Nicholas Frankel, “On the Whistler-Ruskin Trial, 1878”


In 1877 the painter James McNeill Whistler initiated an action for libel against the critic John Ruskin, who had defamed Whistler and his paintings in print. The legal outcome of the resulting trial—a technical verdict for Whistler, but with damages of just one farthing and no award of costs—satisfied nobody and represents a turning point in the principal antagonists’ lives. As importantly, it heralded a reconfiguration in the respective positions of the critic and the artist, if not a reconceptualization of the very meaning of these terms. The trial exposed to scrutiny the spiritualizing mission of criticism itself while bringing about an elevation and expansion of the concept of the artist. As Shearer West has argued, it also offered an important precedent for the power of laughter and wit to demolish the self-representations of established power.

Portrait of John Ruskin

Figure 1: Portrait of John Ruskin

Self-Portrait of James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter, c. 1872

Figure 2: Self-Portrait of James McNeill Whistler, Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter, c. 1872

“[f]or 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 willful 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.” (Ruskin attacking Whistler and his paintings in the pages of Fors Clavigera)

Whatever else it represents, the 1878 Ruskin-Whistler libel trial was a turning-point in the lives of its principal antagonists: John Ruskin and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The trial lasted only a matter of hours, but Ruskin’s health and standing declined rapidly thereafter, and within months he had withdrawn permanently from public life. Whistler too was forced to beat a hasty retreat. Granted a technical victory by the jury but awarded damages of just one farthing (the smallest coin of the realm) without costs, Whistler was bankrupted by the trial and forced to sell his magnificent Godwin-designed house in map iconTite Street. (That the buyer was the critic Harry Quilter, whom he despised, only added insult to injury.) Within a year he had departed England for map iconVenice in an effort to renew his creativity and bank balance—though not before issuing a vituperative pamphlet, titled Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics, in which he defended his actions and extrapolated on the trial’s significance. The etchings and pastels with which he returned from Venice went some way to restoring his reputation—even his enemies conceded he was the finest etcher since Rembrandt—and he continued to be sought after as a portrait-painter for the rest of his life. But in the years following his return from Venice, it became increasingly clear that the trial had hardened Whistler in his scorn for the English; the final parting came when he took up residence permanently in map iconParis in 1892. Whistler v. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics had merely been the first of many publications in which the ever-litigious Whistler represented himself as the living personification of the artist as permanent outsider. It was a position that produced marked effects on artists and writers who came in Whistler’s wake—most notably upon Oscar Wilde, who was held spellbound by Whistler for several years and whose own writings on art and artistry reflect a deep engagement with Whistler. Though the demand for Whistler’s portraits remained unstinting, despite another celebrated lawsuit, memorialized in print as Eden versus Whistler: The Baronet and The Butterfly: A Valentine with a Verdict, the proto-abstractionist “nocturnes” that had constituted the real subject of the trial were rarely exhibited in Britain and were still widely regarded with contempt when Whistler died in 1903.

But the trial’s import extends beyond its impact on the personal and artistic lives of Ruskin and Whistler. When Whistler exhibited eight paintings at the map iconGrosvenor Gallery, he was associating himself with the most avant-garde trends in contemporary art. “It is at the Grosvenor Gallery that we are enabled to see the highest development of the modern artistic spirit,” remarked Oscar Wilde, who wrote two lengthy reviews of paintings exhibited at the Grosvenor (“Grosvenor” 24). The gallery—where Whistler’s paintings featured alongside those of Edward Burne-Jones and G. F. Watts among others—stood opposed to the orthodoxies enshrined in the map iconRoyal Academy: a narrow pictorialism, a false sentimentalism, and a preoccupation with painting’s storytelling or moral prerogatives. This context is vital for a proper consideration of Ruskin’s libelous remark, which was written shortly after Ruskin had visited both the Grosvenor and the Royal Academy, and which formed part of a more wide-ranging condemnation of “modern schools” where “eccentricities” are “forced” and imperfections “gratuitously, if not impertinently, indulged” (“Life Guards” 160).[1] Similarly, when Ruskin attacked Whistler and his paintings in Fors Clavigera, he brought tremendous cultural capital to bear. He was indisputably England’s leading art critic, and he had occupied the highest echelon of art criticism, the Slade Professorship of Fine Arts at Oxford, for eight years. Though his criticisms had been the object of fierce remonstrance earlier in his career, by 1877 Ruskin’s word was taken as gospel by many, for whom it enshrined principles that went to the heart of an industrialized, mercantilist society even as Ruskin critiqued that society. The very crudity of Ruskin’s attack is an indication that he was counting on his preeminence as a critic and an art economist to carry the day.

Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold

Figure 3: James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, c. 1875

Though blind to Whistler’s artistic merits, Ruskin’s criticism was motivated by politico-economic principles that many readers found (and still find) attractive. Ruskin chastised Whistler not merely for “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” (Ruskin was referring pejoratively to Whistler’s proto-modernist Nocturne in Black and Gold, which critics now celebrate for its abstraction and for its anticipations of twentieth-century drip painting and action painting) but also for pricing Nocturne in Black and Gold—the only one of the eight listed for sale in the exhibition catalogue—at 200 guineas (160).[2] (See Fig. 3.) Ruskin had spent the best part of three decades inveighing against the hefty capitalization and swift consumption of art. He was not alone in misunderstanding Whistler’s technical achievements (by diluting his oil paints and by preparing his canvas by first “staining” it, Whistler revolutionized the medium of oil painting, bringing it closer to the capabilities of watercolor) or in seeing the rapidity with which Whistler had schooled himself to work as a sign of the painting’s lack of “finish.” The libel trial, in which Burne-Jones appeared on behalf of Ruskin, did little to correct such misconceptions: Whistler’s nocturnes were “deficient in form,” lacking in composition, and underserving of the appellation “serious works of art,” Burne-Jones testified in court (qtd. in Merrill 172-73). Despite such testimony, the jury eventually agreed that Ruskin’s remark was defamatory and malicious. But that they awarded Whistler only a farthing in damages without costs underscores their mixed feelings about the verdict, if not also their tacit agreement with Ruskin’s artistic judgment. By no means did the verdict vindicate the paintings themselves.

The cultural consequences of the trial grew out of the contradiction between the legal verdict and the insulting damages. No matter what face they chose to put on it to the world at large, both Ruskin and Whistler must have felt privately that the outcome represented a form of defeat or public rebuke—as indeed it was. The consequence was a revolution in the respective standings of the artist and the critic, if not a radical reconceptualization of the very meanings of these terms.

As the presiding judge acknowledged, criticism itself had been placed in the dock when Whistler took out his injunction against Ruskin: “consider the duty of the critic,” the judge instructed the jury, since “it is of the very last importance that the critic, having mind enough to form his judgment, should have strength to express it” (qtd. in Merrill 189). Prior to 1878, criticism had represented, in the words of Matthew Arnold, “spiritual work” whose object was “to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing” while simultaneously “lead[ing] him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things.” (271). Ruskin’s criticism had heretofore been dedicated to the revelation of a complex, higher “truth”—and was so understood by many Victorians—lending him an authority comparable to that of the priest, the lawyer, or the politician. For many Victorians, nobody arbitrated better than Ruskin between the competing claims of appearance, depth, truth, falsity, art, and commerce in a society increasingly given over to quick commodification and mass production. People who liked to be on the right side reserved judgment until the arbiter of English taste, John Ruskin, had expressed his, the Daily News remarked.[3] “The Bench of honourable Criticism is as truly a Seat of Judgment as that of Law itself,” Ruskin himself observed, “and its verdicts . . . must sometimes be no less stern” (qtd. in Merrill 290).

Ruskin understood the trial’s verdict as an assault upon the prerogatives of the critic. In his instructions to his attorney before the trial, Ruskin had laid great stress (openly echoing Arnold) on “the function of the critic” (289). And in his opening statement for the defense, Ruskin’s attorney had duly argued that “a critic has a perfect liberty to indulge in ridicule if he likes, and to use strong language if he likes, without exposing himself to the charge of acting maliciously” (qtd. in Merrill 162). As Linda Merrill has suggested, Ruskin’s subsequent retreat into privacy and bitterness about the trial represents a withdrawal of the critic from the complex pseudo-juridical, ethical, and social framework in which he had construed his work hitherto. “I cannot hold a Chair from which I have no power of expressing judgment without being taxed for it by British Law,” he remarked in justification of his decision to resign the Slade Professorship (qtd. in Merrill 211). As importantly, the trial appeared to undermine the claims of truth itself insofar as they had underpinned the authority of the critic till now. So far as Ruskin personally was concerned, it was not the imputation of malice or defamation driving the verdict that would have been upsetting so much as the idea that his words represented a subjective, personalized opinion. Legally speaking, the conditions had been laid for a new kind of criticism directed not at truth, at right judgment, or at what in the artwork was “excellent in itself” but rather at the articulation of values that were experiential, personal, and subjective. “What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me?” (xx), Walter Pater had asked in the preface to his much-maligned Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873): “What is important . . . is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects. He will remember always that beauty exists in many forms” (xxi). Pater’s relativistic theory of criticism had been denigrated in Establishment circles upon first publication in 1873 (though it had found favor among students and artists). Suddenly it must have appeared that Pater had found support from the most unexpected of quarters.

Not till Wilde’s “The Critic as Artist” (1890) would a serious attempt be made to restore the critic to something like the cultural authority he had enjoyed in the years before the trial. With Marius the Epicurean (1885), Imaginary Portraits (1887), and the unfinished Gaston de Latour, Pater had accommodated himself to fiction, eschewing any direct acknowledgment of the critic’s cultural prerogatives. The intervening years, which witnessed the death of Matthew Arnold as well as Ruskin’s descent into periodic madness and seeming irrelevance (despite the fitful brilliance of such works as The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century and Praeterita), had also seen a corresponding elevation and broadening of the concept of the artist. New galleries had opened (see, for example, Pamela Fletcher, “On the Rise of the Commercial Art Gallery in London”), new technologies allowed visual work to be reproduced more broadly, and during the period of Whistler’s association with it (1884-88), the Society of British Artists saw not merely an exponential growth in membership but also the award of a Royal Charter. As importantly, Whistler had spent eleven years championing the claims of the “artist” in print, writing in his Ten O’Clock that “to the artist alone” are nature’s secrets “unfolded. . . . Through his brain, as through the last alembic, is distilled the refined essence of that thought which began with the Gods, and which they left him to carry out” (144-45). That Whistler first delivered the Ten O’Clock as a lecture in 1885 at Oxford and map iconCambridge, where the Slade Professorships resided, as well as in London, only underscores his determination to take his ideas to the institutionalized centers of art education in England.

This elevation of the artist was not without its effects on Oscar Wilde. Before his dramatic falling-out with Whistler in the wake of the Ten O’Clock, Wilde had long assumed the mantle of the artist, extending Whistler’s meaning to embrace the poet and the fiction writer. “There are not many arts, but one art merely,” he had written five years prior to “The Critic As Artist”: “poem, picture, and map iconParthenon, sonnet and statue—all are in their essence the same, and he who knows one knows all” (“Mr. Whistler’s” 15). With “The Critic as Artist,” he was to extend Whistler’s concept of artistry—contra Whistler himself—to the critic too. “Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all,” Wilde maintains: “it is the critical faculty that invents fresh forms,” so much so that “as a rule, the critics . . . of the higher class . . . are far more cultured than the people whose works they are called upon to review” (355-58). Written at a time when one of Wilde’s principal sources of income was literary criticism, “The Critic as Artist” is a direct response to Whistler’s attacks on the critic’s raison d’être in the years following the libel trial. (The questions with which the dialogue begins—Why should the artist be troubled by the shrill clamor of criticism? Why should those who cannot create take upon themselves to estimate the value of creative work?—ventriloquize Whistler’s own view of the matter.) But Wilde’s concept of artistry is as indebted to Whistler as it is critical of him, and when Wilde writes that “mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied by definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways” or that “the harmony that resides in the delicate proportions of lines and masses becomes mirrored in the mind” (398), he is not merely implicitly praising Whistler’s nocturnes but using terms previously employed by Whistler in the face of Ruskin’s critique. (Whistler was later to call these principles the “red rag” [Gentle Art 126-28], which he had waved at Ruskin’s charging bull.) Following the critical attacks made upon The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome, moreover, Wilde must have regretted that he had conceded so much ground to the “reviewing” critic. In the wake of critical attacks even more ferocious than that directed by Ruskin at Whistler, it was the artist’s prerogatives that were to preoccupy Wilde, theoretically speaking, for the rest of the 1890s: “When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself,” he writes in the preface to Dorian Gray (273). “Art is the only serious thing in the world,” he writes nearly four years later, “and the artist is the only person who is never serious” (“Few Maxims” 1242).

In this association of the artist with unseriousness, Wilde again borrows from Whistler: “to take himself seriously is the fate of the humbug at home, and destruction to the jaunty career of the art critic,” Whistler had written in Whistler v. Ruskin (28). Shearer West has proposed that the lasting effects of the Ruskin-Whistler trial lie not merely in its confrontation between the avant-garde artist and the critic but in Whistler’s unleashing of, and capitalization upon, the forces of laughter. As West argues, laughter was constant in the courtroom during the trial’s proceedings, and laughter, at least in the form of satirical sneering, was partly what brought it about. (Ruskin’s image of Whistler-as-coxcomb implies a cap and bells.) As importantly, in his presentation of the trial in his 1890 magnum opus The Gentle Art of Making Enemies—a book much admired by the wit and caricaturist Max Beerbohm—Whistler asks his reader to laugh at the whole affair, not least by the care with which he deploys the graphic machinery of the book (page layout, typography, marginal annotation, graphic end-piece) so as to undermine any claims put forth in the central text (that is, his transcript of the trial itself). The trial was at this point the supreme instance of Whistler’s “gentle art of making enemies,” wherein Whistler “pleasingly exemplified” (according to his book’s subtitle) how “the serious ones of this earth, carefully exasperated, have been prettily spurred on to unseemliness and indiscretion, while overcome by an undue sense of right.” The Whistler-Ruskin trial, West writes, represents a “key moment” in coming to terms with the “‘modern’ aesthetic possibilities of laughter” (57): Whistler’s willingness to face down Ruskin’s derision, as well as the openness with which he invited laughter in the courtroom, “suggests that jesting and laughing had a significant role in his artistic life that he did not abandon readily” (55). As importantly, it suggests that Whistler realized nearly a full decade and a half before Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest that Victorian morality was absurdist theater and that laughter could be harnessed strategically so as to deflate power’s pomposity. The principal actor in the Whistler-Ruskin trial, by this account, was neither the litigant nor the defendant but rather the public in the balcony, whose laughter, like that of Whistler himself, echoed long after the jury had delivered their mocking verdict.

Nicholas Frankel is the author of Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books (2000) and Masking The Text: Essays on Literature and Mediation in the 1890s (2009), as well as the editor of The Sphinx, by Oscar Wilde, with Decorations by Charles Ricketts (2010) and The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated Uncensored Edition (2011). He is an Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.


published April 2012

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Amy Woodson-Boulton, “The City Art Museum Movement and the Social Role of Art”


[1] Ruskin condemned the work of Millais and Tissot alongside Whistler. However, he allowed that the intentions behind the founding of the Grosvenor were good, and he exempted Whistler’s fellow-exhibitor, the Pre-Raphaelite Burne-Jones, from his general critique.

[2] Nocturne in Black and Gold had been priced even higher, at £262, on its first exhibition in 1875.

[3] Paraphrased in Merrill 43.