James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

by Alexandra Tuschka

As is well known, tastes differ. The discourse about this work, however, brought about the ruin of two men: the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his critic John Ruskin. How this came about, later. Let us first take a look at the work. You can see the night lit up by fireworks in Cremorne Gardens, an amusement park in London, on the banks of the River Thames. Fireworks were regularly set off there in the evenings for the amusement of visitors. Whistler himself lived about 20 blocks away and painted the park several times.

Against the dark background, fire sparks and points of light can be seen. On the horizon line to the left we see cloud-like, bright swirls. A little further to the right, the colour is concentrated: here the rocket that gave the title was just launched. Trees are also darkly discernible and in the foreground, at the park's own lake, people are hinted at. The whole work seems almost two-dimensional; Whistler borrowed this reduction of the three-dimensional impression from Japanese art.

The work was seen as an affront by the critic John Ruskin - but why? In many ways, the work was a break with old traditions. Whistler chose here not to paint history, nor a portrait or still life. Instead, he painted a night play, but in such an abstracted and novel form that it seems almost modern. The rather recent motif - nocturne - was highly topical at the time, as electric street lighting only appeared at the end of the 19th century and - what seems so normal to us - the now illuminated night was a novelty.

The painter also chose the word "nocturne" with care: this word comes from music and describes a musical form that emerged in the 17th century, which describes the night, usually playfully and instrumentally. This work, too, was primarily intended to have an aesthetic effect alone and not to unfold a moralising, deeper layer of meaning. Whistler himself said: "The art should stand alone and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confusing this with emotions entirely foreign to it, such as devotion, pity, love and patriotism." The portrait is designed in such a way that the viewer meets the enthroned pontiff at eye level. Julius II seems to grant us an audience, yet he appears absorbed and almost absent. The pontiff has rested his arms on the back of the chair, his hands adorned with precious rings on his fingers. While he holds a ceremonial cloth in his right hand, he clasps the armrest with his left, almost as if the Pope were clinging to it. Particularly exciting is the depiction of the skin, which can be described as physiognomically realistic. At the same time, the incarnate material on the hands appears very pale and almost translucent. In this way, there are clear differences to the face, which appears much darker and marked by life. This impression is reinforced in particular by the drooping cheeks and the deep-set eye sockets. In addition, the bowed head and the downturned mouth with the closed lips express resignation, tiredness and possibly also bitterness. The long, white beard and the bushy, wild eyebrows form a frame and, together with the large nose, act as characteristic features of the face.

Ruskin, one of the most influential art critics in the English-speaking world, saw the work in 1877 when it was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery. The 200 guineas asked for the work at the time correspond to about 140,000 dollars today, a handsome sum. He was not enthusiastic, as in his opinion art should above all be accurate and close to nature. In July 1877, he published the following freely translated passage in his paper "Fors Clavigera": "For Mr Whistler's sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay should not have included in the gallery works in which the uneducated conceit of the artist came so near to the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen and heard much of the Cockneys' impudence, but I never expected a busybody to charge two hundred guineas for throwing a pot of paint in the public's face."

Whistler, for his part, did not take this harsh judgement lying down. He sued the critic for libel. Perhaps he also wanted to gain coverage for his ideas, which he repeatedly announced in the course of the negotiations, because the whole affair was welcome fodder for the local press. Whistler told the judge that he was not asking for the 200 guineas that the work would cost for the 2 days of work it would take, but for the ability to paint it in 1 or 2 days. Whistler thus contradicted the long-held assumption that the length of time it took to create the work generated its value; he also felt that the materials and their value carried little weight. Whistler held that a work of art should be judged solely on the basis of its effect. The critic Ruskin had more conservative views to counter this. It is therefore fair to say that this was a discussion of principle.

In November 1878, the trial was in all the London newspapers and also became the subject of cartoons like this one. In the satirical magazine "Punch" the illustration was found with the words: "Naughty critic to take such offence in words; Silly painter to go to court for it." On the left is the offended artist, on the right the critic. Two snakes, symbolising the "costs", can be found on the ground. An aspect which was to prove true. For although Whistler officially won the case, he received only a farthing in compensation and had to pay the legal costs himself. Six months later he had to declare himself bankrupt. Ruskin, on the other hand, became ill during the course of the trial and had to send a representative to the hearings part of the time.

In 1890 Whistler published his book "the gentle way of making enemies", in which he wrote down his ideas and also the contents of the trial. He portrays himself as unbeatable, ingenious and not always sympathetic. Only 3 years later he found a buyer for the "Nocturne" who paid a whole 800 guinees, four times the price. Whistler thus recovered financially and later concentrated more on lucrative portraits; John Ruskin's reputation and health, however, suffered permanently.

Today we may smile at the artist's easy sickliness. Wouldn't it have been such an easy solution to simply - as the English suggests - "agree to disagree"?

James Abbott McNeill Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Oil on canvas, 1874, 60 x 47 cm, Institute of Arts, Detroit

Caricature from "Punch" satirical magazine

Illustration, 1878