Whistler v Ruskin: A Debate Worth More Than a Farthing

A recent exchange on Twitter reminded me of the infamous Whistler v Ruskin case from 1878. The case in brief: referring to James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket (1875), art critic John Ruskin accused Whistler of “ask[ing] 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Whistler sued for libel and won, but was awarded only a farthing (less than a cent, in dollars). Here’s the painting in question:   

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This anecdote is often recounted in art history courses (which is where I first heard it) and the intended take-away is clear: Whistler = the misunderstood, ahead-of-his-time champion of abstraction; Ruskin = the out-of-date, benighted lover of quaint over-the-couch realism.

But recently I’ve been dipping into Ruskin’s work, and I now realize things aren’t so simple. In 1843—almost 35 years before he was sued by Whistler—Ruskin defended  J. M. W. Turner’s Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth against critics who said it was merely “soapsuds and whitewash.” Here’s the painting, described by Ruskin as “one of Turner’s mightiest works”:

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Ruskin goes on to say that Snowstorm is “one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist, and light that has ever been put on canvas” (Modern Painters, Vol 1).

I think it’s fair to say that, with regard to degree of abstraction, Snowstorm is in the vicinity of Whistler’s Nocturne. And it’s clear from other passages in Ruskin’s work that he is not put off by paintings that we’d deem abstract. About 100 years before critic and self-appointed mouthpiece of abstract expressionism Clement Greenberg described “flatness as [a] criteria of aesthetic quality in pictorial art” (1960), Ruskin claimed that a good painting shows a “tendency toward flatness.” Ruskin does, however, often criticize painters—especially landscape painters—who apply paint carelessly, thoughtlessly filling in large spaces with undifferentiated color to denote skies or fields, thereby creating “a cold and vacant mass.” Instead, Ruskin contends that the painter should treat such passages in a way that creates richness, abundance, and mystery.

My point is that at the time, Ruskin was about as qualified as anyone to “get” Whistler’s sort of abstraction, given that he had been defending similar work since 1843, when Whistler was 9 years old. Perhaps he thought Whistler didn’t do his abstraction well. Or it may have been personally motivated, as some have argued.

In any case, this is not to defend Ruskin. I think he was wrong. The care and thought with which Whistler “flung” his paint has been abundantly documented. And to my 21st century eyes, Nocturne is an incredible work, and no one would dispute its place in the history of painting. I write this post simply to attempt to undo the cartoonesque quality such anecdotes tend to take on, and to restore the discussion to a richer, possibly more instructive, complexity.

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