Affronted by The Falling Rocket, John Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” in the Fors Clavigera. As a leading art critic of the Victorian era, Ruskin’s harsh critique of The Falling Rocket caused an uproar among owners of otherWhistler works. Rapidly, it became shameful to have a Whistler piece, pushing the artist into greater financial difficulties. With his pride, finances, and the significance of his Nocturne at stake, Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in defence. In court, he asked the jury to not view it as a traditional painting, but instead as an artistic arrangement. In his explanation, he insisted that the painting was a representation of the fireworks from the Cremorne Gardens.
Sir John Holker: What is the subject of Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket?
Whistler: It is a night piece and represents the fireworks at Cremorne Gardens.
Sir John Holker: Not a view of Cremorne?
Whistler: If it were a view of Cremorne it would certainly bring about nothing but
disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is an artistic arrangement.
Sir John Holker: You send them to the Gallery to invite the admiration of the public?
Whistler: That would be such a vast absurdity on my part that I do not believe I could.
Sir John Holker: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How
soon did you knock it off?
Whistler: I beg your pardon?
Sir John Holker: I’m afraid I used a term that applies perhaps rather to my own work. I
should have said, “How long did it take you to paint that picture?”
Whistler: Oh no! Permit me. I am too greatly flattered to think that you apply to a work of
mine any term you are in the habit of using with reference to your own. Let us say, then, how
long did I take to “knock it off” – I think that’s it – to knock off that Nocturne. Well, as I
remember – about a day. I may have put a few touches to it the next day if the painting were
not dry. I had better say, then, that I was two days at work on it.”
Sir John Holker: The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.