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Art on Trial

James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Averse to sentimentality and moral allusion in painting, he was a leading proponent of the belief ‘art for art’s sake’

An American in London: Whistler and the Thames is a new exhibition of Whistler’s etching and paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. ‘An American in London’ is overdoing it a bit since James McNeill Whistler left Massachusetts and America to study in Paris in 1855 at the age of 21, and came to London four years later, where he remained on and off for the rest of his life. That said, the exhibition admirably displays his genius for capturing the atmosphere and bustle of life in late 19th century London.

Whistler arrived in London as a Bohemian artist full of the lessons of Courbet’s realism, and Baudelaire’s instructions that the artist of the day should depict the life of the time. His aim was to do with London docks and life on the Thames what the impressionists in Paris were to do with the life and leisure of the middle classes of Paris and the Seine. This is seen to full effect in the exhibition with several rooms of his etchings and sketches of ships and wharfs on the river, and glimpses of squalid London life. But he also captured the moods of the river at different times of the day. And this was the case with his paintings of life on the water: the river, the bridges, the people, which are shown in the final rooms.

James Whistler, The Last of Old Westminster, 1862
The new bridge is built over the old in a forest of piles and timbers

For 16 years Whistler lived in Lindsey Row in Chelsea from where he sketched and etched the Thames so often that it became a part of him. In seeking to capture atmosphere, he titled many of his paintings ‘arrangements’, ‘harmonies’, and ‘nocturnes’. Whilst his art was characterized by a subtle delicacy, his public persona was combative. He was a man who liked to live his life in the public eye and was very concerned about his personal appearance and the critical reception of his paintings. And that was where his troubles began.

In 1877 Whistler sued the art critic John Ruskin for libel after Ruskin condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. This depicted a firework display in the night sky of London, inspired by an event in the Cremorne public gardens. It was being exhibited in the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery, an alternative to the Royal Academy exhibition, alongside works by Edward Burne-Jones and other artists.

James Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1862
Whistler enjoyed depicting night scenes when the city of London with its dirt and poverty was hidden and when ordinary objects took on a new poetic character

John Ruskin, famed conservative English art critic of the time and prominent social thinker, who had been a champion of the Pre-Raphaelites and J M W Turner, had reviewed Whistler’s work in his Fors Clavigera (a series of letters he published in the form of pamphlets addressed to British workmen) in July 1877. Ruskin praised Burne-Jones, while he attacked Whistler saying that:

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb [a vain and conceited man] ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

In his pamphlets, Ruskin was concerned to develop a vision of moral value in sincere labour. He saw Whistler’s picture as the epitome of capitalist production in art, created with minimum effort for maximum output. Whistler hearing of Ruskin’s attack said to his friend George Boughton ‘It is the most debased style of criticism I have had thrown at me yet’. A writ for libel was served on Ruskin. Whistler hoped to recover £1,000 plus the costs of the action. The trial was delayed due to Ruskin’s bouts of mental illness, while Whistler’s financial condition deteriorated due to the huge debts he had amassed from building a new house in Tite Street, Chelsea.

The trial was eventually held on 25 and 26 November 1878. The crux of the argument during the trial, rested on whether or not Whistler’s painting portrayed a deliberate rendering or was simply a mere sketch that lacked ‘finish’ and for which Whistler had the effrontery to charge 200 guineas. Certain famous painters of the day were called to give their opinion. Edward Burne-Jones was a witness for Ruskin.

The picture representing a night scene on Battersea Bridge is good in colour, but bewildering in form; and it has no composition and detail. A day, or a day and a half, seems reasonable time within which to paint it. It shows no finish – it is simply a sketch.

Whistler had trouble in getting fellow artists to take his side publicly at the trial as they feared they would be sullied by the affair. When the council for John Ruskin, Attorney-General Sir John Holker, asked Whistler how long it took him to ‘knock off’ a picture, Whistler said this one [The Falling Rocket] was completed in a day or two. The barrister then asked ‘The labour of two days, is that for which you asked two hundred guineas?’ Whistler replied ‘No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’

John Ruskin
1819–1900
The leading British art critic and social commentator of the Victorian Age. His ideas inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement and the founding of the National Trust, and the Labour Movement

Whistler won the case, but the jury awarded him nominal damages of only one farthing, a quarter of a penny, the lowest denomination of money at the time. Court costs were split between both parties. Ruskin’s costs were paid by public subscription, but for Whistler, the cost of the case, together with the debts from his new house, bankrupted him within six months, resulting in an auction of his work, collections, and house. He later moved to Venice when he was offered a commission to do twelve etchings there.

The episode tarnished Ruskin’s reputation. From then on he was seen as out-dated and out of touch with the new progressive art movements. He resigned as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford because of the judgment, and it may have accelerated his mental decline.

An extract of Whistler’s cross-examination at the trial, in which his sarcastically wry replies are frequently greeted with laughter, can be seen here. Public feeling must have seen the case as folly for both parties. Ruskin was at fault for too passionately criticising Whistler in too personal and insulting a manner. Whistler was at fault for not deporting himself as a gentleman, and for taking Ruskin’s criticism too seriously. He was also not a particularly sympathetic figure to a conservative public. His views on art and his lifestyle were seen as conceited and pretentious and his ‘harmonies’ and ‘nocturnes’ were regarded as the height of affectation. Burne-Jones’ comments show that the general criteria then for a work of art was still heavily dependent on the time that the artist had taken for reproducing as closely as possible the thing depicted.

J M W Turner, Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth, 1842
Snow Storm was one of the Turner paintings that Ruskin had praised most extravagantly, and yet the painter William Powell Frith in giving evidence in court in support of Ruskin, agreed with a critic’s view that it was a ‘mass of soapsuds and whitewash’

Critics have commented on the apparent contradictions in Ruskin’s criticism of Whistler’s work for its ‘lack of finish’. Early in Ruskin’s career, he had championed the work of J M W Turner, despite Turner’s work receiving criticism from his contemporaries for being too abstract and ‘lacking finish’. In modern times, we are now more ready to accept art on the basis of ‘artistic intention’ rather than on displays of control and realism. Whistler’s retort that the worth of his picture was not for two days labour but for the knowledge of a lifetime, is like the trial as a whole, symbolic of the growing split between the notion of the artist as merely a skilled artisan or craftsman, and the artist who sought to convey a personal and unique vision of the world.

In the long run Whistler’s approach became the central plank of 20th century painting. And it is inconceivable that an artist would sue an art critic nowadays for having said that the artist was impudent to ask £200,000 for ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.

Years later, when Whistler had established his reputation, he sold the offending picture for £800, about four times what Ruskin said it was not worth. And his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1, famous under its colloquial name Whistler’s Mother, was one of the paintings that the Royal Academy had refused to exhibit. It now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris having been bought by the French state in 1891.

The exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, SE21 7AD London (020 8693 5254, link) is open until 12 January 2014. Open Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm, Saturday & Sunday 11am to 5pm, closed Monday. Admission £11, concessions available. Opened to the public in 1817, the building is the oldest public art gallery in England.

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