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  • Fireworks and Other Profane Illuminations: Color and the Experience of Wonder in Modern Visual Culture

There is no reason why fireworks should not be represented—I have seen them represented before in pictures—but I do not think it is a good subject.

—William Michael Rossetti, expert testimony for the plaintiff in Whistler v Ruskin (1878)

James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (c. 1875) is probably the best-known painting of fireworks in the history of Western art (figure 1). It is not difficult to see what it is about the painting that originally so enraged critics—the formless dabs of green and orange-red paint and summarily sketched human forms in the foreground depart sharply from aesthetic standards of the time. According to John Ruskin, the painting, which he had seen in 1877 at the opening show of Sir Coutts Lindsay’s Grosvenor Gallery, was an affront not only to the aesthetic but also economic and moral principles that underpinned Victorian art. As he famously noted in his review of the exhibition,

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the Gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.1 [End Page 657]

Fig. 1. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1834–1903, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, c.1875 (oil on panel), 23 3/4 × 18 3/8 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, USA, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry Jr., The Bridgeman Art Library. (Online version in color)
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Fig. 1.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1834–1903, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, c.1875 (oil on panel), 23 3/4 × 18 3/8 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, USA, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry Jr., The Bridgeman Art Library. (Online version in color)

This biting review, which Whistler deemed an attack against his personal honor and a threat to his livelihood, led the artist to sue Ruskin for libel. At the end of a much publicized trial, the court agreed with Whistler, but awarded him only a farthing in damages without costs—a move suggesting that the jury may well have shared the critic’s poor opinion of the painting.

Interpretations of the court case have generally centered on the ascendancy of critics in the nineteenth-century art world or participants’ conflicting understandings of the proper relationship between art and the marketplace.2 In these, Whistler’s aesthetic theories and radical experiments with color naturally garner much attention. However, often overlooked is the fact that Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket is a painting of fireworks whose vibrant colors were the result of important innovations in the pyrotechnical arts, just as Whistler’s representation of them was the result of [End Page 658] important innovations in painting. Indeed, since their introduction to Europe in the fourteenth century, firework shows had been predominantly white, silver, and gold. Early modern pyrotechnicians worked hard to add different colors to their repertoire of effects, but these were generally only faintly visible. The bright and varied colors with which we have come to closely associate firework shows were developments that only fully transpired during Whistler’s lifetime, thanks in particular to the efforts of a coterie of innovative pyrotechnicians predominantly working across the Channel in France.

Tracing the history of color fireworks from the 1830s to the turn of the twentieth century, this essay offers a new interpretation of the history of wonder in the modern world—one that foregrounds the central role played by color and the convergence of enchantment, abstraction, and consumer appetites in nineteenth-century visual culture. It suggests that the emergence of color in pyrotechnology can best be understood in terms of the wider transformation of nineteenth-century visual and material culture by inexpensively produced and reproduced color. For indeed, parallel to fireworks’ transformation of the cityscape through bright and varied colors, new technologies, media, and consumer products, ranging from exotic flowers to synthetic dyes, contributed to making everyday life in the nineteenth century more colorful, if not also more spectacular. Until now, the...


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