‘Images are more precise and richer than literature’ (Berger, J. Ways of Seeing)

A study on the ‘precision’ of art versus literature

How can one define the term ‘precision’? Should one denote the term, with regards to art, as propounding some mathematical exactitude that creates an image that replicates fact? Or is the ‘precision’ of an image most palpable in the emotion it most readily evokes? Or perhaps the ‘precision’ infers the accuracy of the representation of life and movement the image conjures? Is prose a weaker witness to history, in that it relies on the imagination of the reader to create an image, thus transposing the contents of its works into modern day and potentially negating the experience of the writer in favour of the perspective of the modern reader? How does music become relevant in its ‘precision’ of sensation? For my purposes I will be evaluating the ‘precision’ of the testimonies of James McNeill Whistler’s ​Nocturne: Black and Red – Back Canal, Holland ​ (1883-84) and James Joyce’s short story ​The Dead (1914).

There are some opposing sentiments in evaluations of Whistler and his paintings, and motivations for their creation which may alter the concept of whether ‘precision’ is a term that can be applied to him as an artist. Critically, Whistler’s ​Nocturne ​ paintings can be seen as ‘conjoined specificity of locale, mood-inducing color, and references to specific musical forms in an idiosyncratic amalgam of perception and memory, representation and abstraction’ (Suzanne Singletary) , reflecting on the essentiality of the feelings evoked from the painting. They are effective through their involvement of ‘not only the imagination of the artist, but significantly that of the viewer as well’ (Singletary) . Whistler’s own approach to art, as it has been chronicled, seems to suggest that the precision of his artwork is not in the enthusiasm of a public reception of it, but rather his own artistic intention. Whistler was devoted to aesthetics, to the quality of art as being characterised by its beauty as opposed to emotional attachment; he ‘evolved his own aesthetic principles, stressing that a work of art was, above all, ‘an arrangement of line, form, and colour’’ (Nigel Thorpe). In this ​Nocturne , ‘Holland and Art merge…both are superior to Nature and the product of aesthetic transformation’ (Singletary).

This belief in the importance of aestheticism is most conceivable in his relationships with author Oscar Wilde, with whom he had ‘much in common, the same need to shine in society’ (Victoria Charles) and with Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro, members of the Salon des Refuses of 1863, a group of primarily Impressionist artists rejected by the prestigious Paris Salon for their controversial renunciation of the classical painting style prolific during the eighteenth century. Their works echoed a preoccupation, not with a truth, or precision, of ‘meaning’, but with a fixation on the the ‘truth’ of art as ‘the visual essence of the natural world’ (Steve Platzman) .

So, one might conclude, the precision of Whistler and those he associated with was one of an accuracy of interpretation of the pastoral and the natural, a ‘desire for unity and a harmonious distribution of colour’ (Victoria Charles) , as opposed to a precision linked to the sentiment the artwork might provoke. The trajectory of Whistler’s art was towards a ‘harmony without subject-matter’ (Peter Dayan), becoming ‘an arrangement of colours…[as opposed to] the expression of ideas’ (Dayan) .

Using the idea of the ‘precision’ of art as a mode of remembrance and the most true depiction of emotion and memory within a confined area, or the ​fin ​ of a novel, I will evaluate Whistler’s ​Nocturne: Black and Red – Back Canal, Holland . The lightly applied watercolour onto paper creates an impression of impermanence and of the inconstancy of image and perception of space. Whistler conjures a moody evening scene cloaked with a furtive air filled with a thick, foggy silence. The inexactitude of the buildings themselves in juxtaposition to the precision with which they are depicted in their reflections on the water creates some strange equilibrium of the reality and simultaneous dream-like sleepiness of Whistler’s houses.

I believe that the precision of Whistler’s painting is in the cognition of the painting itself of its materiality and thus inherently, the subject it represents is accurate to what its author desired to create. It is precise without need for photographic verity, as in its mere nature as an encapsulation of a moment experienced by its author, it is a photographic aggregation of both image, memory, and emotion. Therefore, the painting could be expressed as a precision of the relationship between art and life and how their interaction can be portrayed as the individual’s truth in the act of creation. This is perpetuated by Whistler referring to the painting with musical terminology, the abstract noun ‘Nocturne’ of latinate origin meaning ‘of the night’, used in reference to paintings of night scenes, but also to classical romantic compositions. Whistler creates a piece that employs various media to evoke an all-encompassing sensory experience, reflecting an authenticity that is true of the experience of life itself.

In Joyce’s ​The Dead , the relationship between the emotional and the aesthetic becomes more elusive. The tale follows protagonist Gabriel’s experience of a Christmas celebratory gathering amongst friends and family, particularly focusing on his emotions towards other characters, events and insecurities of his own. Gabriel approaches art as above the connections he has with those around him, painting an aestheticized experience of life as what is true and what is ‘good’, therefore, to him, what is precise. Here, Joyce uses a narrative poeticism that ‘relates aesthetic pleasure to the grasp of sensible relations’ (Franz O’Rourke). Gabriel, upon contemplation of the speech he is to conduct at the gathering, is preoccupied with a fear of the art he is using not being understood by the other guests:

‘He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare…would be better…He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand…His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.’ (James Joyce, Dubliners)

Gabriel’s internal scrutiny of his speech and palpable frustration at his own inability to connect with the world is characterised by his need of art to embody his meaning. As Flaubert’s archetypal Madame Bovary, Gabriel uses art as a means to truth, living for art, and failing should his use of art be irrelevant or deficient. Towards the end of the story, Gabriel sees his wife, and his perception of her as a person is undetachable from his conception of her as a work of art:

‘He stood…gazing up at his wife…He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.​ Distant Music ​he would call the picture if he were a painter.’ (Joyce, Dubliners)

Joyce’s ‘precision’ is in his depiction of the inability of Gabriel to distinguish art from life, and the inherency of art as a means to express the experience of living. Gabriel cannot distinguish his wife from the image he paints of her, placing the aesthetic as a truth above the truth of existence and any sentiment attached to it, akin to Whistler’s own aesthetic pronouncements. He questions, not the emotions or reason as to why his wife stands, silently, contemplative, but rather the symbolism she embodies in her juxtaposition with the immaterial, namely the shadow and the distant music which surround her. The sentimental is irrelevant, here, replaced by a desire for a perfect aesthetic rendition of life, thereby positioning art above life and Nature as the most precise mode of translation of the experience of living.

However, the protagonist’s conflict with art and emotion is perhaps what may well demonstrate literature as a superior testimony of lived experience than image. Gabriel, as the story continues, is overcome with a purest of love for his wife, most divergent from the portrait sequence of earlier, here, his ‘thoughts…[are] rioting through his brain, proud, joyful, tender, valorous’ (Joyce, Dubliners). The scope of transition between his aestheticized image of prior with this gleeful tide of emotion is more retrievable, and more honest, to my eyes, of the richness of living than the immediacy of a singular image. Gabriel continues;

‘he longed to run after her noiselessly, catch her by the shoulders and say something foolish and affectionate in her ear…Moments of their secret life together burst like stars upon his memory…A wave of yet more tender joy escaped from his heart and went coursing in warm flood along his arteries…their moments of ecstasy.’ (Joyce, Dubliners)

Joyce has created, within the space of a few pages, the contradiction of Gabriel’s humanity with his ultimate artistic desires. It seems the protagonist has contradicted himself; after having made a speech on his skepticism towards the new ‘thought-tormented age’ (Joyce, Dubliners), he is himself tormented with thoughts he can only consider and never vocalise. The bursting of ‘stars upon his memory’ seems an interweaving of an ecstatic realisation of love akin to the exclamation of Shakespeare’s sonnet XIV’s ‘constant stars…[of] truth and beauty’ (William Shakespeare) and at once to Van Gogh’s 1889 ​The Starry Night . For him, as for Whistler, ‘Painting is poetry; music is poetry; music is painting, and poetry is painting’ (Dayan), and it is this permutation of art forms that characterises his authentic human existence.

However, here one comes to the realisation that however harmonious the employment of art is in embodying emotion, the excessive complexity that comes in the merging of all arts of popular culture with life seems devoid, as nothing can possibly reach the frantic infatuation and compassion that rings true to real life.

Thus, Gabriel finds himself unable to express this romantic delirium to the subject of his desire, or to find words to express his understanding of her and her pain. Joyce, true to the aesthetic constraints he depicts in his protagonist, demonstrates that ‘to seek to understand the subject is to miss the point’ (Dayan). So, Gabriel concludes there is no language of love. He does ‘not question her again…but he continue[s] to caress [her hand]’ (Joyce, Dubliners) . And his silence is love, the product of a realisation of a feeling ‘he had never felt…but he knew…must be love’ (Joyce, Dubliners), a feeling that no precise or intelligent use of language can even begin to authentically represent.

So is the momentary precision of an image more precise than a language incapable of truly expressing itself? Perhaps the moment of beauty in an image, in emotional or aesthetic form, is less confused than the musings of man, and the resources of this image’s ability to ‘succeed in eliciting an aesthetic response in the viewer’ (Peter Vergo) are what encapsulate the image’s capacity to represent the world precisely. The wordlessness, the silence, of an image, and its capability to evoke, while also simply ‘being’, is a precision in and of itself. It is an emotion, or a beauty, that words cannot elicit so immediately.

Whistler’s image, as defined by its interaction with music, an art form ‘capable of affecting one’s emotions…without its being dependent on subject-matter or any kind of depiction’ (Vergo), is precise in its proclamation of aesthetic, akin to the beauty of Nature, as being subjectless. Its precision is in its entirety, its accumulation of elements that result in beauty, just as life and the world cannot be characterised by a singular event, or a piece of music by one note. The artist must ‘pick, and choose…these elements [of art], [so] that the result may be beautiful’ (James McNeill Whistler), and, likewise, Gabriel must pick and choose the art that accurately portrays his confusion and anxiety of life in order to find meaning in his existence.

I feel it must be conclusive to assume, then, that a precise testimony on the nature of existence and living cannot be defined by one artistic medium, as Berger proclaims, but by the interaction one has with one’s environment, and how one chooses to express and feel this interaction, most likely with a lifetime’s accumulation of art in all its forms.


Charles, Victoria, ‘James McNeill Whistler’, London, Parkstone Press, 2011

Dayan, Peter, ‘Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art, from Whistler to Stravinsky and Beyond’, Surrey, Ashgate, 2011

Joyce, James, ‘Dubliners’, London, Grafton Books, 1977
O’Rourke, Fran, “Joyce’s Early Aesthetic.” ​Journal of Modern Literature ​ 34, no. 2 (2011): 97-120. Accessed February 9, 2020. doi:10.2979/jmodelite.34.2.97

Platzman, Steve, ‘Cezanne: The Self-Portraits’, New York, University of California Press, 2001

Shakespeare, William, ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000

Singletary, Suzanne, ‘James McNeill Whistler and France: A Dialogue in Paint, Poetry and Music’, Philadelphia, Taylor and Francis, 2016

Thorpe, Nigel; Whistler, James McNeill, ‘Whistler on Art’, 2004

Vergo, Peter, ‘The Music of Painting: Music, Modernism and the Visual Arts from the Romantics to John Cage’, London, Phaidon Press, 2010

Whistler, James McNeill, ‘Mr Whistler’s “10 O’clock”, London, Alderbrink Press, 1907