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Victorian Studies 42.4 (1999) 593-629

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A Sense of Justice: Whistler, Ruskin, James, Impressionism

Adam Parkes

On 2 July 1877, John Ruskin published his notorious attack on Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (c. 1874), by the expatriate American painter James McNeill Whistler, which was on display in the recently opened Grosvenor Gallery in London. The "eccentricities" of such art, Ruskin wrote in Fors Clavigera (1871- 84), "are almost always in some degree forced; and their imperfections gratuitously, if not impertinently, indulged. For Mr. Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay [the owner of the Grosvenor] 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" (29: 160). Whistler sued Ruskin for £1,000 in damages for libel, thus provoking the celebrated trial of November 1878, which concluded with the jury finding Ruskin guilty but awarding Whistler contemptuous damages of one farthing without costs. Ruskin, who interpreted the libel action as an attempt to paralyze his hand, resigned from his position as Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford; Whistler, wearing the farthing on his watch-chain, claimed a victory, but most observers agreed with the reviewer who wrote that this "victory" bore a "very striking resemblance to a defeat" ("Symphony" 1516)--as became clear soon afterward when Whistler went bankrupt. The verdict was, as The Times said, "a censure on both" ("[Whistler v. Ruskin]" 9).

In contrast to their treatment of other famous Victorian controversies, such as the Wilde trials, most recent critics have been reluctant to pay the Whistler-Ruskin affair the careful attention it received from commentators at the time. Ruskin's attack on Whistler is often dismissed as the aberration of a disturbed mind, and the same is true, by and large, of Whistler's vindictive counter-attacks. 1 Even when the offending passage [End Page 593] in Fors Clavigera is treated as a serious critical utterance, the public and legal controversy that followed is usually regarded as unilluminating for those interested in matters of genuine artistic or critical concern. A notable exception to this tendency is Linda Dowling, who describes the trial as a "symbolic episode" that illustrates the collapse of Ruskin's democratic impulses into a new authoritarianism of the self founded on "the idea of law"--an authoritarianism, moreover, that has much in common with Whistler's openly anti-democratic understanding of art as an arena of "specialist knowledge and professional expertise" (41-49). The prevailing critical attitude, however, is expressed by Linda Merrill, who argues (contrary to the evidence of her intriguing book) that "the popular press is as inappropriate a place for transmitting aesthetic theory as the courtroom is for expounding it" (2). 2 To put it this way is to reduce the trial to a curious but merely entertaining narrative that lacks deeper aesthetic or intellectual significance.

To be sure, Merrill is only recapitulating the view of one of the trial's most important Victorian commentators, another American working in London, Henry James. Describing the trial in the 19 December 1878 Nation as a "singular and most regrettable exhibition," James added that "the crudity and levity of the whole affair were decidedly painful, and few things, I think, have lately done more to vulgarize the public sense of the character of artistic production" (Painter's Eye 173). But James had more to say, and in saying it he often anticipates, sometimes refines, Dowling's revisionist account. As well as expressing the common feeling (echoed by Merrill) that the trial represented an affront to aesthetic sensibilities, James identified several issues about art and its relation to the viewer, and about artists and their relations with critics, that were crucial to a certain variety of impressionism that he was developing in his fictional...


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