When James Abbott McNeill Whistler Sued His Harshest Critic—and Won
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Arragement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter, 1872. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
John Ruskin, Self Portrait, 187. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
On a brisk November day in 1878, luminaries of the London art world and members of the press gathered in Old Bailey courthouse to witness an unusual trial. The American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler was suing the eminent art critic John Ruskin for libel, his response to a particularly harsh review. Though the trial only lasted two days, it would become a source of bitter resentment for the rest of both men’s lives. More significantly, the lawsuit spurred a debate about the values of art, as well as the role and creative freedoms of artist and critic in society.
As England’s leading critic during the Victorian era, Ruskin was a widely trusted authority on taste. The Industrial Revolution had precipitated the growth of a wealthy middle class, which led to an increased demand for forward-looking contemporary art. Meanwhile, the country was finally beginning to shake off its provincial ties to Continental Europe and develop a uniquely British style. Much of the public looked to Ruskin’s writings in order to determine what was good in British art, and what was bad. He was the quintessential Victorian sage, a polymathic writer who endeavored to transform culture and society through his demonstrative writings.
Although he was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, Whistler settled in London in the 1860s and quickly became a central figure of the British Aesthetic movement. This group championed the credo “art for art’s sake,” the idea that art should be enjoyed for its formal qualities—such as expressive brushwork or coloring—rather than moralistic or sentimental subject matter. “Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear,” Whistler once wrote. Strongly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, which were then beginning to stream into Europe, Whistler’s innovative painting style emphasized mood and tonal harmony above all else. Accordingly, he named his paintings “arrangements,” “harmonies,” and “symphonies” to evoke music’s abstract nature.
He signed each piece with a stylized butterfly with a stinger for a tail, a symbol that reflected his charming and combative public persona.
In the fateful summer of 1877, Ruskin paid a visit to the inaugural exhibition at the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery in London, a presentation of modern works that had been rejected from the traditional Royal Academy of Arts. He was immediately enamored by the work of Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, who was then little-known. The paintings, which take biblical, literary, and allegorical themes as their subjects, satisfied Ruskin’s criteria for art. The critic believed that the artist’s main duty is to observe and express nature, which is a representation of God’s goodness. Art that captures this truth to nature could, therefore, uplift the morality of the viewer.
On another wall in the gallery, Ruskin encountered Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (1875). The painting, priced at 200 guineas—a relatively large amount at the time—depicts fireworks exploding over the Thames in an ephemeral, atmospheric style, the glitter of the falling sparks rendered in brilliant gold speckles; the pedestrians in the foreground in loose, translucent brushstrokes. The work is part of a series of “Nocturnes,” in which the artist applied Asian design principles to moonlit views of the river.
Although Ruskin hated the painting, it wasn’t the level of abstraction that he opposed. In one of his best-known writings, a five-volume work called Modern Painters (1843–60), Ruskin passionately advocated for the Romantic artist J.M.W. Turner, whose work was even more abstract. But whereas Ruskin sensed evidence of the divine in Turner’s dramatic landscapes, in Whistler’s work, he saw an artist who favored pictorial invention at the expense of “truth to nature.”
Ruskin reviewed the exhibition in Fors Clavigera, his monthly periodical addressed to the “workmen and labourers of Great Britain.” (The publication’s mix of criticism and personal commentary has led some to suggest that the periodical was a precursor to the blog.) Ruskin praised Burne-Jones’s work as “simply the only art-work at present produced in England which will be received by the future as ‘classic’ in its kind.” He then turned to Whistler’s Nocturne, writing: “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.” (Ruskin’s pronouncement has come to pass in some ways: London’s Tate Britain is currently staging an exhibition of Burne-Jones’s work, though Whistler enjoys a wider acclaim.)
Whistler was stunned; Ruskin had smeared not only his art, but his legitimacy as an artist. Yet his decision to sue Ruskin for libel was not entirely vindictive; some scholars have interpreted his decision as a savvy business move. After all, Whistler had received criticism for his experimental art before. As Linda Merrill notes in A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin, the artist may have seen the negative critique as an opportunity to pay off the debt he had accumulated from living well beyond his means. The trial, if he won, would allow him to promote his philosophy of art and attack a popular critic in a public forum, ultimately feeding into his public image.
The trial had to be delayed due to Ruskin’s declining physical and mental health. When a year had passed and he was still too ill to attend, Ruskin elected Burne-Jones to testify on his behalf, and secured the attorney general Sir John Holker to represent him in court. Over the next two days, Whistler and Burne-Jones, along with the artists and critics called as witnesses, debated a range of issues, from Whistler’s artistic philosophy and the merits and flaws of Nocturne to the fundamental rights of the critic.
Herbert Rose Barruad, Portrait of John Ruskin, 1882. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
John Ruskin, Amboise, 1841. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The review and the attention it garnered from the press, Whistler argued, had damaged his reputation as an artist. The defense’s tactic was to both criticize Whistler’s art—thereby justifying Ruskin’s critique—and uphold the right of the critic to freely ridicule a work. Burne-Jones testified that Whistler’s Nocturne was “a beautiful sketch; but that is not alone sufficient to make it a good work of art. It is deficient in form, and form is as essential as color.”
Whistler took full advantage of the spotlight, masterfully defending his practice with droll responses and clever turns of phrase that were often met with applause from the audience. During his cross-examination, Holker asked Whistler how long it took for him to “knock off” one of his paintings. When Whistler responded that it took just two days, Holker asked if two days’ labor was worth 200 guineas. “No,” Whistler responded, “I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”
While Whistler ultimately won the case, it was seen by the public as a loss on both sides. American writer Henry James, who was then based in London, wrote in The Nation: “The crudity and levity of the whole affair were decidedly painful, and few things, I think, have lately done more to vulgarize the public sense of the character of artistic production.” Though the artist had claimed damages of 1,000 pounds in addition to his court costs, he was only awarded a farthing—about one-thousandth of a single pound—in damages. Now bankrupt, he sold his lavish house in London and set off to Venice to work on a commission of etchings.
That same year, Ruskin suffered a severe breakdown and resigned from his prestigious Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Oxford University. “I cannot hold a Chair from which I have no power of expressing judgment without being taxed for it by British Law,” he remarked. The trial damaged his once-infallible reputation as an art critic. From then on, he was seen as an outmoded anti-modernist. This criticism wasn’t entirely deserved; while his philosophies were rooted in moral concerns, Ruskin was a prolific champion of modern art. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones has made the case that “Ruskin represented high modernism, and Whistler stood up as the first in a tradition of ‘low modernism’ that runs through [Marcel] Duchamp and [Salvador] Dali to the present day.”
Whistler was evidently one to hold a grudge. Over a decade after the trial in 1890, he bitterly recounted the event in his book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a record of his countless grievances against acquaintances and former friends. “What greater sarcasm can Mr. Ruskin pass upon himself than that he preaches to young men what he cannot perform!” he wrote. “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!” The book was so controversial that at the time of his death, Whistler was apparently better known for his rivalries than his art.
The Whistler v. Ruskin trial represented a pivotal turning point for what it meant to be a critic and an artist. Ruskin’s criticism—once widely accepted by the Victorian public as truth—now seemed like a matter of personal opinion. And as many have noted, Whistler’s antics made him a new type of artist, one who grasped the power of a public personality, or “brand”—an early precursor to Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons. Whistler would have been delighted to know that the trial would become infamous in the history of art.