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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.
This Snow Sculpture of a Car Was So Convincing Cops Tried to Write It a Ticket
Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.
Photo composite, Mental Floss. Car, ticket, Simon Laprise. Background, iStock.

Winter is a frustrating time to be on the road, but one artist in Montreal has found a way to make the best of it. As CBS affiliate WGCL-TV reports, his snow sculpture of a DeLorean DMC-12 was so convincing that even the police were fooled.

Simon Laprise of L.S.D Laprise Simon Designs assembled the prank car using snow outside his home in Montreal. He positioned it so it appeared to be parked along the side of the road, and with the weather Montreal has been having lately, a car buried under snow wasn’t an unusual sight.

A police officer spotted the car and was prepared to write it a ticket before noticing it wasn’t what it seemed. He called in backup to confirm that the car wasn’t a car at all.

Instead of getting mad, the officers shared a good laugh over it. “You made our night hahahahaha :)" they wrote on a fake ticket left on the snow sculpture.

The masterpiece was plowed over the next morning, but you can appreciate Laprise’s handiwork in the photos below.

Snow sculpture.

Snow sculpture of car.

Snow sculpture of car.

Note written in French.

[h/t WGCL-TV]

All images courtesy of Simon Laprise.


More from mental floss studios