John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the 19th century, was outraged by the painting James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in London in 1877. He claimed it was a bare-faced cheat. "I have seen and heard much of Cockney impudence before now," Ruskin wrote in his review, "but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
Whistler was no cockney; he was an American, in fact, but Ruskin probably used "cockney" to mean lower class. As for "coxcomb," it wasn't the first time Whistler had been called a conceited fop and it could hardly have much bothered him. What cut him was the famous critic's suggestion that his art was worthless. He was intensely proud of his work; Oscar Wilde claimed that Whistler spelled the word "art" with a capital "I."
So Whistler sued Ruskin for £1,000, and Whistler v. Ruskin became the most famous lawsuit in art history, a struggle between two giants in Victorian London, much discussed since and celebrated in a fine book, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin (1992), by Linda Merrill. The picture at the centre of it, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, has been lent to the Turner Whistler Monet exhibition at the AGO by the Detroit Institute of Arts, which rarely allows it to travel.
Ruskin's animus may have contained a personal element, perhaps some jealousy. He had always been the leading supporter of Turner as England's national painter. Now the Yankee Whistler was moving in on Ruskin territory, praising Turner's greatness, borrowing Turner's Thames River subject matter and even (especially in the exquisite Nocturne in Black and Gold) refining and advancing Turner's style and technique.
The trial became both a media event and a seminar on art. Whistler's side made the now familiar argument that a painting was about nothing but itself; what matters, his barrister argued, is formal structure and harmony, not subject matter. Ruskin believed art should have moral force. The court heard arguments about the rights and duties of critics and the role of workmanship in art.
Ruskin's barrister asked Whistler how long it took him to "knock off" a picture. Whistler said this one was completed in a day or two. Barrister: "The labour of two days, is that for which you asked two hundred guineas?" Whistler: "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."
Whistler won, but received derisory damages of just one farthing, a quarter of a penny. While Ruskin's friends paid his legal expenses, Whistler went bankrupt covering his own. Eventually, however, he had his revenge. Years later, when his reputation had grown, he sold the offending picture for £800, about four times what Ruskin said it was not worth.