This Painting Shaped How We View Modern Art
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This Painting Shaped How We View Modern Art

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This Painting Shaped How We View Modern Art

Paul Thomas Murphy is an author and was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Fact Crime. He holds advanced degrees in Victorian Studies from Oxford and McGill Universities and the University of Colorado, where he taught both English and writing on interdisciplinary topics.

Below, Paul shares five key insights from his new book, Falling Rocket: James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art. Listen to the audio version—read by Paul himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, one of the most recognizable American paintings, is also one of the least understood.

For most of his career, James Whistler was known for his unorthodox use of musical terms to title his paintings—Symphony, Harmony, Caprice, Note, Scherzo, Nocturne. He did that to draw attention to their harmonious interplay of color and form and draw attention away from context. He asked viewers to see his work as beautiful in itself and not as a representation of something beautiful. But these attempts to educate his public generally failed. They saw his titles as, at best, amusing, more often bewildering, and in any case, wrongheaded in not spelling out the painting’s subject.

The painting that was to become his most famous he titled in this way, calling it Arrangement in Grey and Blacknot “Whistler’s Mother.” Though he did give a nod to his subject in a subtitle—Portrait of the Painter’s Mother—he considered that his personal relationship with his subject should mean little to any viewer. “To me,” he claimed, “it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but what can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait?”

What they should care about, rather, was the limitation of his palette to the nearly monochromatic, creating a dance of blacks, greys, and whites, the sharp horizontals and verticals of his studio softened by the diagonals and subtle curves of the human form. Arrangement in Grey and Black was a painting designed to evoke, not to reflect: it was art for its own sake.

“Art,” claimed Whistler, “should be independent of all clap-trap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like.” In his day, however, few saw it that way. And few do today, many more seeing in the work the reassuringly traditional rather than the strikingly innovative. If we get so caught up in the claptrap as to miss the technical power of the painting, we fail Whistler exactly as his contemporaries did.

2. While Whistler’s Falling Rocket pointed the way to abstractionism, Whistler never did—and never could—paint an abstract.

“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,” thundered John Ruskin against James Whistler in the review that triggered the lawsuit Whistler v. Ruskin. His complaint against Whistler and his painting Falling Rocket was a simple one: the work was non-representative—or, to put it another way, it was an abstraction, and therefore was to Ruskin incoherent, and not art at all, as Ruskin understood art.

It’s easy to conclude that Ruskin had a point. With Falling Rocket, Whistler did attempt to paint a fireworks show in a local pleasure garden in the deepest night. But, as Whistler himself admitted, anyone hoping to see any scene in his painting would be disappointed. For Whistler never sought to represent nature in his work. Rather, he sought to improve upon nature, arguing that “Nature is very rarely right.” Whistler needed the forms and colors of nature in order to create, but he did not simply reproduce those forms and colors on canvas; he manipulated them in order to produce something greater.

“For Whistler never sought to represent nature in his work. Rather, he sought to improve upon nature.”

That manipulation can be seen in Falling Rocket, where profound darkness melts solid forms—people, trees, structures—into hints and whispers, leaving only the brilliant fireworks to indicate the vibrant life within the gloom. As Whistler’s friend Théodore Duret wrote of Whistler’s Nocturnes, “He attained to that extreme region, where painting, having become vague, in taking one more step would fall into absolute indefiniteness and could no longer say anything to the eyes.” With Falling Rocket, Whistler reached the very threshold of abstraction. But because he depended upon nature for inspiration, that one step across the threshold was one he could not take.

3. While shaping the course of modern art, Whistler also shaped the image of the modern artist.

Realizing early on that he could never succeed by the rules of the Victorian art establishment, Whistler spent a lifetime battling it. He did his best to control the market, shunning traditional venues for those that would serve him and frequently mounting his own shows. As his reputation grew, he played gallery owners against one another. He became a master at selling himself to sell his art. He established close contacts with the newspapers in order to promote his work, attack his critics, and broadcast his self-promoting bon mots. His endless supply of highly-reported wit—including his famous back-and-forth with Oscar Wilde—made him one of London’s celebrities.

He put that celebrity to use in 1885 in giving his Ten O’clock lecture, in which he essentially declared himself the one great artist of his age. He turned enmity into an art form—bashing the critics, assaulting fellow artists, pushing his brother-in-law through a plate glass window, suing Ruskin and others—and documenting it all in his bestselling book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. To him, all publicity was indeed good publicity.

Frederick Leyland, the shipping mogul who was once Whistler’s greatest patron but became his bitterest enemy, summed it up best, accusing Whistler in 1877 of being “a man who had degenerated into nothing but an artistic Barnum.” The artist as showman: that is something perfectly understandable in the age of Warhol, Koons, or Banksy. But the Victorians never quite knew what hit them.

4. When in later life John Ruskin repeatedly accused his readers of not understanding him, he was largely right.

John Ruskin suffered from his having written too much. The problem was not with his enormous output; the Victorians were far less bothered by limitless prose than we tend to be. Rather, it was the diversity of his writing that confused and even annoyed his readers. After establishing himself as an art critic, he turned to writing on botany, geology, ornithology, prosody, history, and theology—and in 1860, he made his most notorious disciplinary shift, venturing into social criticism with his Unto This Last, an invective against the orthodox political economics of the day. That was to Ruskin “the beginning of the days of reprobation,” and the cause of his frequent reproaches that no one understood him. In this, he was largely right. For few could understand that his later work was an extension of his art criticism and not a divergence from it.

“He had become a seer, committed to teaching others to see the spiritual in the material as he did.”

In 1833, Ruskin experienced his “Schaffhausen moment.” Coming upon the Alps for the first time, he was thunderstruck by the sight of nature burning with spiritual motion: he considered himself as gazing upon the face of God. “I went down that evening from the garden-terrace of Schaffhausen,” he remembered, “with my destiny fixed in all of it that was to be sacred and beautiful.” He had become a seer, committed to teaching others to see the spiritual in the material as he did. Every sentence he published after that moment can—and should—be read as an instruction upon seeing correctly—not just seeing the artwork, or the bird, or the plant, or the human being, but seeing the spirit in motion within each of them.

Viewed in this way, it becomes clear that Unto this Last simply extends his thinking about the spiritual in art to thinking about the spiritual in human interaction. To him, the progression from his Schaffhausen moment to art criticism to social criticism was a simple one. But it was a progression, he realized to his dismay, that few others could comprehend.

5. Whistler v. Ruskin might have been a joke from beginning to end, but the humor and absurdity in the trial served a serious purpose and had serious consequences.

From the moment the British public realized that James Whistler was suing John Ruskin because of a bad review, they looked forward to a grand entertainment—a great battle of wits between two of London’s cultural titans and master wordsmiths. And though that head-to-head confrontation did not come to pass, the widely-reported trial proved to be as entertaining as the millions hoped it would be, as many of the trial’s participants—witnesses, lawyers, even the judge—played to the crowd for laughs. Emerging as the clear winner in that free-for-all battle of wits was Whistler, who, in giving the performance of his life, vindicated himself and his art to the widest audience he would ever reach.

But most entertaining of all, perhaps, was the paltry judgment of one farthing for Whistler. Punch magazine had a field day with this absurdity, and the public was amused. But that verdict would have serious consequences for both Whistler and Ruskin: it ensured that the battle between them would continue. Whistler, realizing that his pyrrhic victory did little in the short run to heighten his success as an artist, would spend the rest of his life pursuing the ascendency of his art. And Ruskin, seeing his loss as a serious challenge to his authority, set out upon an ultimately tragic quest to regain his stature as art’s arbiter. The verdict in Whistler v. Ruskin, then, extended what was a two-day battle into the battle of two lifetimes.

To listen to the audio version read by author Paul Thomas Murphy, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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