decorated initial The protagonists of this argument are united by two great cities, both centres of commerce and empire, both fundamental to the formation of modern life. For the young John Ruskin, Venice was one of “my two homes of earth”,1 the other being Chamonix in the Alps, and it was characteristic of him to pair art and nature in this way. One thinks of him noting the spirit of mountain brotherhood between the Cathedral and the alp in his book The Stones of Venice, and of course part of the fascination and tragedy of Venice is in the relationship between man-made artefacts and the eroding sea. The American painter, James McNeill Whistler, too, had the most productive of relationships with Venice, perhaps led to the city, at least in part, by Ruskin’s inspiration J.M.W. Turner and – who knows? – by Ruskin himself. Moreover, as the recent travelling exhibition Turner, Whistler, Monet showed, the founder of Impressionism learnt from both Turner and Whistler in his own representations of la Serenissima.2 Add to that the perhaps surprising information that Claude Monet read, and was influenced by, Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing in the 1870s3 and you have a fascinating matrix for Modernism comprising four artists not naturally associated and one mysterious and evanescent city – so evanescent that images of it are prone to slide off into abstraction.

The other city in question is the scene of the drama I shall be examining: London. In Ruskin’s view, Turner learned most of what he needed to know as a painter from an unprivileged childhood lived beside the Thames. Ruskin, too, was born in London, and it was living by the riverside in Chelsea that led Whistler to the most radical of his paintings. Lastly, though Monet is not my subject, it is worth mentioning the years preceding the first Impressionist exhibition, which Monet and Camille Pissarro spent in London. Their use of haze and evanescent light seems to have been inspired by the same London fogs that had affected Turner.

That an analogy could be drawn between the decayed Queen of the Sea and the capital of the modern world’s great empire was obvious to Ruskin from early on. The Stones of Venice (1851) begins with these words:

Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction. 4

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Self-portraits of both men. Left: Ruskin's watercolor Self-portrait. Right: Whistler's Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter. Click on images to enlarge them and to obtain additional information.

Yet here we see the first difference between our protagonists. For Ruskin, though not for Whistler, the significance of Venice was a moral one, the purpose of exploring her fateful history admonitory. It was Ruskin’s visit to Venice in 1845 as he worked on the second volume of the five-volume Modern Painters, and his discovery there of Jacopo Tintoretto, which led him into the architectural digression resulting in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849; complete text) and the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-53). Venice provided him with a moral and social lesson about the relation of art to the society that produced it. Put simply – and Ruskin’s first stab at this issue has more than its share of naïveté – the beauty of Venetian building and art before the Renaissance pointed for him to qualities of religious and therefore social virtue which the later Venice and its northern heir could clearly be seen to lack. An awkward consequence of the theory, one that proved in practice difficult to live with, was that great artists must be virtuous people. Tintoretto, for instance, was, or must have been, a good man, for only good men could see what he saw, imagine what he imagined and execute those visions honestly and sincerely. Tintoretto’s greatness was not just a matter of creative skill but of truth: truth to nature, craft and Biblical revelation. It was for Ruskin with his Evangelical Christian roots not a matter of personal vision, but of seeing what was there and seeing into it – locating its divine meaning. It is not therefore difficult to imagine Ruskin’s shock when, working on the Turner bequest in 1857-58, he discovered that his greatest hero had drawn pornographic images of prostitutes. His theory of artistic morality must at the very least have been shaken by the revelation. When he criticised Whistler’s paintings in 1877, he did so with an apocalyptic intensity which suggests that the anguish had not abated. It is certainly interesting that a few months later he suffered the first of seven mental breakdowns.

But first of all, the story. In 1877 the new Grosvenor Gallery opened in Mayfair. Its proprietor, Sir Coutts Lindsay, was creating a much-needed showcase for radically modern art: broadly, the followers of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and, related to them, the newer artists of the Aesthetic movement. In particular, the exhibition included work by Ruskin’s friend and protégé, Edward Burne-Jones, now at 43 at the height of his powers, and an American living in London, James McNeill Whistler. Burne-Jones was developing the timeless, mythical, symbolising agenda associated with the younger Pre-Raphaelites and the French Symbolists. The culmination of that strand of early modern art was to be in the blue and pink periods of Picasso – at which point, with the eruption of Cubism, it more or less disappeared.5 Whistler, who had previously worked in Paris, was part of the tendency that had recently given birth to Impressionism: an art dedicated to ordinary life understood in terms of its passing appearances. This other tradition was to be longer lived and, in the long term, could be said to culminate in abstract art. The Whistlers at the Grosvenor included the most radical paintings the artist had yet produced, a series of the paintings he called “nocturnes”, notable among them being the one painting he had marked up for sale – at 200 guineas – Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (c. 1875, oil on panel. Detroit Institute of Arts.). This picture was suggested by a glimpse of Cremorne pleasure gardens on the Thames, though it was not (so Whistler insisted) a “view” of them.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. c. 1875, oil on panel. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Nocturne in Black and Gold was undoubtedly the most daring painting Whistler had yet produced. Linda Merrill, in her book on the trial, describes it as

the most abstract, and thus the most difficult to comprehend, of all Whistler’s paintings. To many observers it looked like nothing but “a tract of mud,” as [the humorous magazine] Punch described it: “Above, all fog; below, all inky flood; For subject – it had none.”

To more discerning viewers, Nocturne in Black and Gold conveyed suggestions of the glitter and smoke of a falling rocket, a string of lights from a dance floor, and two of the four turrets that rose from the fireworks platform at Cremorne Gardens.6

The picture, it should be added, is predominantly dark, the colour consisting mainly of black, dark blue and dark green. The fireworks and other lights are evoked by flecks of light colour – orange, red, pink, yellow and green – the energy of the brushwork suggesting the momentariness of the illumination, though the “effects are achieved,” writes Richard Dorment, “not through spattering paint on the canvas, but by carefully painting in each separate fleck of colour”.7 One is conscious, that is to say, of the artist capturing the feeling of his subject in the texture of his paint. Such painterliness and so advanced a degree of abstraction was strikingly new, though not unprecedented. It is also characteristic of Ruskin’s hero, Turner, as Monet and Pissarro had learnt a few years previously during their stay in London. The impact of Turner’s late, near-abstract work is to be felt in such pictures as Monet’s Impression: Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant, 1873, oil on canvas. Musée Marmottan, Paris), which gave its name to Impressionism. As the originally contemptuous name suggests, it was as much Monet’s title as his picture that antagonised the public and the press. In much the same vein, Whistler’s use of musical terms in his titles – “nocturnes”, “harmonies” and “arrangements” – annoyed not only Ruskin but much of the general public. On the one hand they were pretentious, and on the other they seemed to justify sloppy techniques of painting. (It is perhaps worth noting that as soon as abstraction proper began, with Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian in the early twentieth century, such similar terms as “composition” and “improvisation” quickly became standard.)

Ruskin had paid his dues as a champion of avant-garde painting. His career had begun in 1843 with a defence of Turner’s late style; but there was something about the nocturnes that antagonised him. A little history is necessary here. Ruskin had spent the years 1843-1860 writing on art and architecture and producing his great masterpieces: Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice. In all that labour he had come to the conclusion that good art is the expression of a just and healthy society. If society is unjust, ugly and diseased, there is not much point in criticising art. Nineteenth-century society, in his view, was founded on a system of greed, competition and oppression of the poor. Inevitably these injustices infected its cultural artefacts. The critic’s role, in those circumstances, was to criticise society. So Ruskin wrote his critique of classical economic theory, Unto This Last, and became a writer on social questions, though often continuing to touch on art because art held up a mirror to society.

In 1870, Ruskin accepted, with some reluctance, an invitation to become the first Professor of Fine Art at a British university. To maintain his social criticism, he coupled his work as a lecturer with a series of monthly letters called Fors Clavigera. Ruskin had a genius for digression – or for drawing connections between things not normally related –and the form of the open letter provided the great polymath with a way of binding together his diverse preoccupations. The letter of 18th June 1877 (Letter 79) begins, characteristically, with a quotation from a correspondent:

“It is indeed a most blessed provision that men will not work without wages; if they did, society would be overthrown from its roots. A man who would give his labour for nothing would be a social monster.”

Ruskin being much concerned with just wages, the unfortunate correspondent was no doubt expecting him to agree. Instead, like several others in the same letter, he became a target for invective:

insignificant, person, is yet, it seems to me, worth preserving, as one of the myriad voices, more and more unanimous daily, of a society which is itself a monster; founding itself on the New Commandment, Let him that hateth God, hate his brother also. [Letter 79 (18th June 1877), Fors Clavigera (1871-1884), in 29.146]

The letter then proceeds, as so many of them do, to bemoan the various folly, selfishness and ignorance of the age. It includes what may seem a prophetic lament on the loss of a common mythology, both Biblical and Classical, and concludes with a review of the Grosvenor pictures. This is mainly devoted to Burne-Jones: a fulsome, though judiciously critical, passage of praise for an artist whose paintings on Biblical and Classical themes must have been related in Ruskin’s mind to the lament, though he leaves the connection to inference.9 His view of Whistler seems primarily intended to give his praise for Burne-Jones a critical context:

Lastly, the mannerisms and errors of [Burne-Jones’s] pictures, whatever may be their extent, are never affected or indolent. The work is natural to the painter, however strange to us; and it is wrought with utmost conscience of care, however far, to his own or our desire, the result may yet be incomplete. Scarcely so much can be said for any other pictures of the modern schools: their eccentricities are almost always in some degree forced; and their imperfections gratuitously, if not impertinently, indulged. For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. 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.

Such invective in late Ruskin is almost a reflex. But to Whistler it must have seemed peculiarly gratuitous. Though the two men had never met, there is evidence that Whistler had tried to arrange a meeting, which certainly suggests a degree of respect, and he might have expected the champion of Turner to sympathise with impressionistic experiment. Angered, and perhaps glimpsing a chance for publicity, he sued Ruskin for libel. Ruskin’s first reaction was to relish the opportunity of answering for himself in court: “the whole thing,” he wrote to Burne-Jones, “will enable me to assert some principles of art economy which I’ve never got into the public’s head by writing.”13 But in February 1878 he suffered a mental breakdown and his life for a time was deemed to be at risk. It was decided that he should not appear in court, his place being taken by Burne-Jones as chief witness for the defence.

In the event, the jury found in favour of Whistler but granted him only a farthing damages. This contemptuous award amounted to a statement that, though Ruskin’s remarks were technically libellous, Whistler in drawing attention to them had wasted the time of the court. What I want to do is to look closely at the language of Ruskin’s attack, always remembering its context, and having done so, to ask why what might be thought no more than a harsh review could be judged libellous. It is mostly moralistic language, we should notice: not technical or aesthetic. Whistler is guilty of “impertinence”, “ill-educated conceit”, “impudence” and, most significant of all, “wilful imposture”. The tone is authoritarian: this is the language of the schoolmaster reprimanding a lazy but over-confident pupil. Burne-Jones, by contrast, is the good pupil, who shows “the utmost conscience of care” and is “never affected or indolent” – unlike Whistler with his pretentious titles and contemptuously lazy manner of throwing paint around. Much of this, moreover, suggests the language of philistine popular journalism. To us – certainly to someone of my generation – the extraordinary phrase “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” – a typically memorable formulation from the great master of nineteenth-century prose – irresistibly recalls the attacks of the 1940s and 50s on Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.14 Ruskin thus appears before us – amazingly – as a vulgar populist, the sort of critic who condemns Picasso or Pollock as a fake, an impostor who will do anything to profit from a credulous public with more money than sense. Whistler, as Ruskin evokes him, is the Cockney con-man of popular stereotype, laughing (as the tabloid journalists say) all the way to the bank. There is, indeed, little doubt that Whistler was overcharging. Two hundred guineas would be, in today’s values, between thirty and forty thousand pounds sterling.

But my comparison of Ruskin to the popular journalist is peculiarly pungent here, for the young Ruskin had made his name attacking such journalists. He had embarked on Modern Painters to counter the accusation made in the press that Turner’s late paintings were the work of a madman. He had similarly defended the Pre-Raphaelites and, though Burne-Jones’s pictures are marked by qualities that set him apart from Whistler – craftsmanship, finish and patient application – he too was a figure from the avant-garde, ignored by the popular guardians of public taste. Much of the work he was now producing can also be understood as abstract art, including one of the best of the Grosvenor pictures, Venus’ Mirror. This is, of course, a figurative picture, and its method is far from painterly, but it has no discernible subject and can best be discussed as an “arrangement” of figures and colours.15

The Railway Station by William Powell Frith, RA. Signed and dated 1862. Royal Holloway,
University of London. [Click on the image to enlarge it and for further information.]

Under cross-questioning, Burne-Jones criticised Whistler for his lack of finish: for relying exclusively on his power to create “atmosphere” without bothering to delineate the subject of the picture (Merrill, p. 175 ). But he also said some things in praise of him. The champion of the philistine view was William Powell Frith, a skilful but shallow painter, who in the crowded canvases of ‘Derby Day’ and ‘The Railway Station’ had painted the most popular images of the day. Frith was no Ruskinian – he knew what the public liked and painted it for them – but he served the strategy of Ruskin’s counsel, Sir John Holker, whose forte was presenting the plain man’s view of things. Ruskin, however, was not, and never had been, a plain man, and a key difference between him and Frith emerged in a brief discussion of Turner’s art. Whistler’s counsel J.H. Parry, cross-questioning Frith, referred to Ruskin’s idolisation of Turner. Frith replied: “I believe Mr. Ruskin has a great estimate of Turner’s works. I think Turner should be an idol of all painters.” Parry then asked Frith if he knew Turner’s Snow Storm. Frith confirmed that he did.

PARRY: Are you aware that it has been described by a critic as “a mass of soapsuds and whitewash”? (Laughter)

FRITH: I am not.

PARRY: Would you call it a mass of soapsuds and whitewash?

FRITH: I think it very likely I should. (Laughter) When I say that Turner should be the idol of all painters, I refer to his earlier works and not to the period when he was half crazy and produced works about as insane as the people who admire them. (Laughter) … The Snow Storm was not one of Turner’s fine pictures. [Quoted Merrill, p. 178]

Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth by J. M. W. Turner. 1842. Oil on canvas.
The Turner Collection, Tate Britain, London.

There was deep irony in this exchange. Few people in the courtroom can have been aware that Ruskin had recently suffered a mental breakdown. Many were aware, however – one assumes it was Parry’s point – that the Snow Storm was one of the Turner paintings that Ruskin had praised most extravagantly (3.569-71). What Parry seemed to be asking was what the difference was between Turner’s painting and Whistler’s. Both of them were what we should now call “impressionistic”. Both of them – to argue from a twenty-first century perspective – were using the abstract qualities of paint to convey what Burne-Jones called “atmosphere”. In both pictures, as in Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, we are initially more conscious of the paint as paint than we are of what we come to recognise as the subject. We have to interpret it – or read it, as Ruskin might have said, conscious from his earliest book that (as he says there) painting is a language (3.87-92).

It is difficult not to suspect that, had Ruskin been in court, he would have argued against his own witnesses. Even Burne-Jones insisted: “I think complete finish ought to be the object of all artists, that they should not be content with anything that falls short of what for ages has been acknowledged as essential to perfect work” (Merrill, p. 172). Yet finish was something the later Turner neglected, so much so that we are unsure as to whether many of his most beautiful late pictures – the thin washes of Norham Castle, for instance – are anything more than sketches.11

Examples of Ruskin's highly finished work. Left to right: (a) A Compartment of the Baptistery,
. (b) Vercelli . (c) The Aigiulle Blaitiere [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Ruskin himself was even more prone to leaving his pictures unfinished. Many of his works are as elaborately finished as Burne-Jones’s and it is certainly true that he valued meticulous finish in certain types of painting. But not in all types. In his architectural drawings he had several different methods. His coloured drawing of “one compartment of the south-west façade of the Baptistery at Florence”, for instance, is described by Nicholas Penny as “unusual for Ruskin in its completeness”.12 It renders the grain and texture of the marble with extreme accuracy, though it is worth noting that the image itself is in a sense arbitrary. If it were a photograph, which it indeed resembles, we might think it was what a camera could frame at just that distance – so perhaps it is in that sense deliberately incomplete. His well-known drawing of the North-west Porch of St Mark’s, Venice, by contrast, is simply unfinished. Ruskin has painted what he needed to record and left the rest to our imaginations.

One of Ruskin's great “unfinished” works: Christ Church, Oxford .

Examples of Ruskin's unfinished work. Left to right: (a) Arches of the Apse of the Duomo, Pisa.
(b) Itri. (c) San Michele, Lucca [Click on these images for larger pictures.]

Part of what Burne-Jones was getting at, however, was the speed at which Whistler seems to have painted his Nocturnes. Ruskin’s objection to Whistler’s price is by implication an objection to his demanding lavish payment for shockingly little labour. Sir John Holker picked up this implication in the letter from Fors and occasioned the trial’s most celebrated moment. He asked Whistler: “Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?” “Oh,” Whistler replied, “I ‘knock one off’ possibly in a couple of days … one day to do the work and another to finish it.” Holker then pursued his implication:

HOLKER: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?

WHISTLER: No. I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime. [Merrill, 147-48]

Whistler’s bravado and wit seemed likely to knock a hole in Ruskin’s earnest philosophy of value. And yet earlier that same year – as one of Ruskin’s biographers, John Dixon Hunt, has pointed out – Ruskin had said something similar of Turner, so similar that Hunt wonders if Whistler might not have been studying it:

[A]ssuredly, from twenty minutes to half an hour was all the time that Turner gave to this drawing; – But, mind you, – the twenty minutes to half an hour, by such a master, are better in result than ten years’ labour would be – only after the ten years’ labour has been given first… [Emphasis Ruskin’s].13

Similarly, much has been made of Whistler’s supposedly pretentious titles, which Ruskin attacks in his written instructions to his Counsel. But the sorts of title he went in for – e.g. among the Grosvenor pictures, Arrangement in Brown (1876. oil on canvas. Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts) or Harmony in Amber and Black (now Portrait of Miss Florence Leyland, c. 1876, oil on canvas. Portland Museum of Art, Maine.) – may conceivably owe their origin to a passage from The Stones of Venice:

We are to remember, in the first place, that the arrangement of colours and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts. Good colouring does not necessarily convey the image of anything but itself. It consists in certain proportions and arrangements of rays of light, but not in likenesses to anything. A few touches of certain greys and purples laid by a master’s hand on white paper will be good colouring; as more touches are added beside them, we may find out that they were intended to represent a dove’s neck, and we may praise, as the drawing advances, the perfect imitation of the dove’s neck. But the good colouring does not consist in that imitation, but in the abstract qualities and relations of the grey and purple. [10.215-16]14

Ruskin is distinguishing, like a Modernist, between the paint on the canvas and what the paint is supposed to represent. Of course, it would not be difficult to find major differences between Whistler and Ruskin – for instance in their attitudes to nature and their general outlooks on life. What I am trying to show is that there were similarities so striking as to make Ruskin seem a likely defender of Whistler’s art and Whistler a possible student, if not disciple.15 Why then did Ruskin attack, and why did Whistler sue?

The key phrase in the original letter, it seems to me, is “wilful imposture”. In using it, Ruskin was impugning Whistler’s honour, not his skill as an artist. To Whistler, Ruskin had stepped outside the bounds of reasonable criticism and, in questioning his honour, was likely to damage his reputation. It cannot be doubted that Whistler had a case, and there is evidence that his career was indeed damaged. But the real difficulty we have to confront is this. Ruskin intended to impugn the painter’s honour and thought he was right to do so, for, as I began by saying, Ruskin could not and would not separate art from morality. If art was a language, Whistler was a liar.

To get the sense of Ruskin’s word “imposture” we might look at the first chapter of The Stones of Venice, in which he takes as emblem and evidence of the city’s fall a Renaissance tomb of 1478: that of Doge Andrea Vendramin, whose two-year reign he describes as “the most disastrous in the annals of Venice” (9.49-52). The pose of the Doge’s effigy seems designed to draw attention to the sculptor’s skill rather than to convey the subject faithfully, and, crucially, when Ruskin climbs – as was his custom – to the top of the tomb to examine the sculptural detail, he finds that only the visible side of the body has been carved.

[S]uch utter coldness of feeling [he declares] … could only consist with an extreme of intellectual and moral degradation: Who, with a heart in his breast, could have stayed his hand as he drew the dim lines of the old man’s countenance – unmajestic once, indeed, but at least sanctified by the solemnities of death – could have stayed his hand, as he reached the bend of the grey forehead, and measured out the last veins of it at so much the zecchin?

There then follow some remarks of general disparagement on the monument as a whole before Ruskin delivers the final bombshell, italics reserved for the final sentence:

But now, reader, comes the very gist and point of the whole matter. This lying monument to a dishonoured doge, this culminating point of the Renaissance art of Venice, is at least veracious, if in nothing else, in its testimony to the character of its sculptor. He was banished from Venice for forgery in 1487 [Emphasis Ruskin’s].

There is, of course, more than a touch of melodrama here. And yet surely Ruskin is right to see in it the passing of the Middle Ages: the point of transition from a time when the artist’s first audience was the One who sees all to an era ruled by commercial interests: an era in which the artist will charge as much as he can for the minimum of labour he can get away with. The comparison with Whistler is surely clear, and Ruskin’s insistence on the “lying monument …veracious … in its testimony to the character” of a forger is a necessary gloss on the accusation of imposture.

In his instructions to his counsel, Ruskin comes close to drawing the comparison himself, his justification being that his criticism of Whistler is entirely consistent with everything he had taught from the outset about art.

[I]n flourishing periods [he writes], whether of trade or of art, the dignity of operative merchant and artist was held alike to consist in giving, each in their several fashion, good value for money and a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wages. The nineteenth century may perhaps applaud itself on the adulteration of its products and the slackness of its industries; but it ought at least to instruct the pupils of its schools of Art, in the ancient code of the Artist’s honour, that no piece of work should leave his hands, which his diligence could further complete, or his reflection further improve, and in the ancient decision of the Artist’s pride, that his fame should be founded not on what he had received, but on what he had given. [Merrill 292-93]16

Here the telling word is “adulteration”. From Unto This Last onward, the adulteration of produce is for Ruskin the symptom of the competitive system’s sickness: the merchant who cares more for his profit than the quality of his goods and the dishonour he might incur by adulterating them stands condemned, as does the system that encourages his practice. Adulteration to the merchant or tradesman is forgery to the artist, both driven by competition to betray their noble calling.

This then is the judgement of Whistler: that his art is skimped, rushed on to the market incomplete and unconsidered, and offered at a price that dishonours his calling. The aesthetic judgement and the political one blend into a single denunciation. This is why a letter that begins with the “social monster” who will do nothing without the prospect of gain reaches its climax in what might have been thought the review of an exhibition.

Nevertheless, this still does not tell us why Ruskin was so sure that “the experience of a lifetime” justified Turner’s bravura experiments but not Whistler’s. One simple explanation is the obvious one: that Whistler was simply not as good as Turner – not as skilful, not as observant, not as profound – and therefore had no right to the licence we grant to genius. It would be hard to dispute that, and yet for many of us there is much in Whistler that is marvellous, which Ruskin ought to have noticed. There have been many attempts to answer this. It has been suggested, for instance, that Ruskin responded neurotically to dark paintings with points of illumination.17 It is certainly true that Ruskin loved brightness, the cloudless cerulean blue of Quattrocento religious art for instance, and that he was appalled by the emphatic chiaroscuro of the seventeenth century – amazingly, for example, by that of Rembrandt, a painter who shared something of his own Christian humanism. In Whistler’s case, this may have been exacerbated by the subject. Cremorne Gardens on the south bank of the Thames was notoriously decadent, well-known as a resort for prostitution – as Sir John Holker reminded the court.18 The brief and wasteful illumination of fireworks over the darkness of such a place may have been for Ruskin the very image of decadent hedonism, moral corruption and spiritual emptiness. If he had read Walter Pater, then regarded as the most corrupting of modern thinkers, he may have been reminded of those sentences that evoke the ephemerality of life: “With this sense of the splendour of our experience and its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.”19 Ruskin, by contrast, had early in his career set theoria above aesthesis – contemplation above sensation – as the touchstone for true appreciation of art (“Of the Theoretic Faculty”, 4.25-28). Pater, writing the sentence I have quoted, may have had Ruskin’s argument in mind. Ruskin would certainly have wanted the particulars he experienced with the same intensity as Pater and Whistler to add up to something – not so much a theory as an apprehensible meaning, moral or religious.

He may also have understood Whistler’s method of painting. Living in Chelsea beside the Thames, with Cremorne not far away on the other bank, Whistler became obsessed with the river at night, its ceaseless flow and the brief illuminations of its darkness: not just the fireworks, but the afterglow of the sunset, the riding lights of a boat, a gas lamp on the opposite bank, the stars and their reflections in the water. He would hire a boatman to row him along the river through the night and, back in his studio, would sketch his memories of what he had seen in the first light of day. By the end of the next day he would have turned the sketch into a Nocturne. In other words, he was engaged in a subjective process. It was not a matter of seeing what was there and humbly acknowledging the wonders of nature, as it had been for Turner and still was for Ruskin. Whistler in his writings – to épater les bourgeois and incense the admirers of Ruskin – was wont to disparage nature in the interests of art.20 But the fact is that Whistler was not painting nature at all, but recording, and reflecting on, his own interior world. What appalled Ruskin was the loss of a world out there, the fabulous gift to man from a loving God.

But the history has an ironical conclusion. In the splashes and painterly roughness of Nocturne in Black and Gold, one can glimpse the beginnings of the bravura tradition of abstraction, hinted at in the vast water-lily paintings of Monet’s last years, launched as a new method around 1910 by Kandinsky and reaching its logical conclusion in the large gestures of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. In the prophetic phrase “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, I want to argue, Ruskin foresees this movement and, indeed, to some degree sympathises with it. His own work in watercolour can point at times in something like that direction.21 His most intense insights often emerged in this way, such that what he first perceived with sympathy came in time to appal him. He is often most acute in insight when most at odds with his subject. Yet there is also an irony here. Whistler and Pater were what Ruskin would have called infidels, and their work was continued in England by, for instance, the Bloomsbury Group with Roger Fry as its theoretician. But this was not true of the artists who accepted the logic of full abstraction. Kandinsky and the founders of geometrical abstraction, Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich, thought of abstract painting as a means of religious expression. Kandinsky actually wrote a book on these matters and called it On the Spiritual in Art.22 It was a view continued by several of the Americans, notably by Barnett Newman, an orthodox Jew, and Mark Rothko. Pollock with his Freudian obsessions falls somewhere between Whistler and his fellow Abstract Expressionists, but what makes his fountains of colour so beautiful is not so much the dark of the unconscious as the power of art to free us from ourselves. In such a painting as Full Fathom Five of 1947 — a painting now in the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y. that employs oil on canvas with nails, tacks, buttons, key, coins, cigarettes, matches etc, — its turbulence recalling that of the sea, Pollock is as true to divine nature as Turner was, even though he sometimes seems to be throwing his coils and lashes of paint in the public’s face.

Last modified 1 May 2024