- Introduction to the life and works of John Ruskin and James McNeill Whistler
- The inaugural exhibition at Grosvenor Gallery in London
- Whistler vs. Ruskin: clashing views on art
- The aftermath after the trial
John Ruskin (1819–1900) was an English art critic. His writings were greatly sought after by art enthusiasts all over England. Ruskin was also an academic and, contrary to popular belief, an adept of modern art. As we will later discover, his love for the arts ran deep into his perception of the world, attributing value to paintings based on their central themes, intellectual propensity, and cultural importance. Anchored in the past, he was a dreamer who regarded art as a priority, high above the running machinery of industrialization which alienated the mind and soul from the beauty of the world. Ruskin was essentially a Victorian Sage, or Prophet, whose work aimed to bring social and cultural change.
On the other hand, a witty and charismatic character, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1835–1904) was a visionary and one of the earliest proponents of modern art, who found his inspiration in subjects of everyday life. By associating painting with music, Whistler titled many of his paintings as ‘arrangements’, ‘harmonies’, and ‘symphonies’. One of his most famous works, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), also known as Whistler’s Mother, is a satirical portrayal of motherhood, drenched in soaking greys of puritanism. Unsurprisingly, Whistler was a leading force of the British Aesthetic movement. Their philosophy was to create ‘art for art’s sake’, substituting aesthetic beauty for moralistic, allegorical, or sentimentalist considerations. At a time when his contemporaries were still dabbling in the nuances of Realism and Impressionism, Whistler was crafting his distinctive style, closely related to an early version of Post-Impressionism.
In 1877, the newly inaugurated Grosvenor Gallery in London held an exhibition of modern artworks rejected by the Royal Academy of Art. It included works by John Everett Millais (1829–1896) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), a Pre-Raphaelite painter and one of Ruskin’s favorites. In contrast, priced at 200 guineas, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) came as a shock to the sentimentalist critic.
Whistler painted a series of nocturnes of moonlit river scenes during the 1870s. Nocturne in Black and Gold depicts a roaring cascade of sparks falling over the melancholic night sky. Bold, elusive, and enigmatic, the painting is anything but shy. It screams with joy and passion! Whistler was inspired to paint this artwork by the celebrated Cremorne Gardens near the River Thames. He used a restrictive palette of muted tones of blues, greens, and yellows. His brushstrokes are loose, rendering the contrast between light and shadow with playfulness. In the lower half of the painting, the figures watching the fireworks are ghost-like blotches of paint spread across the canvas. Through sparks of fire, the smoke persists in the misty air.
Ruskin published his review of the exhibition in Fors Clavigera No. 79; a monthly publication written for the ‘workers and laborers of Great Britain’. Displeased with Whistler’s Nocturne, he made the following remark:
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 wilful 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.
Fors Clavigera No. 79
Offended by this review, Whistler sued the art critic for libel. Because Ruskin was physically and mentally unfit to participate in the trial, he asked Burne-Jones to testify on his behalf. At the trial, Whistler argued that the review had damaged his reputation and generated bad publicity for his artworks. In an attempt to justify his defamation claims, Whistler also raised doubt about Ruskin’s capacities as an art critic, who was not a painter himself. On the other hand, the defense counsel employed a two-part strategy by dismissing Whistler’s art and reinforcing the critic’s right to judge and critique works of art.
Whistler vs. Ruskin: Clashing Views
The trial called into question the quality of Whistler’s works. Burne-Jones remarked that Whistler’s paintings were incomplete. He gave the portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti (1545) by Titian as an example of remarkably well-executed art.
However, do not take Ruskin’s harsh words as a rejection of Whistler’s modernist ambitions. In Modern Painters, he praised JMW Turner (1775–1851) and his wild, abstracted depictions of nature, often found in gestural brushstrokes capturing mere studies of light and shade. No, it seems ‘unfinished’ meant something else to Ruskin; to him, the word was far more subtle than what had surfaced during the trial. David Craven argues in Ruskin vs. Whistler: the Case Against Capitalism that Ruskin perceived Whisler’s images as lacking associations with nature, literature, and culture. In other words, Whistler’s paintings were incomplete from a conceptual standpoint.
Remember that Whistler was part of the Aesthetic movement. For him, art was a purely visual form of expression that should be recognized as such and nothing more. He was striving to distance himself from the very intellectual associations Ruskin favored in painting.
Here lies the main difference between Turner’s and Whistler’s work in Ruskin’s eyes. While Turner was drawn towards painting romantic landscapes of mountains, clouds, waters, Whistler adopted more ‘industrial’ subjects, such as bridges. Ruskin firmly disapproved of the ‘art for art’s sake’ initiative and criticized Whistler’s works for depicting a lamentable, vulgar London. But to Whistler, the subject matter was unimportant as it did not affect the overall quality of the painting.
During the cross-examination, the defense attorney asked Whistler if his depiction of the Battersea Bridge by moonlight in one of his nocturnes was an accurate depiction. Whistler replied that ‘[he] did not intend it to be a ‘correct’ portrait of the bridge’. His nocturnes are about feeling, atmosphere, and sensations. Whistler challenges through his ingenuity the former ideals of beauty in art. As he put it:
My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of color.
The fifth in this series, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge is a painting of an old wooden bridge that spread across the Thames. Behind the bridge, Whistler added an explosion of fireworks. He was not interested in portraying a replica of his subjects. As a matter of fact, Whistler chose to paint the Battersea Bridge taller in the picture than in reality for compositional effects. In the distance, you can spot the Chelsea Church and the lights of the newly-built Albert Bridge. Whistler painted his nocturnes in the studio, applying a special ‘sauce’ in thin layers, which essentially was a mix of paint with copal, turpentine, and linseed oil. At the trial, the judge genuinely asked the artist which part of the painting was the bridge in question.
The courtroom was filled with laughter and applause generated by Whistler’s comical and witty responses to the attorney’s inquiries. In assessing Whistler’s nocturnes, the defense asked the artist if he could explain the beauty of his artworks, to which Whistler replied with a jocular metaphor: “No! Do you know I fear it would be as hopeless as for the musician to pour his notes into the ear of a deaf man.”
A Matter of Time
Another point of debate was the time Whistler took to paint the artwork. To the defense, it seemed that only two days of labor for creating a painting weren’t enough to justify a price of 200 guineas. Here is an extract from the trial when Ruskin’s attorney asked Whistler how long it took him to ‘knock-off that nocturne’ (Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Fallen Rocket):
Whistler: …I was two days at work on it.
Attorney: Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!
Whistler: No;–I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime!
Despite all appearances, Ruskin wasn’t concerned with how long it took Whistler to perfect his nocturnes. Previously, he wrote that great artworks can be done effortlessly, without much struggle. Giving birth to many ambiguities and inconsistencies, his absence in the courtroom was surely felt.
The trial lasted only two days, and it was a lose-lose situation for those involved. Even though Whistler had claimed damages of 1,000 pounds in addition to his court costs, he was awarded only a farthing, or one-thousandth of a pound. His notorious nocturnes were rendered unsalable by the court. By the end of the trial, Whistler was bankrupt and moved to Venice to work. Things weren’t far more glamorous for Ruskin himself. He was morally defeated: his reputation suffered a great shock, and that same year, he resigned from his Slade Professorship of Fine Arts at Oxford University. According to him, his right to express a critical opinion about art was denied by British Law.
Ruskin wrote My Own, an article on Whistler, shortly after the trial. He returned to the moral virtues in art, emphasizing that the value of a great painting is fundamentally tied to its conceptual background. Some may argue Ruskin was a socialist. He rejected the commercialization of society encouraged by laissez-faire capitalism, which polluted even the artistic genius. Ruskin believed Whistler’s paintings exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery were yet another attempt to earn money dishonestly. In his view, the nocturnes did not correct any social wrongs and amounted to nothing more than a physical manifestation of the very economic system he held in contempt. To understand Ruskin, you must see art as a civil responsibility, a powerful tool used for the advancement of society. He was among the first thinkers to place such great importance on the study of arts.
In 1890, 10 years after the trial, Whistler also wrote about the trial in his book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies — a controversial collection of grievances against his former acquaintances.
Say all you want about him and his combative persona but Whistler was a visionary. He saw art as an independent field, unrelated to the rectification of social faults. Arguably, he set the scene for upcoming abstract artists like Jackson Pollock and Joan Miro. Whistler envisioned a different future for the art world, in which artists aren’t pinned down by art critics at every attempt to break the mold, making art for art’s sake!
Craven,David. Ruskin vs. Whistler: The Case against Capitalist Art, JSTOR. Accessed 3 Mar 2022.
Jones, Jonathan, “Artists v critics, round one,” The Guardian, June 26, 2003. Accessed February 26, 2022.
Kim, Demie, “When James Abbott McNeill Whistler Sued His Harshest Critic—and Won“, Artsy, October 30, 2018. Accessed February 27, 2022.
“Turner Whistler Monet: Ruskin v Whistler,” Tate. Accessed February 28, 2022.