At their best, nocturnes strip away all extraneous detail, leaving us with powerful impressions and nothing more.
Nocturne in Gray and Gold, Westminster Bridge, c. 1871-1874, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Courtesy Glasgow Museums.
If the weather cooperates, we’ll be painting a nocturne one night that week. We haven’t had that opportunity for several years. The jack pines and thundering surf should make excellent foils for the moon over the water.
The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, Winslow Homer, courtesy Memorial Art Gallery of Rochester
As delicious as this sounds—and I’m quite looking forward to it—it’s also the most worrisome part of the workshop for me. I’m the antithesis of a night owl. By 8:30 PM I’m yawning uncontrollably. Luckily for me the moonrise is going to be at 7:49 PM. I ought to manage a few brushstrokes before I’m fast asleep.
It’s a pity, because I love nocturnes. They’re mysterious, edgy, moody. In fact, I’m working on one right now—on the easel in my studio, where I can look at it in the full light of day.
The Polish Rider, c. 1655, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy Frick Collection.
“Nocturne” started out as a musical term; it was introduced to painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His nocturnes are reductions to value studies and focus on composition.
Whistler did not invent night painting. It’s integral to chiaroscuro, meaning that it was used by everyone from Caravaggio on. Rembrandt famously used it in The Night Watch, (1642).
Moonlight Wolf c. 1909, Frederic Remington, courtesy Addison Gallery of American Art.
Frederic Remington started his career as an illustrator, gradually moving to fine painting and sculpture. Around 1900 he started a series of paintings focusing on the color of the night. By his death in 1909, he had painted more than seventy nocturnes. They are filled with color, but they also shroud his illustrative temperament in mystery.
One of my favorite paintings of Maine, Rooms for Tourists by Edward Hopper, wasn’t painted in Maine at all. It’s 142 Bradford Street, Provincetown, MA. While it exists today, it’s awfully swank compared to its 1945 incarnation.
Rooms for Tourists, 1945, Edward Hopper. Courtesy Yale University Art Gallery.
At the time he painted it, it was a private residence. By cloaking it in darkness, Hopper could strip away all extraneous details, leaving only a coastal boarding house.
The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog (1894) features Winslow Homer’s trademark diagonal composition, but is pared down to its essential form. We must imagine the rocks, sea, and the color of fog.
Moonrise, 1894, David Davies, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Historically, nocturnes were about solitude. In our jazzed, electric world, they're more likely to focus on lighting and energy. Contemporary painter Anthony Watkins is particularly good at nocturnes. He painted a brace of them at Ocean Park and sold them all in a whirl. I love them; I just can’t see how he can stay up all night painting.