Book Review: ‘Falling Rocket,’ by Paul Thomas Murphy

Book Review: ‘Falling Rocket,’ by Paul Thomas Murphy

FALLING ROCKET: James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art, by Paul Thomas Murphy

“I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” These words by John Ruskin, Victorian England’s pre-eminent critic, were written in 1877 about “Nocturne in Black and Gold — The Falling Rocket,” a painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the most flamboyant artist of that era.

And they resulted in the most notorious trial in the history of art when Whistler decided to take the shocking step of suing the writer for his review — as much for the publicity as for the thousand guineas in damages.

Both artist and critic were already very famous; Whistler, the American-born dandy, aesthete and provocateur, made a compelling contrast to Ruskin, who for decades had served as moralistic defender of a spiritual gravitas rooted in the Middle Ages. The painting that so inspired Ruskin’s ire supposedly conjured a fireworks display, though — as the darkest and moodiest of Whistler’s “nocturnes” — it was as close to pure abstraction as art had yet ventured.

Whistler had first exhibited the shocking oil at London’s Grosvenor Gallery ; Ruskin’s scathing review initially appeared in the July, 1877 edition of his newsletter, Fors Clavigera. The art world was agog.

Whistler saw this as a chance to gain some much-needed funds and to publicly state his views on art in opposition to the most celebrated cultural theorist of the time. But Ruskin himself never took the dock, incapacitated as he was by a series of breakdowns, and he instead had Edward Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, testify on his behalf. The November 1878 trial lasted only two days, but it was an immediate cause célèbre in the international press.

Whistler was in magnificent form, his flow of witty remarks greeted with applause. On revealing that his painting had taken just two days to complete, Whistler was asked if it was not presumptuous to price it at 200 guineas. “No,” Whistler responded, “it was for the knowledge gained through a lifetime.”

His braggadocio paid off — barely. In the end, though Whistler technically won the case, the jury awarded him a mere farthing — a comically tiny amount that made clear they were equally sympathetic to Ruskin.

Whistler, however, proudly played it as a total victory, and wore the farthing on a watch chain, often restaging his courtroom triumph for friends — and he certainly went on to ever-increasing fame and success, the avant-garde minimalism of his work eventually finding its time.

Ruskin felt insulted and legally fettered by the verdict. Even a public subscription to cover his legal costs did not allay the deeper gloom that already owned him.

Often mistakenly read as a clear victory for new art over reactionary criticism, this trial was also a notable precursor to many a modern battle, both in court and in the mass media.

The trial set a precedent for the attempt to sue critics for negative opinions, helping create the world in which many of us live today.After Whistler v. Ruskin, probably the most contentious such case was when Dan Moldea, inflamed by a review of his book, sued for $10 million in punitive damages, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court; the publication in question was The New York Times Book Review.

Such precedents shall surely temper any criticism of the current volume by Paul Thomas Murphy, entirely enjoyable in its breezy enthusiasm, but possibly not needed at all. The jacket flap may proclaim this an “untold story,” but the exemplary bibliography makes clear how much has already been written on this subject, often with either considerably more poetry or academic rigor.

But this is an unashamedly approachable “good read” (as befits an author with several advanced degrees in Victorian studies), with only the slightest whiff of the cut-and-paste potboiler, deploying the sort of prose in which a painting is described as “a stunner” and declaring that Gandhi read Ruskin with “earth-shattering consequences.”

Perhaps the most topical subtext of this book is one of Blackness — both political and pictorial. The word “black” is omnipresent throughout the narrative; for Whistler it was the “universal harmonizer” at the core of his practice, a color that he loved — in paint.

As a subtext, the American Civil Warshadows Whistler’s story: His brother was a Confederate soldier and spy; he himself knew the family of Robert E. Lee. Infamously, Whistler himself once nicknamed a Haitian “the Marquis of Marmalade,” slapped an abolitionist who objected to his rhetoric and served guests “Crème Oncle Tom.”

For Ruskin, the color was a state of mind symbolized in “black blight” weather. If Whistler seems the more contemporary of the two, not least because of his gift for self-promotional outrage, it is worth remembering that the gloomy Ruskin was the most unexpectedly prescient. It was in 1875 that he warned of “some terrible change of climate coming upon the world for its sin, like another deluge.”

FALLING ROCKET: James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art | By Paul Thomas Murphy | Pegasus | 394 pp. | $29.95

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