The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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30th June 2003 - Whistler, Debussy and Nocturnes

In perhaps the final letter that Whistler received in his lifetime, on 30 June 1903 his friend Théodore Duret wrote to ask the artist if he was aware of the fact that the composer Claude Debussy had been using the term 'Nocturne' as a musical designation:

"Have you heard of Debussy and of his nocturnes? After reproaching you in every way for having borrowed from the language of music to apply it to painting, now music comes in search of inspiration from your painting. What a turnaround! How things come full circle!"

(GUL MS Whistler D208, translated from French)

Debussy composed the orchestral suites Nocturnes between 1893-1899. The composer's orchestral sound has been described as "more often a single, delicately pulsing totality to which individual instruments contribute momentary gleams of color. One thinks of an impressionist picture, in which small, discrete areas of color, visible close up, merge into indescribable color fields as you stand back and take the painting in as a whole" (Joseph Kerman, Listen). The interchange of artistic terms such as 'Nocturne' is noted by Richard Dorment (in James McNeill Whistler, London, 1994): "In the mid-1860s, in his use of musical terminology for the titles of his paintings, Whistler had been highly influenced by the Baudelarian theory of Correspondences between the arts. At the turn of the century the process reversed itself when composers in the Symbolist circle in Paris were inspired by Whistler's paintings". It is fitting that at the very end of his life Whistler should be reminded of how things had come 'full circle'.