Artist's 'Rocket' Shot Down in Flames

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket now on display in the USA
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket now on display in the USA

by Ray Setterfield

November 26, 1878 — The most famous lawsuit in art history ended on this day when the artist James McNeill Whistler sued the writer and critic John Ruskin for libel, seeking £1,000 damages.

Referring to Whistler’s painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, Ruskin wrote: “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.”

Whistler was no Cockney – he was an American living in London – and it was not the description of him as a coxcomb (a vain, silly, foppish person) that hurt; no, it was the suggestion that his art was worthless.

The two men held diametrically opposed views on politics and art: Ruskin, who had previously described the artist’s work as “absolute rubbish,” was a socialist, while Whistler – a man fiercely proud of his work – shuddered at the idea that art should be for everyone.

Their clash at the Old Bailey became a major media event, reporters taking down every word, including this cross-examination of Whistler by the Attorney-General:

‘Now, Mr Whistler, can you tell me how long it took you to knock off that nocturne?’

‘I beg your pardon?’ (Laughter).

‘Oh, I am afraid that I am using a term that applies rather perhaps to my own work. I should have said, How long did it take you to paint that picture?’

‘Oh, no! permit me, I am too greatly flattered to think that you apply, to work of mine, any term that you are in the habit of using with reference to your own. Let us say then how long did I take to – “knock off”, I think that is it – to knock off that nocturne; well, as I remember, about a day.’

‘Only a day?’

‘Well, I won’t be quite positive; I may have still put a few more touches to it the next day if the painting were not dry. I had better say, then, that I was two days at work on it.’

‘Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?’

’No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.’ (Applause).

Whistler won the case, but instead of the £1,000 that he sought, he was awarded derisory damages of one farthing (a quarter of a penny). Faced with huge court costs, he was forced into bankruptcy.

The artist tells the story in his book, The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies, published by Heinemann in 1890. An amusing account is also told in A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics On Trial In Whistler v. Ruskin (1992), by Linda Merrill.

Today, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket is one of the treasured possessions of the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan, USA.

Published: July 21, 2017

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