British art critic John Ruskin’s reaction to James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” probably wouldn’t have fazed a 20th-century painter. Ruskin denounced Whistler’s circa-1875 depiction of fireworks over the Thames as “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” — an indignant Victorian’s version of “my kid could paint that.”
Where Jackson Pollock might have laughed, Whistler sued for libel. He won the 1878 case, but it was a disastrous victory. The American expatriate artist was awarded just a farthing, worth one-quarter of a penny. The trial’s legal costs helped send Whistler, never talented at finance, into bankruptcy.
Ruskin didn’t fare any better. Having suffered a mental breakdown, he was unable to testify at the trial. The courtroom defeat was one reason he resigned his Oxford professorship, although he later returned to the post briefly.
One of the paintings submitted as evidence in the trial, “Nocturne: Blue and Gold — Old Battersea Bridge,” is on display in “An American in London: Whistler and the Thames,” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. It’s similar to the canvas that so agitated Ruskin, although less abstract in its depiction of a misty London night illuminated by small gold explosions.
The Sackler show, which draws on the Freer Gallery’s extensive Whistler holdings, is paired with “Kiyochika: Master of the Night,” a show of prints by a Japanese contemporary. Prints by earlier Japanese masters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige were a major influence on Whistler.
The showdown between Ruskin and Whistler was, in miniature, the clash between Victorian earnestness and insurgent modernism. The writer was concerned with shared values, historical precedents and social issues; he issued his blast at Whistler in one of a series of pamphlets addressed to “the workmen and labourers of Great Britain.”
The painter, however, was a flamboyant individualist and outsider, a friendly rival of Oscar Wilde and an advocate of “art for art’s sake.” If he objected to being characterized as a flinger of paint, he surely was a scourge of commonplace artistic taste. That’s a case he also won.
An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, through Aug. 17, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — Smithsonian Institution, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, Washington
Jenkins is a freelance writer.