Falling Rocket: James Whistler, John Ruskin, and the Battle for Modern Art

Pegasus. Dec. 2023. 432p. ISBN 9781639364916. $29.95. FINE ARTS
Victoriana scholar Murphy (Shooting Victoria; Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane) hits another bull’s-eye with this remarkable new title. The author relates a surprisingly overlooked true story about the generational conflict between the rigidly conservative London art world, personified by preeminent Oxford professor and art critic John Ruskin, and the impending ideas of modernism, as practiced by rambunctious American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler. Centered around a self-serving 1878 defamation lawsuit filed by Whistler after Ruskin’s scathing and brutally condescending review of a group of Whistler’s atmospheric paintings (including Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket), the story follows both men before, during, and after the public trial. Ruskin and Whistler both wrestle with their contrasting ideas of the role art should play in the world at large and their personal lives in miniature. Dense with detail at the beginning, the book quickly develops a coordinated rhythm that allows Murphy to capably illustrate a cultural inflection point and clearly describe the foundations of modern painting.
VERDICT Absorbing and informative, this title is cultural history at its best.
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