The Review That Was So Harsh, James Whistler Sued His Critic (and Won)


L: Whistler, CC: Public Domain // R: Ruskin, CC: Public Domain

The mere act of an artist confronting a critic usually signals a victory for the latter party. The artist is removed from his or her perch, the playing field is leveled, and the art is no longer speaking for itself.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the eccentric 19th century American painter living in London, didn’t care about perches or the levelness of playing fields. When one of his paintings was torn to shreds in print, Whistler dragged the critic’s butt to court and sued him for libel.

It must be said that John Ruskin, Whistler’s critic, wasn’t your run-of-the-mill troll. Ruskin was a celebrated painter in his own right; he founded an eponymous school of drawing and fine art at Oxford and his watercolors still hang in the Tate and at the National Gallery in London. Marcel Proust idolized Ruskin and adored his writing, saying that "the beauty of his erroneous judgment is often more interesting than the beauty of the work being judged."

Proust wasn’t referring to Ruskin’s feud with Whistler there, but his quote is somewhat telling when put in the context of that contentious piece of criticism. Writing in Fors Clavigera [PDF], his periodical of "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Ruskin issued a mixed review to the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery's collection in 1877. Even though some of the contemporary works on display earned praise, Ruskin spent the majority of his ink on scorching burns.

Nothing was safe from his criticism, not even the gallery’s fabrics ("The upholstery of the Grosvenor Gallery is poor in itself; and very grievously injurious to the best pictures it contains, while its glitter as unjustly veils the vulgarity of the worst"). Ruskin saved his sharpest and most condescending barbs for Whistler and his Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket, a modernist, abstract interpretation of a fireworks show over the Thames:

Public Domain // Collection of Detroit Institute of Arts

Unimpressed by the work, Ruskin gleefully dismissed Whistler as nothing more than a fraud:

For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay 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 ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.

Whistler’s mother didn’t raise no sucker, and the artist promptly sued Ruskin for libel. The case didn’t go to court until November 1878, the year-long delay due to Ruskin’s fragile mental health (he suffered a breakdown in the spring of 1878).

Ruskin couldn't appear in court because of his state, but that didn’t stop the two-day trial from becoming an obsessed-over sensation in London’s newspapers. Defending modern art as much as his libel claim, Whistler impressed while under cross-examination from Ruskin’s high-powered lawyer. When asked in a call-back to the original review if "the labor of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas," Whistler responded, "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

The jury ruled in Whistler’s favor, agreeing that Ruskin went too far. But the decision amounted to little more than hollow validation. Whistler was awarded a farthing (a minuscule amount of money) and was forced to split court costs. Already having lived his life with an artist’s unfortunate knack for personal finance, Whistler was driven to bankruptcy by the trial. Ruskin, meanwhile, furious at the court’s decision, resigned from his post at Oxford.

It really was one hell of a review.