The Review That Was So Harsh, James Whistler Sued His Critic (and Won)

L: Whistler, CC: Public Domain // R: Ruskin, CC: Public Domain

The mere act of an artist confronting a critic usually signals a victory for the latter party. The artist is removed from his or her perch, the playing field is leveled, and the art is no longer speaking for itself.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the eccentric 19th century American painter living in London, didn’t care about perches or the levelness of playing fields. When one of his paintings was torn to shreds in print, Whistler dragged the critic’s butt to court and sued him for libel.

It must be said that John Ruskin, Whistler’s critic, wasn’t your run-of-the-mill troll. Ruskin was a celebrated painter in his own right; he founded an eponymous school of drawing and fine art at Oxford and his watercolors still hang in the Tate and at the National Gallery in London. Marcel Proust idolized Ruskin and adored his writing, saying that "the beauty of his erroneous judgment is often more interesting than the beauty of the work being judged."

Proust wasn’t referring to Ruskin’s feud with Whistler there, but his quote is somewhat telling when put in the context of that contentious piece of criticism. Writing in Fors Clavigera [PDF], his periodical of "Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain," Ruskin issued a mixed review to the newly opened Grosvenor Gallery's collection in 1877. Even though some of the contemporary works on display earned praise, Ruskin spent the majority of his ink on scorching burns.

Nothing was safe from his criticism, not even the gallery’s fabrics ("The upholstery of the Grosvenor Gallery is poor in itself; and very grievously injurious to the best pictures it contains, while its glitter as unjustly veils the vulgarity of the worst"). Ruskin saved his sharpest and most condescending barbs for Whistler and his Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket, a modernist, abstract interpretation of a fireworks show over the Thames:

Public Domain // Collection of Detroit Institute of Arts

Unimpressed by the work, Ruskin gleefully dismissed Whistler as nothing more than a fraud:

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 willful 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.

Whistler’s mother didn’t raise no sucker, and the artist promptly sued Ruskin for libel. The case didn’t go to court until November 1878, the year-long delay due to Ruskin’s fragile mental health (he suffered a breakdown in the spring of 1878).

Ruskin couldn't appear in court because of his state, but that didn’t stop the two-day trial from becoming an obsessed-over sensation in London’s newspapers. Defending modern art as much as his libel claim, Whistler impressed while under cross-examination from Ruskin’s high-powered lawyer. When asked in a call-back to the original review if "the labor of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas," Whistler responded, "No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime."

The jury ruled in Whistler’s favor, agreeing that Ruskin went too far. But the decision amounted to little more than hollow validation. Whistler was awarded a farthing (a minuscule amount of money) and was forced to split court costs. Already having lived his life with an artist’s unfortunate knack for personal finance, Whistler was driven to bankruptcy by the trial. Ruskin, meanwhile, furious at the court’s decision, resigned from his post at Oxford.

It really was one hell of a review.

Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.


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