"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." So wrote the outraged art critic John Ruskin of artist James McNeill Whistler in the summer of 1877.
The artist known as “The Butterfly”, after his distinctive signature, railed: “It is the most debased style of criticism I have had thrown at me.” And so began a very public spat. One which culminated in a libel case that almost ruined the artist. However, as demonstrated by several copper-plate etchings to be offered at Sotheby’s London, he found salvation at The Fine Art Society on Bond Street.
Ruskin was commenting on a Whistler exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries on London’s Piccadilly. He considered the spare style too casual and unconsidered, too commercial even. He was particularly incensed about Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, in which Whistler paints fireworks exploding over the Thames. The stylized tinkle of pyrotechnics was, put mildly, not to the critic’s taste.
One imagines that he also didn’t like the cut of Whistler’s jib. Ruskin was sliding towards a nervous breakdown following the death of his great – but unrequited – love, Rose La Touche. Whereas Whistler was a carefree dandy-about-town sporting a monocle and a caustic wit.
Ruskin published his tirade in Fors Clavigera, a series of pamphlets produced on various social issues of the day. Whistler heard about the attack while socializing with friends in the smoking room of the Arts Club. He stormed out of the club to seek legal advice.
Whistler had his day in court and won. But he was awarded a derisory one farthing in compensation without costs. Sotheby’s print specialist, Jennifer Strotz, takes up the story: “The artist found himself destitute and essentially homeless in 1879 when the Fine Art Society, recognizing his talent as an etcher, commissioned him to produce a set of Venetian prints. Seeking to escape London society and start anew, Whistler seized the opportunity to move to Venice.”
In Italy he was reduced to eating in cheap trattorias. But he maintained that he would “turn copper into gold”. The prospecting worked and the venture reversed his fortunes. Three of those Venetian prints are now highlights of the landmark auction The Fine Art Society: 142 Years on New Bond Street.
Nocturne: Palaces is a triumph of pictorial minimalism, a near abstract composition of quarters: a canal reflected by the sky on the vertical, one palazzo mirrored by another on the horizontal.
More illustrative are two studies of the Rialto and the Riva. These dreamy scenes of the city’s commercial heart show sketchy figures mingling under shop awnings and spindly boats bobbing on their moorings. All three prints feature the artist’s ornamental signature, which turned his initials, JMW, into a butterfly in flight.
Whistler captured a crepuscular city in a modern manner. “Venice gave herself to him with an intimacy which was the reward of his patient wooing,” writes James Laver in his biography of Whistler. “And so his vision of the city and its inhabitants is both authentic and curiously his own.”
On Whistler’s return to London from Venice, the Fine Art Society put him up in a Mayfair studio, complete with a printing press, opposite the Café Royal, where he set about producing a hundred sets of his twelve etchings. A French housekeeper provided him with tea.
And yet, perhaps, the judgment of others was still on his mind. One day, towards the end of his printing, Whistler called his housekeeper up to his studio to get a layperson’s view on his thoroughly modern Venetian pictures. “Very nice, Mr Whistler,” she said. “But when are you going to finish them?”
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