Saturday, July 4, 2009

A tale of independence

When I think of fireworks in relation to art, there is one picture that comes to mind - Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, with its smoky sky and cascading dots of light. 

The painting is of a fireworks display at the Cremorne Gardens in Britain, a popular fairground that offered dances, balloon rides and entertainment in the mid 1800's.

Like Sargent's Madame X, Whistler's painting caused an uproar, though for very different reasons.

John Ruskin, the renowned art critic, was apparently affronted by the immediacy of the paint application in Whistler's painting. In a series of pamphlets he derided what he perceived as an unfinished work, calling Whistler a "coxcomb" for "flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public". Whistler, fiesty, witty and famously arrogant, took offense and a stand against what he saw as a dangerous imbalance between the power of the art critic's word and the painter's vision.*

'At the trial, Ruskin's lawyer asked Whistler, "Mr. Whistler, tell me, how long did it take you to paint ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket’?” "Half a day," replied Whistler. "So," queried the lawyer, "you are charging two hundred guineas for half a day's work?" "No," wittily replied Whistler, "For the experience of a lifetime."' **

He was awarded a farthing and ordered to pay court costs, which along with other personal debts bankrupted him, but more importantly, he made his point. In doing so he made a bold stand for the freedom of art from art criticism, and by extension, for the freedom of artists as well as the art-viewing public from ill-considered but publicly expressed opinions of art critics. 

Whistler dissociated himself from the English academic establishment and asserted his autonomy as a painter, a position he maintained successfully for the rest of his career. To this day, by stipulation in his will, Whistler's paintings are prohibited from permanent display in Britain. The Nocturne is currently on loan to the Tate Museum Britain from Detroit.

Happy independence from Britain, America. And happy independence from the art establishment, Whistler. 

James Abbott McNeil Whistler
Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket
Oil on wood
60.3 x 46.6 cm (23 3/4 x 18 3/8 in.)
Detroit Institute of Arts

** (As quoted by Suzanne Hill in her articleWhistler's Nocturne: Falling Rocket Subject of Libel Suit Against Critic John Ruskin in 1878, to which I am indebted for this post).


  1. Thank you for this story of a very interesting and lively painting. I didn't know about that stipulation in Whistler's will; good for him!
    Its a shame the vast majority of people think of 'Whistler's Mother' when they think of his work. He did so many more interesting pieces that I think surprise people who aren't familiar with his career.

  2. You're welcome, Terry, glad you enjoyed it. If you don't know Whistler's landscapes, they are fabulous, and like most of his work, named with music-referencing names like Nocturne or Sonata or Arrangement. Enjoy checking him out, I think you might like him.