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.