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: "‘Art should be independent of all clap-trap — should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism,"


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 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 wilful 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, 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 Art 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