Monday, November 28, 2011

November 26, 1878 --- An Artist and his Critic

A London jury finds England's foremost art critic John Ruskin guilty of libelling the irascible Jimmy Whistler; the damage award however is but a farthing.

In July of the previous year, writing in his eccentric personal journal Fors Clavigera, Ruskin had famously condemned Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket: "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 depicts - in Whistler's description - a fireworks display at London's Cremorne gardens. On the witness stand, the artist conceded that he had he "knocked it off" in two days.  Ruskin's attorney queries: "And for the labor of two days you ask 200 guineas?" Whistler made the famous reply: "No. It was for the knowledge gained through a lifetime." Cheers and laughter filled ancient Westminster Hall.

The brief trial, followed with amusement in the "secular" world, divides the art community, creating lasting enmities. The highly strung Ruskin is too unnerved even to attend. Edward Burne-Jones, leader of the Pre-Raphaelites, appears on his behalf. He describes the Nocturne as "totally and bewilderingly formless." Asked if he considered it a work of art, Burne-Jones answers: "No, I cannot say that it is." (Whistler never tired of joking: "If you get seasick, you throw up a Burne-Jones.")

Ruskin's attorney claims for his client a "perfect right" to severe criticism, even ridicule, if fair and honest; to hold otherwise would be an "evil day for art in this country." Whistler's counsel seizes upon the issue of fairness; Ruskin's review was a "personal attack ... [a] pretended criticism on art."

Whistler celebrated his "victory" by wearing the famous farthing on his watch-chain but the court costs drove him into bankruptcy and he relocated to the continent until his fortunes improved. Ruskin's legal bills were covered by his admirers; some of the donors were accused of currying favor with the critic.

Within days of the trial however, Ruskin quit the Slade Professorship of Art at Oxford. "The professorship is a farce, if it has no right to condemn as well as to praise."

Nocturne in Black and Gold (The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA)

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