The American-born James Whistler was “flinging pots of paint in the public’s face” long before Jackson Pollock began pouring and dripping. Taking his cue from J.M.W. Turner, Whistler might be said to have invented British impressionism.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but spent most of his life in England and France. He believed in “art for art’s sake”, meaning that a work should speak for itself and not depend on a programmatic description. As such he anticipated later painters such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko, whose abstract impressionism changed 20th century art for ever.
In 1866, Whistler visited Valparaíso, Chile, where he painted the first of his night-scenes – at first called “moonlights” and later re-titled “nocturnes”. After returning to London, he painted several more Nocturnes, many of the River Thames and Cremorne Gardens, a Victorian pleasure dome famous for its firework displays.
Whistler credited his patron Frederick Leyland, an amateur musician devoted to Chopin, for his musically inspired titles: “I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me – besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish!”
In 1877 the famous art critic John Ruskin wrote of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, “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 sued and at the trial more than a year later defended his theory of art:
“By using the word ‘nocturne’ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form, and colour first. I make use of any means, any incident or object in nature, that will bring about a symmetrical result.”
The jury was also shown the painting Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, whereupon the judge asked – to laughter in court – “Which part of the painting is the bridge?” The ever urbane Whistler replied, “Your Lordship is too close at present to the picture to perceive the effect I intended to produce at a distance… I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene. As to what the picture represents, that depends upon who looks at it.”
Whistler won the case, but was only awarded one farthing in damages, meaning that both sides had to pay their own costs. On 7 December 1878 the weekly magazine Punch carried a cartoon depicting Whistler with penny-whistle legs, Ruskin as a pelican, and the jury as tubes of paint.
The cost of the libel case, together with huge debts from building his residence “The White House” in Chelsea, led to Whistle’s bankruptcy and resulted in the auction of his work, collections, and house. But Whistler had the last word when a few years later Nocturne in Blue and Gold was sold to an American collector for 800 guineas, a verdict endorsed by posterity.