Smithsonian Freer Gallery Sackler Gallery National Museum of Asian Art Gallery Guide Arts of the Islamic World
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For some late-nineteenth-century artists, the repudiation of objectivity led to the embrace of the ideal of "Art for Art's Sake." These artists conceived of the art object as an autonomous creation to be valued for the success with which it organized color and line into a formally complete and therefore beautiful whole. The most influential American advocate of this position was the expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). According to Whistler, a work of art "should appear as the flower to the painter—perfect in its bud as in its bloom—with no reason to explain its presence—no mission to fulfill—a joy to the artist—a delusion to the philanthropist—a puzzle to the botanist—an accident of sentiment and alliteration to the literary man." James McNeill Whistler, "Propositions-No.2," reprinted in Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings of James McNeill Whistler, Nigel Thorp ed. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, 78 A botanist may appreciate a flower because she recognizes it as a rare orchid and a sentimentalist may value it as a symbol for the evanescence of life. But Whistler and his fellow "aesthetes" rejected the idea that the success of a work of art should be measured by its accuracy as a representation or the effectiveness with which it tells a story or suggests a moral. For these artistic radicals, the goal of art was—solely—the creation of beauty. They believed that a beautiful art object, like a flower, is beautiful not because it reveals something new or important about the world, but simply because it organizes color and line into a visually satisfying whole.

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Nocturne: Grey and Silver, Chelsea Embankment
Nocturne: Grey and Silver—Chelsea Embankment, Winter
by James McNeill Whistler (American, 1834–1903)
Oil on canvas
62.6 x 47.5 cm (24 1/2 x 18 3/4 in.)
Gift of Charles Lang Freer   F1902.143
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art
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