Whistler v. Ruskin: Morality in Art Versus Aesthetic Theory

by: Erin Landry

The 1878 libel suit of Whistler v Ruskin, which elucidated the conflict between the newly formed aesthetic movement and the Victorian ideal of art, embodies the struggle between the establishment and a new worldview. It is yet another example of the reluctance with which the old makes way for the new. In this case, the conflict was played out on the stage of aesthetics and morality in late Victorian England. John Ruskin represented all that was essentially Victorian in both theory and virtue, whereas James Abbott McNeill Whistler illustrated what was to be the vanguard of modernity in art practice and theory.
Historically, British art had been content to follow the lead of continental Europe, which was home to the great masters from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment. This attitude changed during the 19th century. British artists were greatly affected by the “Mechanical Age” in which they were living. The growth of a wealthy and enfranchised middle class led to a large demand for the work of contemporary artists rather than the old masters.1 Moreover, the pursuit of beauty and attempts to elevate the taste of the British public were strong currents of the time. This was in reaction to the havoc caused by industrialization that manifested itself in poverty, pollution, and the growth of new urban centers such as Manchester.2
John Ruskin was an integral part of this movement mainly because he became its most important theorist and defender. He was the only child of John James Ruskin and Margaret Ruskin – an older, Scottish couple of the merchant class. John James Ruskin was a sherry merchant that through his work visited the great homes in Britain and subsequently saw the major collections of art. John Ruskin was exposed to this from a very early age.3 Alternately, John Ruskin’s mother, Margaret Ruskin, was not at all interested in the fine arts. She was an evangelical that schooled her son to read the Bible every day. John Ruskin was a boy with no toys, no playmates, and severe discipline.4
Despite a very unconventional early education, Ruskin attended Christ Church College in Oxford from 1836 to 1842. He also began to write constantly. In particular, Ruskin wrote a work entitled Modern Painters in defense of the romanticist painter J.M.W. Turner whose work was incredibly controversial at the time.5 On April 10, 1848 Ruskin married Euphemia Gray.6 In July of 1854 she sued for an annulment of the marriage on the grounds that it had never been consummated. The annulment was granted and a year later she married the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais.7 In 1865 Mr. Felix Slade endowed Cambridge, Oxford, and the University of London with the Slade Professorship of Fine Arts and Ruskin filled the position at Oxford. During his years at Oxford he began the publication entitled Fors Clavigera, which was a pamphlet, addressed to the workingmen of England.8 In 1878 John Ruskin had a severe breakdown, resigned his professorship, and ended his public life. Frequent attacks of mental and physical illness from 1879 through 1889 ultimately led to Ruskin’s retirement to his home, Brantwood, in 1889. John Ruskin died on January 20, 1900.9
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, on the other hand, comes from an interesting background that in some ways can account for his unusual style. Whistler was born in a small, industrial, Massachusetts town called Lowell in 1834. His boyhood and early teenage years were spent in St. Petersburg where his father worked as a civil engineer. Back in the United States, Whistler was nominated for West Point, but he was eventually dismissed as a result of his poor performance in chemistry. In a characteristic move, Whistler traveled to Washington and confronted Jefferson Davis, then the Secretary of War. He demanded to either be reinstated at West Point or given another job. Whistler was subsequently sent to the Coastal Survey to do work as a cartographer. This is where he began to learn the art of etching.10
With monetary support from his family, James Whistler relocated to Paris in 1855 and began to study with Monsieur Gleyre.11 The restaurants, ballrooms, streets, and cafes of Paris became his studio, because he did not like to work from models.12 During his stay in Paris, Whistler developed relationships with important painters such as Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Alphonse Legros, and others in the Latin Quarter.13 Whistler developed his distinctive style of colors in harmony during his stay in Paris. However, in 1885 he moved to London, which would become his permanent home. Some of the reasons for his move were that it was a less competitive art community than Paris was, the London Royal Academy of art was equally as prestigious as the Parisian Salon, and painters in London were more able to do as they pleased.14 Whistler’s initial relationship with the Royal Academy was relatively good and he came to be seen as an English artist. Many of his early works were accepted in the exhibitions, but as his style became increasingly impressionistic and even abstract, he split completely with the Academy.
Whistler’s style was a definite mixture of influences that included the French avant-garde impressionism of the time, the British painting tradition, and the popularity of Japanese art that resulted from trade and commerce with Asia. The technique of his paintings involved using oil pigment thinned until it was the consistency of water. This medium allowed him to work quickly, which was quite different from the technique that Ruskin admired in painters. In fact, it seems quite evident that Ruskin never admired Whistler’s style. In an Oxford lecture in 1873, Ruskin speaking of Whistler’s paintings, declared that he had never seen “anything so impudent on the walls of any exhibition, in any country, as last year in London. It was daub professing to be a ‘harmony in pink and white’ (or some such nonsense); absolute rubbish, and which had taken about a quarter of an hour to scrawl or daub – it had no pretence to be called painting.”15
The genre most employed previous to Ruskin’s time was historical painting. This form reached its zenith in the 18th century with British artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds. That style basically involved the idealization of literary, historical, mythical, or biblical events into visual imagery.16 One of the major questions in art theory during Ruskin’s early years dealt with the usefulness of art in relation to the viewer beyond the decoration of a wealthy person’s home. Ruskin answered this question for his generation by proposing that all beauty, including nature and the human form, was a representation of God’s goodness. He felt that art should be true to life, as opposed to an idealized image of life, because if God and goodness were already to be found in nature it was immoral to try to improve upon it. When an artist depicted this truth of God’s goodness in nature, the artist affected the morality of the viewer.17 This theory was extremely acceptable to the moralistic public of the time, because it combined “puritan conscience with a love of beauty that was immediate and sensual.”18
English artists became more recognized by the art world in the 1830s than they had ever been before. This was the period of Romanticism in English painting, best represented by John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Turner in particular epitomized all that was good in English painting at the time according to Ruskin. His style and formal characteristics are surprisingly impressionist and even abstract, but his subject matter always involved the concept of truth of God in nature. John Ruskin, who saw in them “the true, the beautiful, and the intellectual,” lauded such paintings as The Slave Ship, which he owned.19
By the mid-nineteenth century the realist movement of France had developed into a different tradition in England – the Pre-Raphaelites. The Pre-Raphaelites were essentially a part of the gothic revival in Victorian England; they were inspired by the “primitive” masters of the fifteenth century. Social movements such as Chartism – the democratic working class reform movement in the middle of the century – greatly influenced their art theory. Through their work they hoped to reform the evils of modern society. Pre-Raphaelites believed in preaching morality and spirituality with art.20 They painted images that were meant to uplift and edify the spirit. Artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones believed that subjects of a painting should not be idealized, but painstakingly truthful.21
Pre-Raphaelitism, in theory, epitomized what John Ruskin felt that great art should strive for.22 The movement was completely in tune with Ruskin’s “morality of art.” Even a grueling creative process that is evidenced by the extreme finish of Pre-Raphaelite painting made their art an instrument of good, because it exemplified the Victorian work ethic.23 It is not surprising that the Victorian cultural mindset would object completely to impressionism in art. The wildness of impressionist brushstrokes as well as the spontaneity of the work and theory was completely contrary to an effortful process that Victorians would have valued.24
Nevertheless, movements towards impressionism were inevitable as philosophical relativism grew in contrast to the absolute ideals of Victorian philosophy and morality. The denial of absolutes and the view that all “truth” is relative to the mind and culture from which it originated became more commonplace.25 This trend was, no doubt, aided by the influx of information and art objects from other cultures as a result of industrialization and the development of steam-powered shipping. The writings of Walter Pater, an art critic and theorist, in his 1873 work, History of the Renaissance, illustrate this growing relativism. According to Pater, to understand experience, people should think “not of objects in the solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them.”26
The relativist philosophy that was influential at the time is relevant to the aesthetic movement because it suggested that there was no absolute truth, and therefore, no absolute goodness or morality. Consequently, “the morality of art” became meaningless to people like Whistler and Oscar Wilde. The aesthetic movement, of which Whistler belonged, did not believe in looking through a picture, but at a picture. According to the aesthetes, the real concern of art was beauty – not meaning or symbolism. Beauty is in objects that give pleasure because of their being well made. Beauty is in the line, color, and brushwork itself, independent of the subject matter.27 Artwork of the aesthetic movement no longer looked as if the process had been effortful; the impression was of virtuosity rather than morality.28 The aesthetic movement was, simply stated, “Art for Art’s Sake.”
According to art historians and theorists, there were four major tenets of the aesthetic movement. The first was that the artist was essentially different from all other people because of the predominance in the artist of intuition and creative imagination.29 An artist, according to the aesthetes, had to be a person in whom understanding and rationality are subservient to imagination and creativity. This signifies a change in the meaning of the term, artist. Previously, the term meant an artisan or a craftsman. An artist, in the new sense, was a person that possessed creativity, sensitivity, heightened intuition, and imagination at greater levels than the rest of humanity. The subordination of rationality by creativity allowed the artist to freely select and even distort the material. Whistler wrote in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: “ To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.”30
The second emphasis of the movement was the idea of the artist as a specialist in the techniques of his or her craft alone.31 This was important because they needed to separate the artist from any ulterior motives of morality, philosophy, or propaganda. In his Modern Painters, Ruskin wrote that “both [preachers and painters] are commentators on infinity, and the duty of both is to take for each discourse one essential truth…and to impress that, and that alone, upon those whom they address.”32 The aesthetic movement’s answer to this can be found in Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies: “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, and the like.”33
The third principle of the movement was that men of high moral character did not create great art.34 Many Victorian critics had maintained that the value of a work was proportional to the morality or spirituality of the artist. Simply looking at the biographies of the great masters is enough to prove the point of the aesthetes. Moreover, they believed that the true artist was separated from society, yet still an observer of that society. An outsider looking in does not need the same morality of those who he is examining.
The fourth proposition of the aesthetic movement was that artistic creation was the highest end of life. The life of the artist was considered superior to any other life. Aesthetes ridiculed bourgeois values because they truly believed that their own values were better and more admirable. Whistler expressed his contempt of all others in society through his statements against the validity of the critic in relation to the artist:

“Art, that for ages has hewn its own history in marble, and written its own comments on canvas, shall it suddenly stand still, and stammer, and wait for wisdom from the passer-by? – for guidance from the hand that holds neither brush nor chisel? Out upon the shallow conceit! What greater sarcasm can Mr. Ruskin pass upon himself than that he preaches to young men what he cannot perform! Why, unsatisfied with his own conscious power, should he choose to become the type of incompetence by talking for forty years of what he has never done!”35

The Grosvenor Gallery opened its first exhibition on May Day in the summer of 1877. Sir Coutts Lindsay of Balcarres was the owner and the proprietor of the gallery. Whereas admittance into a Royal Academy exhibition was based on committee selections, exhibiting in the Grosvenor Gallery was solely based upon the invitation of Sir Coutts Lindsay.36 This gallery was an alternative to the Royal Academy for artists that had either been declined by the committee or chose not to participate. It was an arena for more controversial art, whereas the Royal Academy was representative of the establishment in art practice. This was ideal for Whistler, because his most recent previous works had been rejected.
In a June letter from Fors Clavigera Ruskin wrote his now infamous review of the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition almost as an afterthought to the rest of his letter. In the letter, Ruskin praised the work of Edward Burne-Jones who was also exhibiting at Grosvenor Gallery, by stating that his paintings were “simply the only art-work at the present produced in England which will be received by the future as ‘classic’ in its kind, - the best that has been, or could be.”37 Ruskin next turned to the exhibited works of Whistler:

“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.”38

The specific picture to which Ruskin was making reference was Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. The painting’s subject matter is of fireworks rising, exploding, and falling above the shadows of the old Cremorne Pleasure Gardens.39
On July 28, 1877, Whistler brought a libel suit against Ruskin, because he said that his “reputation as an artist has been much damaged by the said libel.” Whistler claimed damages of 1000 pounds as well as the coverage of court costs.40 The trial was originally meant to convene in February of 1878, but all proceedings were brought to a halt in January of that year due to the deteriorating mental health of John Ruskin. This postponement as a result of Ruskin’s health continued for nearly a year.41
Addison Rose was Whistler’s solicitor while John Humffreys Parry and Mr. Petheram represented Whistler in court. The plaintiff’s argument was that not only the original publication of Ruskin’s criticism in Fors Clavigera but also the attention it garnered from the press had succeeded in seriously damaging Whistler’s reputation.42 The case went to trial on November 25, 1878. The Times wrote an account of the causes of the libel case:

“This was an action for libel which the plaintiff said had been falsely and maliciously published, and had greatly damaged his reputation as an artist. The defendant pleaded that the article complained of was privileged as being a fair and bona fide criticism upon a painting which the plaintiff had exposed for public view.”43

Ruskin’s solicitors retained Sir John Holker, the chief counsel of the British crown, to represent him in court. The defense’s strategy was to point out deficiencies in Whistler’s style.44 Sir Holker’s address to the court was recorded in The Times:

“In the present mania for art it had become a kind of fashion among some people to admire the incomprehensible, to look upon the fantastic conceits of an artist like Mr. Whistler, his ‘nocturnes,’ ‘symphonies,’ ‘arrangements,’ and ‘harmonies,’ with delight and admiration; but the fact was that such productions were not worthy the name of great works of art.”45

With the aim of further condemning the style of Whistler, they called Edward Burne-Jones as a witness. Burne-Jones described the painting as one of thousands of failures to represent night, and therefore not worth 200 guineas. However, in cross-examination he was forced to admit that “Whistler had an almost unrivalled appreciation of atmosphere, and his colour was beautiful, especially in moonlight scenes.”46 When Whistler was on the stand, Sir Holker questioned him on the amount of time it took to finish one of the paintings. When Whistler replied that it took only a couple of days, the defense asked if two days of work was worth the 200-guinea price of the piece. Whistler replied, “No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”47
The jury was instructed to consider whether or not the criticism written by Ruskin was fair and bona fide. After some deliberation, the jury returned with the decision that the criticism was honest. The judge sent them back with the instructions that they had to determine if the criticism was fair and bona fide. Ten minutes later the jury gave the verdict. They found for Whistler, but awarded only one farthing in damages. The judge did not award the plaintiff court costs either.48
The verdict of the trial was interpreted at the time by the public and the press as a judgment on both sides. Ruskin was judged malicious in his criticism, but Whistler’s work in the eyes of the judge and the jury deserved some criticism. This opinion was reflected in the popular press. The Saturday Review critiqued the event:

“To expect twelve jurymen to be prepared with a confident opinion upon modern art was in the highest degree presumptuous: and yet, unless there existed such an expectation, it was merely ludicrous to admit a mass of evidence that was entirely concerned with matters of technical knowledge.”49
Most looked on the entire occurrence as regrettable. This is definitely the opinion expressed by the American, Henry James, living in London.

The case had a two days’ hearing, and it was a singular and most regrettable exhibition. Is it had taken place in some Western American town it would have been called provincial and barbarous; it would have been cited as an incident of a low civilization. Beneath the stately towers of Westminster it hardly wore a higher aspect…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.50

The libel suit of Whistler v Ruskin is indicative of the greater change that was taking place in both art theory and practice. The process of this change occurred in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. It was a transition from concrete to abstract, and from abstract to non-objective or non-representational.51 Whistler is a good example of the origins of this transition. As is evident in many of Whistler’s nocturnes and arrangements, stimulative aspects of painting became more important at the same time that representation became less important. Other factors in this transition are that narratives in the painting were seen as bad, subject matter became subordinate to execution, and outlines were blurred to make objects indistinct – everything was a harmony of colors.52 The trial represents the shift in visual art from the usefulness and morality of Victorian art to the philosophy of art for art’s sake that denied any meaning of art beyond beauty.


1 Malcolm Warner, “Signs of the Times,” The Wilson Quarterly 21 (1997): 16.
2 Wendell V. Harris, “Ruskin’s Theoretic Practicality and the Royal Academy’s Aesthetic Idealism,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52
(1997): 82
3 “John Ruskin,” Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 1832-1890. Gale Research, 1991. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2002. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC, 1.
4 “John Ruskin,” 2.
5 “John Ruskin,” 2.
6 “John Ruskin,” 3.
7 “John Ruskin,” 4.
8 “John Ruskin,” 7.
9 “John Ruskin,” 9.
10 Muriel Julius, “England at Last Honours Whistler’s Art,” Contemporary Review 266 (1995): 19.
11 Julius, 19.
12 G. H. Fleming, James Abbott McNeill Whistler: A Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 69.
13 Julius, 19.
14 Fleming, 77.
15 Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in ‘Whistler v Ruskin’ (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 50.
16 Harris, 86.
17 Harris, 88.
18 “John Ruskin,” 1.
19 H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2001), 679.
20 Janson, 718.
21 Warner, 2.
22 Julius, 19.
23 Warner, 3.
24 Warner, 3.
25 Warner, 5.
26 Warner, 5.
27 Warner, 6.
28 Warner, 7.
29 Irving Singer, “The Aesthetics of ‘Art for Art’s Sake,’” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 12 (1954): 344.
30 Singer, 347.
31 Singer, 344.
32 Singer, 349.
33 Janson, 931.
34 Singer, 344.
35 James Whistler, “Art & Art Critics,” in Whistler on Art: Selected Letters and Writings of James McNeill Whistler, ed. Nigel Thorp (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 61.
36 Merrill, 10-11.
37 John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, vol. 4, (Boston: Dana Estes & Company Publishers), 72.
38 Ruskin, 73.
39 Julius, 3.
40 Whistler: A Retrospective, ed. Robin Spencer (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1989), 124. -From Whistler’s Statement of Claim for Libel against John Ruskin.
41 Merrill, 65-66.
42 Merrill, 74.
43 The Times. November 26, 1878. 9.
44 Merrill, 98-99.
45 The Times, November 27, 1878, 11.
46 The Times, November 27, 1878, 11.
47 Merrill, 148.
48 The Times, November 27, 1878, 11.
49 The Saturday Review, November 30, 1878, 687.
50 Henry James, Views and Reviews (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1968), 208-209.
51 Mieczyslaw Wallis, “The Origin and Foundations of Non-Objective Painting,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 19 (1960): 64.
52 Wallis, 64-65.