James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

In 1877 London, England was dominated in social circles by two electric gentlemen — Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler, born in America, trained in Paris Bohemian art life and a spitting image of Mark Twain.

In the summer of 1877, Sir Coutts Lindsay, a wealthy English banker and art lover, organized an exhibition of painting by the leading contemporary artists in the Grosvenor Gallery, London, which he had founded in opposition to the more conventional Royal Academy.  The exhibition, which attracted a great deal of publicity, became a focal point for art critics as well as avant-garde artists.  It was the subject of a complimentary notice by Oscar Wilde, who was a frequent visitor, and of a fiercely critical one by John Ruskin, then Slade Professor of Art at Oxford and the acknowledged leader of the popular conservative school of art criticism.  The American impressionist painter James McNeill Whistler was singled out as a particular object of attack by Ruskin, who wrote:

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.

The painting which Ruskin particularly had in mind was usually been called ‘The Falling Rocket’, though it was described in the gallery catalogue as ‘A Nocturne in Black and Gold’; it was inspired by a fireworks display in the Cremorne public gardens.  [Reference:  Montgomery Hyde, Their Good Names, Hamish Hamilton, 1970, p. 67]

John Everett Millais (1829-96), a prominent English painter of Ophelia, said Whistler was ‘a great power of mischief among young men’.  Whistler was ‘a man who had never learnt the grammar of his art’.  Millais was a famous pre-Raphaelite artist known for his accurate rendition of the details of nature.

Contemporary artists dismissed Whistler’s art as superficial and slovenly.

Why the fuss?

The picture itself (1875) is now at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Whistler created an indeterminate flash of fireworks falling and rising in the night without any reference to a figure or a solid building.  This done in a time when rather exact camera-like pictures held sway.  This picture all dark, flash and sparkle.

The Park Cremorne had a shady reputation where sexual activities flourished.

Whistler thought artists should paint subjects just how they appeared to the artist.  There was no need to have a dominant theme of religion or patriotism.  Whistler described it as ‘Art for Art’s Sake’.  Whistler called his paintings ‘harmonies’, ‘arrangements’, ‘nocturnes’ and ‘symphonies’.  This created consternation.

Ruskin was a famed conservative art professor in his 60th year.  Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in 1877.  Ruskin suffered a mental breakdown before the trial started in November of 1878 before a jury and was unable to participate in the trial, as he was deemed unfit to stand trial.

Whistler’s lawyer argued, “the terms on which Mr. Ruskin has spoken of Mr. Whistler are unfair and ungentlemanly and are calculated to have done him considerable injury and it will be for you gentlemen of the jury to say what damages Mr. Whistler is entitled to.”

The Falling Rocket was initially exhibited to the jury upside down as the court clerk handed it forward.

When cross-examined by Sir John Holker appearing for Ruskin, who was the Attorney-General  who also had a lucrative private practice:

‘You have sent pictures to the Academy which have not been accepted?’

‘I believe that is the experience of all artists,’ replied Whistler, raising a laugh.  His last picture to be rejected was ‘An Arrangement in Grey and Blue’, he said.  This was the well known portrait of his mother, afterwards exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery and now in the Luxembourg in Paris.

The cross-examination continued:

Attorney-General: Is two hundred guineas a pretty good price for an artist of reputation?

Whistler:   Yes.

Attorney-General: It is what we who are not artists would call a stiffish price.

Whistler: I think it very likely it would be so. (Laughter)

Attorney-General:  Artists do not endeavour to get the highest price for their work irrespective of value?

Whistler: That is so, and I am glad to see the principle so well established.

Attorney-General:  I suppose you are willing to admit that your pictures exhibit some eccentricities.  You have been told that over and over again?

Whistler: Yes, very often.  (Laughter)

Attorney General: Did it take much time to paint the ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’?  How soon did you knock it off?  (Laughter)

Whistler:  I beg your pardon.

Attorney-General: I was using an expression which was rather more applicable to my own profession.  (Laughter)  How long did you take to knock off one of your pictures?

Whistler: Oh, I knock off one possible in a couple of days — one day to do the work and another to finish it.  (Laughter)

Attorney-General: And that was the labour for which you asked two hundred guineas?

Whistler: No; it was for the knowledge gained through a lifetime.

The audience applauded this so the judge, Baron Huddleston, interrupted with, ‘This is not an arena for applause.  If this manifestation of feeling is repeated, I shall have to clear the court.’

Attorney-General: You know that many critics entirely disagree with your views as to these pictures?

Whistler: It would be beyond me to agree with the critics.

Attorney-General: You don’t approve of criticism?

Whistler: I should not disapprove in any way of technical criticism by a man whose life is passed in the practice of the science that he criticizes; but for the opinion of a man whose life is not so passed I would have as little respect as you would have if he expressed an opinion on the law.  I hold that none but an artist can be a competent critic.  It is not only when a criticism is unjust that I object to it, but when it is incompetent.

Attorney-General: You expect to be criticized?

Whistler: Yes, certainly; and I do not expect to be affected by it until it comes to a case of this kind.

The ‘Nocturne in Blue and Silver’ was then produced, and the judge peered at it closely.  He then asked the artist what it was intended to represent:

Whistler:  It represents Battersea Bridge by moonlight.

Judge:  Is this part of the picture at the top Old Battersea Bridge?

Whistler:  Your lordship is too close at present to the picture to perceive the effect which I intended to produce at a distance.  The spectator is supposed to be looking down the river towards London.  [Their Good Names, pp. 77-78]

I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene.  As to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it.  To some persons it may represent all that I intend; to others it may represent nothing. [Whistler … p. 220]

Judge: The prevailing colour is blue?

Whistler: Yes.

Judge: Are those figures on the top of the bridge intended for people?

Whistler: They are just what you like.

Judge: That is a barge beneath?

Whistler: Yes, I am very much flattered at your seeing that. The picture is simply a representation of moonlight. My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour.

Judge: How long did it take you to paint that picture?

Whistler: I completed the work in one day, after having arranged the idea in my mind.

Attorney-General: After finishing these pictures, do you hang them up on the garden wall to mellow?

Whistler: I should grieve to see my paintings mellowed.  (Laughter)  But I do put them in the open air that they may dry as I go on with my work.

The Attorney-General resumed his cross-examination, pointing to ‘The Falling Rocket’:

Attorney-General: This is Cremorne?  (Laughter)

Whistler: It is a ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’.

Attorney-General: What is the subject of the ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’?

Whistler: It is a night piece, and represents the fireworks at Cremorne.

Attorney-General: Not a view of Cremorne?

Whistler: If it were a view of Cremorne, it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders.  (Laughter)  It is an artistic arrangement.

Attorney-General: How long did it take you to paint that?

Whistler: One whole day and part of another.

Attorney-General: You have made the study of art your study of a life time.  What is the peculiar beauty of that picture?

Whistler: It is impossible for me to explain to you the beauty of that picture as it would be for a musician to explain to you the beauty of harmony in a particular piece of music if you have no ear for music.

Attorney-General: Do you not think that anybody looking at the picture might fairly come to the conclusion that it had no particular beauty?

Whistler: I have strong evidence that Mr. Ruskin did come to that conclusion.  (Laughter)

Attorney-General: Do you think it fair that Mr. Ruskin should come to that conclusion?

Whistler: What might be fair to Mr. Ruskin I cannot answer. But I do not think that any artist would come to that conclusion.  I have known unbiased people express the opinion that it represents fireworks in a night scene.

Attorney-General: You offer that picture to the public as one of particular beauty, as a work of art, and which is fairly worth two hundred guineas?

Whistler: I offer it as a work which I have conscientiously executed and which I think is worth the money.  I would hold my reputation upon this, as I would upon any of my other works. [Reference:  Their Good Names, pp. 77-79]

A witness for the defence, Ruskin, was William Powell Frith, R.A., whose ‘Derby Day’, it has been said, almost converted Victorian sportsmen to a belief in art.

Frith gave the court some estimation of his narrative approach to painting which at times rivalled Dickens for anecdotal detail. Frith had been subpoenaed by Ruskin’s counsel, knowing full well that the artist held finish and high detail as integral to a work of art, factors which did not concern James.  When asked by Bowen whether composition and detail were important elements in a picture, Frith responded:  ‘Very.  Without them a picture cannot be called a work of art.’

(I pick one of Frith’s paintings in Her Majesty’s Gallery, London, Ramsgate Sands:  Life at the Seaside, 1884)

In an unlucky moment the Royal Academician had confessed that it had been ‘a toss-up’ whether he became an artist or an auctioneer.  (‘He must have tossed up’, was Whistler’s acid comment.)  Asked if ‘The Falling Rocket’ was a serious work of art, he replied, ‘Not to me.’ Nor did he think it worth two hundred guineas. That also went for the picture Old Battersea Bridge, in which Frith failed to see anything of true water and atmosphere.  ‘There is a pretty colour which pleases the eye, but there is nothing more. To my thinking, the description of moonlight is not true.  The colour does not represent any more than you would get from a bit of wallpaper or silk … ’

‘You attend here very much against your will?’ Ruskin’s counsel asked him.

‘Yes, it is a very painful thing to be called to give evidence against a brother artist,’ replied Frith.  ‘I am here on subpoena.  I had been previously asked to give evidence, but declined.’

Cross-examined by Sergeant Parry, Whistler’s counsel, Frith contradicted himself when he admitted that in his opinion Whistler had ‘very great power as an artist’.  He was then asked what he thought about Turner, and in particular whether Turner was an idol of Ruskin’s.

‘Yes,’ Frith agreed, ‘and I think he should be an idol of everybody.’

‘Do you know one of Turner’s works at Marlborough House called “the Snowstorm”?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Are you aware that it has been described by a critic as a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’

‘I am not.’

‘Would you call it a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?’

‘I think it very likely I should,’ said Frith, causing more laughter. ‘When I say Turner should be the idol of everybody, I refer to his earlier works, but not to his later ones, which are as insane as the people who admire them.’

At this point the judge added to the general amusement when he intervened with the remark that somebody had described Turner’s pictures as ‘salad and mustard’.

No doubt Baron Huddleston was surprised to learn that the author of this description was the artist himself. ‘I have myself heard Turner speak of his own pictures as salad and mustard,’ said Frith.  [Their Good Names, pp. 86-87]

Another witness for Ruskin was Tom Taylor:

The third and final witness for the defence was Tom Taylor, editor of Punch and for many years art critic of The Times and The Graphic.  He said that he had seen Whistler’s pictures in the Grosvenor Gallery, and he confirmed the opinion of Frith and Burne-Jones that ‘The Falling rocket’ was not a serious work of art.  He had already expressed this view in The Times, he went on, and he then took from the pockets of his overcoat copies of that journal and, with the permission of the Court, ‘read again with unction his own criticism’, as Whistler noted at the time.  ‘All Mr Whistler’s work is unfinished,’ said Taylor.  ‘It is sketchy.  He, no doubt, possesses artistic qualities, and he has got appreciation of qualities of tone, but he is not complete, and all his works are in the nature of sketching.  I have expressed, and still adhere to the opinion, that these pictures only come “one step nearer pictures than a delicately tinted wall-paper”.’  [Their Good Names, p. 87]

The jury returned and found for Whistler but awarded the lowest coin of the realm, a single farthing as damages.

As a result, Whistler had to pay his lawyer’s costs of ₤500.  This and other debts forced him into bankruptcy.

After the trial Whistler made the following comments:

The whole scene is simple; the galleries are to be thrown open on Sundays, and the public, dragged from their beer to the British Museum, are to delight in the Elgin Marbles, and appreciate what the early Italians have done to elevate their thirsty souls!  An inroad into the laboratory would be looked upon as an intrusion; but before the triumphs of Art, the expounder is at his ease, and points out the doctrine that Raphael’s results are within the reach of any beholder, provided he enrol himself with Ruskin or hearken to Colvin in the provinces.  The people are to be educated upon the broad basis of “Taste,” forsooth, and it matters but little what “gentleman and scholar” undertake the task.

Eloquence alone shall guide them — and the readiest writer or wordiest talker is perforce their professor.

The Observatory at Greenwich under the direction of an Apothecary!  The College of Physicians with Tennyson as President! and we know that madness is about.  But a school of art with an accomplished littérateur at its head disturbs no one! and is actually what the world receives as rational, while Ruskin writes for pupils, and Colvin holds forth at Cambridge.

Still, quite alone stands Ruskin, whose writing is art, and whose art is unworthy his writing.  To him and his example do we owe the outrage of proffered assistance from the unscientific — the meddling of the immodest — the intrusion of the garrulous.  Art, that for ages has hewn its own history in marble, and written its own comments on canvas, shall it suddenly stand still, and stammer, and wait for wisdom from the passer-by? — for guidance from the hand that holds neither brush nor chisel?  Out upon the shallow conceit!  What greater sarcasm can Mr. Ruskin pass upon himself than that he preaches to young men what he cannot perform!  Why, unsatisfied with his own conscious power, should he choose to become the type of incompetence by talking for forty years of what he has never done!

It is to be noted that Ruskin pronounced opinions on all the great artists. Some are, in my view, just plain whacky!  He had taken a scunner to Rembrandt:

Vulgarity, dullness, or impiety will indeed always express themselves through art, in brown and gray, as in Rembrandt.

Now it is evident that in Rembrandt’s system, while the contrasts are not more right than with Veronese, the colours are all wrong from beginning to end.

Ruskin resigned as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford because of the judgment.

In the long run Whistler’s approach became the central plank of 20th century painting.

It was hard for the public to understand that Whistler considered style and subject to be one and the same.  For example, the actual view of the piece he was painting did not matter – it was his “take” of the view that mattered.