The ‘Atlas’ and the Butterfly
For the American-born artist James McNeill Whistler, the pursuit of an audience for his art was central during the years 1878–88. Whistler’s artistic credo was based on the romantic notion of the artist as detached outsider; art was ‘selfishly occupied with her own perfection only – having no desire to teach.’1 Having distanced himself from didactic currents in Victorian art, he attempted to explain his views. His pamphlet ‘Harmony in Blue & Gold: The Peacock Room’ (1877) defined the strictly formal relationship between each element of his celebrated decorative scheme for the Liverpool ship-owner Frederick Leyland.2 In November 1878, his libel suit against the critic and social reformer John Ruskin placed him firmly in the public spotlight and highlighted his controversialist status. Despite Ruskin’s absence from the courtroom due to illness, it brought into focus the most contentious issues in Victorian art – pictorial content versus aesthetic value; labour and finish versus artistic effect. A middle-class Victorian public became intrigued with the personalities and aura of celebrity about the case, and the press coverage was overwhelming.3 The press provided a ready platform for Whistler’s views, and journalistic context became a significant factor in projecting his modernist aesthetic on a middle-class audience puzzled by the abstract qualities of his art. Bankrupted by the Ruskin case, exiled to Venice from 1879 to 1880, and having quarrelled with Leyland, his most important patron, Whistler aimed to exploit the acerbic public persona known to audiences from the trial. The trial, as Whistler later privately agreed, had been a valuable ‘advertisement’4 upon which he hoped to capitalise.
KeywordsDine Editing Sonal Avant Barb
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