Victorian Art & Design, Whistler 4 the Ruskin libel trial

In 1877 Whistler was invited to send some of his paintings to the first exhibition of the new Grosvenor Gallery. The art critic John Ruskin visited the exhibition. He praised the paintings by Burne-Jones but condemned those by Whistler. He accused him of 'cockney impudence' and said that he 'had never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred  guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public face.'  Ruskin did not name the painting, but the only one by Whistler at that price was the Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, now in Detroit.

Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. Paintings by Whistler and by Old Masters were shown to the jury. Some of the people in court thought that a Titian was one of  Whistler's paintings! 
 The painter Albert Moore gave the best evidence for Whistler. He was shown the Nocturne in Blue and Silver: Battersea Bridge, shown on the left. It is now in the Tate. He said that it was 'very remarkable'. Of The Falling Rocket he said, 'I think the atmospheric effects are marvellous'.
    Burne-Jones and Frith spoke as witnesses for Ruskin. Burne -Jones admitted, "In Mr Whistler's pictures I see marks of great labour and skill", but he criticised his Nocturne for being "very incomplete" and for its lack of finish. 
    Whistler was asked how long it took him to 'knock off' The Falling Rocket. He said that it took him two days to paint it . He was then asked whether 200 guineas was not too high a price for only two days work. To this he replied that it was not too much for the 'knowledge of a lifetime'. Whistler's own account of the case of Whistler versus Ruskin can be found in his book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. (Click on the link at the end of this page for details of a paperback reprint and other books on Whistler.) 

The jury decided that Ruskin was guilty of libel but it only awarded him one farthing in damages. Both sides had to pay the court costs and this, with the building costs for his new house, bankrupted Whistler. The bailiffs occupied his new White House, but he made them serve as waiters at his dinner parties!

 Fortunately, Whistler made a new friend who helped to rescue him from his troubles. This was Ernest Brown. Soon after meeting Whistler, Brown started work at the Fine Art Society. He suggested to the Society that they should pay the expenses for Whistler to visit Venice so that he could do etchings there. The result was The Venice Set of etchings,  as well as pastels of Venice done on brown paper.

The Society held two exhibitions of Whistler's Venetian etchings, in 1880 and 1883. Whistler chose the decor for the second exhibition and called it an 'Arrangement in White and Yellow.' He even had a footman dressed in white and yellow!    

 E.W.Godwin was a friend of Whistler and designed his White House in Chelsea. He was an architect but he also designed furniture, textiles and wallpapers. Many of his designs were influenced by Japanese art.
Godwin designed the facade of the Fine Art Society's building in New Bond Street and Oscar Wilde's house. Godwin's striking black side table can be seen in the British Galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum. which were reopened in 2001

The University of Glasgow's Hunterian Art Gallery has a very large collection of works and letters by Whistler and paintings by his wife Beatrix. Around 1500 images are shown on their website.

Books on Whistler and E.W. Godwin.

Whistler Quiz