On Guy Fawkes’ Day, this week’s picture is James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. Painted in 1875 and exhibited two years later at the Grosvenor Galleries, this challengingly obscure evocation of pyrotechnics over London provoked John Ruskin to fire off a rocket of his own: “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 sued Ruskin for libel and the case was tried at the Old Law Courts in November 1878 in front of a large gallery who evidently found the whole affair richly entertaining.
The transcripts of Whistler v. Ruskin record some memorably theatrical exchanges between the artist and his cross-examiner, the Attorney-General Sir John Holker. Holker claimed that he could almost see nothing in Whistler’s painting except “a sort of a blaze at the bottom”. He relished playing the role of baffled sceptic required by his brief, while Whistler gave as good as he got:
HOLKER: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold ? How soon did you knock it off? ( Laughter )
WHISTLER: I beg your pardon?
HOLKER: I was using an expression which is rather more applicable to my own profession. ( Laughter )
WHISTLER: Thank you for the compliment. ( Laughter )
HOLKER: How long do you take to knock off one of your pictures?
WHISTLER: Oh, I “knock one off” possibly in a couple of days – ( Laughter ) – one day to do the work and another to finish it…
HOLKER: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
WHISTLER: No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime. ( Applause )
At the heart of the matter lay two conflicting attitudes, not just to a single painting but to painting in general. Holker believed that paintings were “views” of scenes, whether real or imagined, and that it was the duty of the artist to make his illusion as vivid and detailed as his skill allowed. Whistler was an apostle of art for art’s sake, who argued that the painter’s primary responsibility was to the formal and aesthetic integrity of his work. He refrained from describing his paintings as “pictures”, preferring terms like “arrangement”, “symphony” or “nocturne”. He said that he was not trying to evoke musical comparisons but simply wanted to divest his art “of any outside anecdotal interest”.
As the painter acknowledged, his Nocturne in Black and Gold conveys a less than crystal clear impression of the setting that inspired it. Cremorne Gardens was a place of popular entertainment in Chelsea, on the site now occupied by the Lots Road Power Station. Boasting numerous attractions including a theatre, banqueting halls, dancing and nightly fireworks, it seems to have been a raucous and cheerful place. During an overambitious re-enactment of the storming of a fort at Sebastopol, the stage collapsed underneath the combined weight of 500 bayonet-wielding soldiers. On another occasion the celebrated Madame Genevieve astounded assembled thousands by crossing the Thames from Cremorne Gardens on a tightrope.
Walking his own tightrope, between representation and what posterity has learned to call abstraction, Whistler left such vulgar associations behind. Yet despite his assertion that his subject matter was merely incidental it was surely, in this case, a part of his meaning. A place of entertainment for the common man has been transformed into an objet d’art for the contemplation of a chosen few – that select band of connoisseurs who were prepared to discern the sparks of a spent rocket and a string of lights over a dance floor in Whistler’s carefully arranged flecks of red and yellow paint on a dark ground; who would nod to themselves in approving recognition of his oriental delicacy of taste, perhaps even noting his restrained homage to the celebrated Japanese artist Hiroshige’s Fireworks over Ryoguko Bridge.
In Whistler’s eyes, the fact that only a tiny minority of painters, collectors and connoisseurs valued his work was a measure of its exclusiveness. He signed his pictures not with his name but, as here, with a monogram in the shape of a butterfly, improvised from the shape of his initials, “J.W.” – the stamp of his conviction that his art can only be appreciated by those who know how to read its codes. It has often been said that he paved the way for nonrepresentational painting. But he also helped to create the unpleasant pall of elitism that has hung over so much modern art: the sense that it is something only for initiates.
Ruskin was prevented from attending the trial by mental illness. Edward Burne-Jones, one of the chief witnesses called to defend him, may have expressed the critic’s own views when arguing that it was unscrupulous of Whistler to pass off “sketches” as if they were finished works. But the Nocturne in Black and Gold seems to have offended Ruskin on more than merely aesthetic grounds. When he wrote his vicious attack he was close to breakdown, tormented by the paranoid conviction that the world was getting darker (a delusion fostered by several poor summers in a row and the ever-thickening smog of the Industrial Revolution). He had, in addition, a well-documented horror of glittering lights. He may have lashed out at Whistler’s murky picture because it was the image of his own worst fear.
In the end the jury found in favour of Whistler but showed sympathy for Ruskin’s point of view by only awarding the painter the derisory sum of one farthing in damages. The Examiner described it as “a victory which bears a very striking resemblance to a defeat”, although in the long run the triumph was Whistler’s, given that his beliefs about painting have now gained such widespread acceptance. I think the jury got it just about right. Ruskin should never have written what he did. But for all its aesthetic ambition the Nocturne in Black and Gold is a bit of a feeble effort: a damp squib at the centre of a firework display. Whistler’s ideas always were more invigorating than his pictures – sorry, “arrangements”.