In his lifetime, James Abbot McNeill Whistler was a highly controversial artist often reviled by peers and critics for his concepts, his art objects, his spectacle and his personality. However, he was also a profoundly influential painter. His ideas about form and content became highly fashionable, and they continue to direct some of our own contemporary thinking.
Kicked out of West Point, rebellious in manner, style, and dress and living with his mistress, Whistler provoked an early scandal with his 1861/62 painting Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. This painting was exhibited in the 1863 Salon des Refusés where it attracted more controversy than even Monet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.. Observing it today, you'd hardly understand why. To better understand some of the changes in visual art and society that occurred during the 19th century, research the history of those two paintings.
Whistlers historical coup de grâce is his 1871 painting titled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, commonly known as "Whistler's Mother". This painting has become one of the most iconic paintings ever produced by an American-born painter. It's been called the "Victorian Mona Lisa", but when it was first shown it was nearly refused by committee and described as a cold, empty and incoherent portrait. Critics ravaged the painting, in particular the stark and unnatural depiction. It's modern minimal tonal scheme reflects a contemptuous disregard for sentiment or the conventional color arrangements popular in the Victorian era. Whistler would soon, along with his concepts and paintings, clash head-on with another famous Modern art theorist and moral crusader of the time named John Ruskin.
John Ruskin was a 19th century writer, critic and painter who unseated the Vasarian version for progress in art that had held court for the several preceding centuries. Ruskin wrote a series of volumes titled "Modern Painters" in which he offered a complex if sometimes self-contradicting philosophy of art. Substantially, Ruskin argued that the highest goal for a Modern painter should be the essential observation and expression of Nature as-is; to look into the very heart of Nature and to capture an 'impression' of it's "specific character" as contemplated through the artist's own temperament. Then to represent that impression just-so without manipulating it through convention, formulaic device or prescribed artifice. This approach to art making favored by Ruskin was decidedly anti-Academic, and anti-Classicist. Ruskin decided that the principles of Academic artifice and design were to be made subservient to Nature, instead of the other way around. Ruskin reached backward in time for a greater aesthetic value. In other writing, his architectural treatise The Stones of Venice championed Gothic Architecture as of a superior sublime spiritual purity, "greatness" by it's "strange disquietitude", as compared to the 'Beautiful' of the Classical style of Architecture. A study of his theories regarding Typical Beauty and Vital Beauty illuminates the nuances in his worldview.
Ruskin's effort promoted interest in the Italian Primitive artists. He believed that while not as technically proficient as artists like Michelangelo, the efforts of many of the earlier primitives such as Giotto were more perfectly and authentically 'felt' and executed compared to what was done by later artists. Ruskin thought that the art production of the High Renaissance and generally anything made post-Raphael was mostly corrupt, decadent and deceitful. The values Ruskin offered were widely embraced by Victorians and inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement, as well a group of English artists who would call themselves the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood".
The painter that initially moved Ruskin to begin putting his critical philosophy into writing for the first volume of "Modern Painters" was J.M.W. Turner. Considered an icon today, Turner's paintings were not always well received by critics. Multiple paintings by Turner had come under fire. One painting exhibited in 1842 and called Snow Storm--Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth... had been dismissed as "'soapsuds and whitewash". But Ruskin saw in Turners paintings the embodiment of his aesthetic theory, and he rose to Turner's defense. In the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, John Ruskin praised 'Snow Storm--' as being "one of the very grandest statements of sea-motion, mist, and light, that has ever been put on canvas."
At this point, Ruskin and Whistler do not seem so much at odds. Both rejected the rules and conceptual theory historically embraced by the Academics and Classicists. Below is the painting by Turner just mentioned, alongside a painting by Whistler called Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket. Click and enlarge these paintings. Do you notice any vast difference in form or content? How do they make you feel? Are they as deeply different forms as, say, a Giotto compared to a Vermeer?
"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.”
This insult would result in a libel lawsuit being placed by Whistler against Ruskin. This article by Erin Landry "Whistler v. Ruskin: Morality in Art Versus Aesthetic Theory" details the event and it's cause.
These two highly-visible 19th century Modern art advocates battled in 1878 not so much over 'form' itself, but because of a deep divide in philosophical viewpoint. What remains today from each of those two viewpoints is a muddled hybrid proposition that many painters today who consider themselves "traditional" or "classical" argue for when they champion 21st century representational painting as being in accord with an imagined linear historiography or 'point' of art. But this hybrid thinking isn't wholly accurate when applied to their imagined homogeneous principle that never actually existed. Because a piece of artwork is representational vs. non-objective does not by default make it "traditional", and certainly not automatically "Academic" or "Classical", in any sense of those terms.
At the heart of the aesthetic principle guiding John Ruskin is a deep tangle of religiosity and socialism reflecting a core belief that Nature as given to man from God cannot be improved upon in any further aspect by man. Therefore, an artist most moral pursuit is to capture the specific character and essence of any object found in Nature ("be it man, beast or flower") and communicate that character as perfectly as possible without alteration. For Ruskin, this was a moral issue, and he had spent his entire lifetime fighting for a Godly moral cause for art. Ruskin was one of the most influential writers on art of any time, a critical contributor who shaped the Victorian worldview on art, so inescapably shaping our own current perception. The lingering element of Ruskin's Victorian naturalist-moralizing that many painters still labor under is, to quote Ruskin, "Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.”
On the other hand, Whistler believed that: "To say to the painter that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player that he may sit on the piano." While Whistler stated that art should not require a literary or intellectual foundation, he did believe in the necessity of design and artifice to evoke emotion and convey imagination and artistic intention. He understood and employed device and convention to arrange and alter nature sufficiently to suit his artistic vision. But the lingering element of James Whistler's thinking still alive and well in the 21st century which was a far greater threat to John Ruskin's values than the arrangement and forced servitude of nature, was Whistler's incontrovertible belief that art should serve no moral or social cause whatsoever beyond pure, unadulterated, aesthetic pleasure: “Art 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.”
Prior to the 19th century, neither of these two ideas existed as stand-alone philosophies in support of art production. As systems, they are 19th century inventions. Art holds a history of ideas, the history of ideas as represented through their forms. The imagination and intellect of the creator, as well as the society that molded that imagination and intellect, is reflected in an art form. No art is 'idea-less'. Even Whistlers concept that a painting should be considered only for the pleasurable visual experience of abstract color and form and no other reason, is a specific (and at one time radical), idea.
Today, you will often encounter the argument that 20th century Modern and Contemporary art are the culprits that destroyed 'traditional' art. It's often said 20th century art is all about 'nihilism', or the abandonment and rejection of "tradition" or "craft" or "Goodness". Some mockingly refer to the 20th century as the "age of 'ism's'". Some believe it's all the fault of people like Marcel Duchamp or Clement Greenberg. But when one encounters this type of attitude, you may be dealing with someone with incomplete knowledge of art-historical production and theoretical practice stretching back to the Early Modern period. More accurately, the century experiencing the most fracture in theoretical art production since the Quattrocento and that first produced the first multiple art 'ism's' was the 19th century.
Beyond standard textbook fare such as "Impressionism" and "Realism", enough of these societal and artistic 'revolutions' occurred that the effect was to wholly unseat the four century reign of Academic Art production(c. 1500s–1900s). Much of this started long before the Armory Show, which was only a reflection of that change. The roots of Modern Art stretch back into the 18th century and earlier. A focus on the underlying causes of Romanticism and Naturalism developed strength in the early part of the 19th century, ultimately catalytic for the first art movements which were given names by observers. For one example of these events, consider the movement Les Arts Incohérents. That art movement took place five years before Marcel Duchamp was born.
The two theories as championed by Whistler or Ruskin are Modern ideas, and only fractionally relate to the comprehensive thought that guided art production from painters like Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Pouissin, Watteau, Reynolds or even their own relative contemporaries such as David, Gérôme, Ingres or Delacroix. Dramatically, these two 19th century men contributed to the abandonment of long-held Academic and Classical art theory and design principles established during the Renaissance, Baroque and subsequent eras. Both Whistler and Ruskin believed in a Modern Art, and both campaigned vigorously for a Modern Art, but their particular disagreement was over what a Modern Art should actually represent.
In 2013, we are witness to a revitalization of traditional atelier training occurring on an international level, and some of the proponents of this painting revival seek to support their efforts through public campaigns against the nihilism or immoral action they view as present in contemporary art. However, when these painters campaign against Modern or Post-War Art in order to support the representational painting model they imagine aligns with historic Academic theory and practice, they often employ these very specific Modern arguments of the 19th century. They proselytize using the very arguments that led to the disintegration of the Academic practice they wish to defend. Irrational? Immoral? At the least, unaware.
If you call yourself a traditional painter or "classical realist" painter yet you believe that a painting should not have to be 'about' any literary concept or otherwise intellectual, then you are a devotee of the 19th century nihilist Modernism of James Whistler. If you believe that the epitome of representational art is capturing the essence of Nature as fervently, accurately and as essentially as possible, then you are a devotee of the 19th century nihilist Modernism of John Ruskin.
If you are a painter who imagines that you are working today according to some long-valued philosophy of art aligned with historic Academic principles or Classical theory simply because you paint "stuff that looks like stuff"; if you believe that a painting must represent the essence of Nature as accurately as possible; if you think that a painting need only be about the aesthetic pleasure of color, form and harmony and that it doesn't matter what you paint as long as it evokes emotion; if you believe any of these things, then congratulations: you are a nihilist Modernist painter, first order. Because these views historically are anti-Academic and anti-Classical. No matter what you call yourself, and whether you know it or not. Ironic, isn't it.
Happy Mothers Day.