Before I dive into the note card version of the Whistler v Ruskin trials, I thought it might be helpful to remind you why you already know who James Abbott McNeil Whistler is.
Whistler was a 19th century American-turned-British painter who was immensely affected by the Mechanical Age – which you will remember from our conversation today on Benjamin. A respected painter of the Victorian era, Whistler began in the Academy, but his style became increasingly impressionistic as he matured.
John Ruskin was the son of a merchant, and as a result, was exposed to ‘high art’ from an early age. Heavily influenced by the socioeconomic shifts of the Mechanical Age, where lower classes were beginning to be able to afford to commission art, Ruskin became involved in the aesthetic and moral debates that arose from this shift. He also had great mutton chops.
Around mid-19th-century, the Impressionistic movement was taking hold in Britain. Largely considered to look purposefully effortless, critics hated it and argued against “art for art’s sake”.
About his 1877 painting “Nocturne in Black and Gold” (below), Whistler was called an ‘imposture’ by Ruskin. Feeling his reputation was damaged by Ruskin’s criticisms and name-calling, Whistler took Ruskin to court. The trial was something of a mockery. Whistler won a farthing in damages, and the whole ordeal changed the philosophy of art in the mechanical age, and all the ages since.
For more details on the trial see: