Nocturnes: A Group Exhibition

On view: June 3 - July 29, 2017
Opening reception: Saturday, June 3, 4-7 PM
Curators Talk: Friday, July 14, 11 AM

Stephen Bach, Marc Barrett, Bobbi Baugh, Donne Bitner, Jill Cannady, Mollie Doctrow, Heidi Edwards, George Ann Gillespie, René Guerin, Bryce Hammond, BJ Lantz, Carol Munder, Sara Pedigo, Jo Sinclair, Christine Sullivan, Alexis Rogers, Trish Thompson, Anna Tomczak, and Catherine Van Lancker

Arts on Douglas is pleased to announce the opening of Nocturnes, a themed group exhibition curated by Dr. James Murphy. This exhibition explores the tradition of the nocturne in art and presents how contemporary artists interpret this theme utilizing a range of media. 

Heidi Edwards, Nocturne, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches

Curator's Notes:

by Dr. James Murphy, Exhibition Curator with support from Juliana Romnes, Arts on Douglas Gallery Coordinator 

Nocturne, (French: “Nocturnal”), 1. A painting or tone poem of a night scene. 2. A romantic composition intended to embody sentiments appropriate to the evening or night; a pensive melody; reverie.

The word nocturne began as a musical term to describe the melancholic piano compositions of the composer Frédéric Chopin, who wished to evoke the abstract qualities of art and music. Later, the American Impressionist James McNeill Whistler appropriated the language of music – arrangements, symphonies, and nocturnes for the titles of his atmospheric nighttime landscapes. In Whistler’s words, “the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil…” The composer Claude Debussy, inspired by Whistler’s paintings, went on to compose his Three Nocturnes as a direct musical response to the visual inspiration. The phrase continues to be used to reference artwork with a dreamy, pensive manner. One notable example is Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, a nocturnal landscape animated by the anxiety of the human mind.

Other examples of the nocturne in art include the paintings of Edward Hopper, best known for his depictions of urban loneliness and alienation in such works as Nighthawks. He captured the effects of artificial light spilling out of windows or doorways, revealing to us the hidden lives behind the dark streets. His paintings are often linked to the film noir movies of the 1940s, so-named for their dark shadows and grim urban settings, usually set to an expressive, jazzy soundtrack.  The Abstract Expressionists, however, came closest to realizing Whistler’s push toward pure abstraction. In the final paintings of Mark Rothko, for example, we can trace the progression from luminous colors to all-consuming blackness in the years leading to his death.


René Guerin, Chispas, oil on panel, 12 x 16 inches 

The artists in this show have responded to the poetic, even cosmic, possibilities of this theme, each addressing a unique approach in mood, medium and method. While landscape remains the dominant subject, several painters have chosen the nightmare over the nocturne. Donne Bitner, and Jill Cannady explore the dark side of the night, with overtones of dread, anxiety and subconscious fears. René Guerin’s Chispas utilizes frenzied brush strokes to evoke figures in unrestrained motion around a fire that serves to illuminate the scene.

Many stylistic approaches are represented, from the expressive textural effects of Guerin and Trish Thompson to the more precise illusionism of Mark Barrett and Bryce Hammond. Formal arrangements are pushed to the brink of abstraction in Christine Sullivan’s work, and Catherine Van Lancker intensifies the chiaroscuro of a river sunset. The range of scale is striking as well, from the sumptuous impressionist landscapes of Heidi Edwards to the tiny woodcuts by Mollie Doctrow.

The photographs include large Polaroid transfer floral still lifes by Anna Tomczak, the surrealist photogravure of Carol Munder and miniature plant portraits by Alexis Rogers, lit only by the flash of her instamatic camera in the dead of night.

Mixed-media artists include BJ Lantz, Bobbi Baugh, and Jo Sinclair. Lantz utilizes cold wax medium to build up layers and texture in her imaginative woodland scenes. Bobbi Baugh’s textile panels evoke a scene of childhood wonder, and Sinclair’s By the Departing Light... incorporates elements of collage in her landscape to elicit a sense of serenity and stillness as the final rays of sunlight skim the horizon, reflect in the water, and make way for the night.  

A similar sense of serenity pervades the urban environment as conceived by Stephen Bach, who captures the nostalgic melancholy of city streets in such works as Night on Park Avenue. By contrast, George Ann Gillespie elevates the viewer’s point of view with the exhilarating panorama of St. Augustine, and Sara Pedigo invites us to be voyeurs contemplating the private lives behind the lamp-lit window sill. 

Overall, the artwork in this exhibition ranges in mood, intent and interpretation, but comes together as a comprehensive exploration of all the imagery the nocturne can hold. In “The Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, the contemporary lyrics still capture the sense of nocturnal power:

Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness wakes and stirs imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses
Helpless to resist the notes I write …

About the Curator:

Dr. Murphy was the first program director of Atlantic Center for the Arts and served as Executive Director of the Society for Photographic Education. He has been an independent curator to arts organizations and is the author of reviews, articles and catalogue essays. He has held full-time faculty positions at the University of Alabama, Stetson University, and Florida State University, where he served as chairman of the Department of Art. He holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Art History from Florida State University.