James McNeill Whistler, Nocture in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel. The Detroit Institute of Arts.

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Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Whistler made this “artistic impression” based on an actual scene of fireworks (or “rockets”) exploding over London’s Cremorne Gardens at night. At the time, the public considered the fleeting display a questionable subject for a painting. For Whistler, it made a perfect theme for a Nocturne; as an urban, ephemeral, indescribable spectacle, fireworks were beautiful but meaningless. For American artists, the subject was intrinsically modern. As one critic observed, Whistler’s notorious Nocturne vindicated “the abstract appeal of painting, divorced as far as possible from any idea conveyable in words. Whistler never intended for the painting to be a realistic depiction of the lights over the gardens. Rather, he wanted it to convey the atmosphere and his memory of the place.

The British critic John Ruskin offered the following scathing review of the painting in July 1877: “For 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 [210 British pounds] for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”

Because Ruskin was such an influential voice and the criticism was read by a wide British public, Whistler sued for libel. He used his pretrial interviews, as well as the trial, as a platform in defense of his ideas about art.

From the trial transcripts:
Attorney General: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?

Whistler: Oh, I “knock one off” possibly in a couple of days—(laughter)—one day to do the work and another to finish it…

Attorney General: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?

Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime. (Applause)

Whistler won the suit but only symbolically; the judge awarded him damages of one farthing, the equivalent of a few pennies. The artist later felt redeemed, however, when an American collector bought the painting, without hesitation, for 800 guineas. Whistler gloated, eager to share the news publicly that “the Pot of paint flung in the face of the British Public for two hundred guineas has sold for four pots of paint, and that Ruskin has lived to see it!”

As a result of losing the lawsuit, Ruskin resigned his professorship from Oxford, feeling that the legal system denied his rights as an art critic. Shortly after the trial, due in part to stress in his personal life as well as that from the trial, he began to show signs of the mental illness that would plague him until his death in 1900.

Nocturne in Black and Gold and the ensuing controversy it caused exemplify Whistler’s enormous efforts to have his art taken seriously. His very public defense of his art and groundbreaking ideas influenced generations of artists to explore new paths and experiment with their own artistic visions.

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