Artistic Ideals and Ideas Go to Court: Whistler v. Ruskin
James Abbott McNeill Whistler was one of the most celebrated and controversial artists in the late-nineteenth century art world, and John Ruskin was one of the most eminent art historians of his time as well as an artist himself. The rivalry between these two strong and combative personalities was notorious. Their animosity came to a climax when Whistler sued Ruskin for libel following a particularly harsh piece of art criticism centering on Whistler’s nearly abstract painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875. This led to the legendary public spectacle of an 1878 trial in a London courtroom where Whistler testified and other artists were called as witnesses. The witness stand provided Whistler, a then radical artist interested in reframing ideas about aesthetics, beauty and the meaning of art, with a public platform to express his artistic philosophies and have them memorialized in the court record.
This presentation will explore the circumstances and the outcome of the court case and the issues that were at the root of Whistler and Ruskin’s disputes. The trial had a profound impact on each of their careers and their projects the occurred in the wake of the will also be discussed.
Using visual examples and comparisons as well as a brief look at the exhibition Friends and Enemies: Whistler and his Artistic Literary, and Social Circles, this presentation will consider not only the history of the Whistler v. Ruskin trial but the art and writing of these major art world figures. One curiosity or paradox when considering the contentious relationship between Whistler and Ruskin is a realization that in their artistic practice they often created works that were remarkably similar aesthetically, while their ideas about art were wildly different.