Paul Thomas Murphy’s fluent and accessible new book Falling Rocket: James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art, a double biography of Victorian England’s brashest Impressionist and most feared art critic, provides a snapshot of the founding litigation of modern art.
The painter Whistler, an American expat in London, emerges in Murphy’s telling as arrogant, bellicose, wasteful, and racist, but also capable of legendary parties (dyeing butter green to match the china), remarkably high standards (he built a home so minimal the city mandated exterior ornament), and real love for his difficult mother, a puritanical widow whose sudden visit in 1871 threatened her son’s bohemianism and displaced his muse and lover, Joanna Hiffernan, into the arms of Gustave Courbet.
Aestheticism was on the rise at this time — England’s school of “art for art’s sake.” Though lukewarmly received by the Royal Academy, then the prevailing art authority, Whistler’s portrait of his visiting mother, “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1” (1871), was a breakthrough for that movement and for the artist: an easy focal harmony, flat in deference to the Japonisme craze, attuned to the vibration of low contrasts in space. The painting emboldened Whistler’s series of hazy impromptu landscapes, or “nocturnes,” in oils so thinned the artist called them “sauce.” Murphy quotes one contemporary as saying Whistler “has painted the air.”
Enter John Ruskin, the day’s most powerful critic, a prodigy of literature and architectural history, champion of the stormy paintings of JMW Turner, enemy of the stately symmetry of Renaissance buildings. For Ruskin, the American had taken the protest too far. Visiting the upstart Grosvenor Gallery, a refuge from the Academy, he so hated Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” (1875), an abstract canvas technically depicting fireworks, that he panned it with glee: “two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”
Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. In Murphy’s telling, the dark and heat of the courtroom at Westminster Hall are relevant to the rise of the modern gallery experience: to determine libel, the jury had to see his art. After the defense curated a viewing, the plaintiff, objecting to the dim courtroom venue, staged a second one offsite: cleanly hung, level, well lit. Out with Victorian cram, in with the white cube. Whistler won.
Ruskin had his own issues. His devotion to Old Masters and to Rose la Touche, a girl 29 years his junior, verged on religious mania. Murphy’s close documentation of these kindred obsessions, including scenes of Ruskin’s hallucinations and debilitation, help portray the critic as the last great Christian aesthetician, almost a martyr to himself. Ruskin believed art should reflect the divine, not necessarily the Biblical deity but something closer to Ben Franklin’s “Nature’s God.” His loss to Whistler was an omen in art: form was decoupling from icon.
Falling Rocket invites the question of whether Whistler v. Ruskin forever welded the private artist ego to a public sense of right and wrong. As this book makes clear in its minute recounting of the 1878 trial, the jury was asked more than just “Is it art?” The question became whether the intangibles behind creation (concept, intent, timing) can be said to belong to any art object. From Whistler to Pollock, it’s a question given welcome weight by Murphy’s lively reportage and sensitivity to the aesthetics of the time.
Falling Rocket: James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art by Paul Thomas Murphy (2023) is published by Pegasus Books and is available online and in bookstores.