James McNeill Whistler and John Ruskin | From Adversaries to Shelfmates

by Jessica McEntee, Marketing Associate


John Ruskin

Ariande Florentina: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving with Appendix, Given Before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1872

New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1886


James McNeill Whistler

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, MCMIX [1909]


Pequot Library’s Special Collections holds copies of John Ruskin’s Ariande Florentina: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving with Appendix, Given Before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1872 and James McNeill Whistler’s The Gentle Art of Making Enemies side by side, an interesting juxtaposition when we learn about these men’s entanglements. Ruskin was considered the leading arbiter of Victorian taste, a significant role, for the Industrial Revolution had set off a large-scale identity crisis for Britain. Its close-knit small towns emptied when young people flocked to anonymous and dangerous cities in search of work. A country that once conceived of itself as agrarian and sleepy now found itself urbanized and industrialized, choking with pollution and vice. The British imperialist agenda, too, threw questions of national identity into question. Consider best-selling books from the time like The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins’ decidedly paranoid novel in which a character inherits a rare Indian diamond, only to find her home raided by shifty foreign thieves. The message: you can’t invade other countries without expecting to be invaded yourself.  

In response, critics like Ruskin obsessively demarcated what was British and what was “the other” and, hence, to be avoided. An article in Artsy  by Demie Kim explains the situation from another vantage point, saying, “The Industrial Revolution had precipitated the growth of a wealthy middle class, which led to an increased demand for forward-looking contemporary art” and the decline of more traditional patronage systems. “Meanwhile, the country was finally beginning to shake off its provincial ties to Continental Europe and develop a uniquely British style. Much of the public looked to Ruskin’s writings in order to determine what was good in British art, and what was bad.”

Enter Whistler. A fop, dandy, and bon vivant who’d lived in London for over a decade and a half; he’d both charmed and scandalized leading members of the upper classes. In 1876, he painted over the priceless Spanish leathers mounted on the walls surrounding his painting Rose and Silver: The Princes from the Land of Porcelain, enraging his patron, Frederick Richards Leyland, as this article explains. Whistler’s defense? He wanted to control the viewer’s entire experience of taking in his work, creating a sense of immersion. We might argue that this represented a prototype to installation art.

Born in America, Whistler grew up in Russia thanks to a father who worked as a railroad engineer, and he trained in Paris. He refused to identify himself in terms of any one nationality, calling himself a citizen du monde. Emulating the French poet Charles Bauedelaire, he embraced the idea of acting as a flâneur, floating about town and taking in interesting spectacles for their aesthetic value. He also refused to contextualize his art, as seen in probably his most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother (1871), which lacks any of the expected sentimentality given the subject

Whistler’s detachment affronted Ruskin, who championed legible art and an unwavering “truth to nature.” Incidentally, Ruskin adored the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). Pequot Library highlighted works from leading PRB members like William Morris during our 2023 exhibition The Book Beautiful: Selections from the Private Press Movement. The PRB sought to recapture the medieval guild system of laboring over their art and to return to pre-industrialized and more seemingly innocent times. Read more about them here. Ruskin and the PRB also endeavored to impart their artwork with religious and didactic messages, thereby educating and uplifting viewers. Whistler, in contrast, declared, “Art should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear.” Moreover, Whistler’s work drew upon foreign influences such as Japanese woodblock prints and reflected European approaches like abstraction, both of which represented further assaults to Ruskin’s ideas about nationalism. 

In the summer of 1877, Ruskin reviewed an exhibition that included Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (1875), an abstracted and atmospheric evening scene. Ruskin wrote, “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, in turn, sued Ruskin for libel. The trial, which lasted only two days, raised questions of workmanship and what constitutes art. Must art crystallize hard labor, as Ruskin and the PRB might have argued, or can we call something “art” when it reflects an inspired or forward-looking point of view?

As this article by Truman Chambers from The Collector explains, “Embodied by John Ruskin was understanding art as a utilitarian aspect of society, reflecting and reinforcing social values. In this model, the artist has a definite responsibility to the public and must create art to the end of collective progress. James Whistler conversely represented a new articulation of artists’ role, emphasizing only their duty to create aesthetically pleasing things, to the exclusion of any other considerations.”

Whistler, who was known as a great wit, won in court against Edward Burne-Jones, another PRB member and William Morris’ close collaborator. Burne-Jones acted as Ruskin’s proxy because Ruskin himself was too ill to participate. Whistler’s award: a single farthing. The case had cost Whistler over 1,000 pounds, a staggering sum. He declared bankruptcy, decamping to Venice. Ruskin, for his part, suffered a mental health collapse and resigned from his position as the Slade Professorship of Fine Art at Oxford University. The trial shredded his reputation, exposing him as behind the times. More than a decade later, Whistler revisited these events in his book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, a record of his numerous grudges in which he savaged Ruskin anew. 

In terms of the trial’s larger import, as Demie Kim explains:

The Whistler v. Ruskin trial represented a pivotal turning point for what it meant to be a critic and an artist. Ruskin’s criticism—once widely accepted by the Victorian public as truth—now seemed like a matter of personal opinion. And as many have noted, Whistler’s antics made him a new type of artist, one who grasped the power of a public personality, or ‘brand’—an early precursor to Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons. Whistler would have been delighted to know that the trial would become infamous in the history of art.