, far from bringing an impression of accretion, their blurring of hard outlines produced a positively spectral effect, a Whistlerian nocturne in portraiture, sage greens, somber blues, almost frivolous greys, sprinkled with gold.” (TK 246/241)


Nocturne in Pink and Gray. (Portrait of Lady Meux.)
James McNeill Whistler, 1881
oil on canvas, 76 x 37 in
The Frick Collection, New York
photo in public domain from the Yorck Project via Wikimedia Commons

The harmonious colors of Whistler’s portraits could be wonderful. We have seen the Portrait of Lady Meux, (shown left) alternatively titled as a Harmony or as a Nocturne. It is only one of many of Whistler’s sumptuous portraits of Victorian women that evoke Mrs. Erdleigh’s other- worldly elegance and, as far as we know, the only one sometimes called a Nocturne.

Mrs. Erdleigh always has dimensions beyond the mere corporeal; in this description of a disembodied Mrs. Erdleigh nearing the end of her life, Jenkins is also recalling the almost abstract quality of Whistler’s nightscapes. About 1871,  he began to paint scenes of the Thames, which he called Nocturnes, works with veiled light and carefully blended muted colors, set at dusk or in the night; see Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea 1871, now in the Tate.  (American Paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts Vol. 3).  Whistler took the name  from the music of Chopin, according to a note he wrote in 1872 to Frederick Leyland, a Chopin devotee:

“I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish.”

The chief among those critics was Ruskin, who wrote that with Nocturne in Black and  Gold (shown below) Whistler was “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”   Whistler sued Ruskin for libel and won the suit but was awarded a trivial damage payment, much less than his share of the court costs. Later Whistler got more substantial satisfaction, selling the picture for 800 guineas.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket James McNeill Whistler, 1875 oil on panel The Detroit Institute of Art photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket
James McNeill Whistler, 1875
oil on panel
The Detroit Institute of Art
photo in public domain from Wikimedia Commons

In addition to Nocturne, Whistler often used other musical terms, like Symphony or Harmony, to title his paintings. We recall Jenkin’s description of Pamela Fitton’s crimson and peacock blue blouse  contrasting with Tiepolo’s colors with “dissonance as much as harmony” [TK 88] and wonder if Powell was thinking of Whistler when he wrote this description. Of course, harmony has shades of meaning, which Powell explores in the last volumes of Dance.

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