Reputation: Art & Artists 

Last month’s column explored the fragility of the public reputation of art business professionals in the digital age, highlighting how traditional laws of defamation are invariably unfit for the purposes of deterring or preventing social media ‘outing’ of unacceptable behaviour.

Alongside this, there is the issue of artists’ professional reputations – their formation, nature, their influence, and what if anything can be done to protect or enhance them. Ever since the development of authorship and attribution in art practice, there has been a vexing question of the relationship between the reputation of artists as authors and the separate but interlinked reputation of their works.

Surviving records and artefacts of art’s history show, for example, that in the manufacturing industry of Classical Athens (circa 6 BCE) Sophilos the potter and vase painter in the black-figure style was probably the first to inscribe his signature: ‘sofilos me grafsen’ (Sophilos drew me). His vases and/or reputation were widely prized throughout the Mediterranean, and other potters and painters followed suit by signing their work.

During the Italian Renaissance, signing of works by painters and sculptors became increasingly common practice as their individual reputations and celebrity were identified separately from the traditional co-operative guild systems of production. As ever, competition for patrons by artists (and vice versa) was fierce, and artists’ signatures identified authorship and added value. Albrecht Dürer’s famous ‘AD’ logo was always endorsed prominently on his works, and he jealously guarded his ‘trademark’ by bringing successful lawsuits against abusers of his mark in Nuremberg and Venice to protect his ‘brand’ and market.

In the 17th century, chiefly during the Golden Age of art and architecture in the Netherlands and during the Qing Dynasty in China, artists were increasingly originating autonomous – rather than commissioned – works on a speculative basis and offering them for sale the open market. By the 19th century, signatures of artists on the face of works became not only normal practice but often bold statements of their authorship and ‘brand identity’. Gary Tinterow, curator of 19th century European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, comments: ‘Next time you come across one of Gustave Courbet’s grand pictures … like Young Women from the Village (1852) … make note of the brilliant vermilion “G. Courbet” placed squarely in the lower left corner. It’s in European, especially French, paintings destined for the great Salons that the signature became a function of the intended display of the piece. If you’re Courbet, you use a great big red signature so people can identify it from far below – and from among hundreds of paintings hung cheek by jowl.’

As the art market developed so did the importance of signatures, which could determine and/or add market value to a work and vice versa. As Tom Rooth, director at Christie’s, has explained: ‘Either a painting has been created to imitate an artist’s work, together with a mimicked signature, or someone might add a signature to a picture at a later date, in order to deceive, and increase value – sometimes significantly’. The art market has recently adopted a related requirement that works be traded together with authenticity certificates ideally signed by the artist –  especially for works made in non-traditional materials and media. But reports are now emerging of certificates themselves being faked or forged, and this is stimulating innovative research and development into using more reliable authentication methods and devices, including blockchain technology and forensic science techniques.

The reputation of works is interlinked with the adjacent question of an artist’s reputation as author. The well-established reputation and standing of a living professional artist in the contemporary art world can be damaged through publication of criticism of their works. But whether such criticism amounts to legal defamation of the professional character and reputation of the artist is a fiendishly vexing question. And it is a question that art critics and publishers and artists would be wise to avoid at all costs for one key reason: the landmark artlaw suit of Whistler v Ruskin at London’s High Court in 1878.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1872-75, was painted by James Whistler in oil on canvas. The subject was a night-time firework display over Battersea Bridge in London, executed in an impressionistic rather than the (then) orthodox representational style: it conveyed a sense of atmosphere, with glowing colours and drifting smoke against a dark sky. The work was first exhibited at London’s prestigious Grosvenor Gallery in a group show that included paintings by Pre-Raphaelite artists. The eminent critic John Ruskin published a review of the show in one of his popular pamphlets in July 1877. He lauded the Pre-Raphaelite works but lambasted Whistler: ‘For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, the Grosvenor Gallery 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 sales took a sharp downturn after Ruskin’s widely published attack. Whistler sued for libel, seeking £1,000 for damage to his artistic reputation. To do so, he and his lawyer had to convince the jury of his artistic abilities and standing. Study of Whistler’s cross-examination reveals the heart of Ruskin’s line of defence. Question: ‘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.’ Question: ‘Not a view of Cremorne?’ Answer: ‘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. That is why I call it a nocturne.’ Question: ‘Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off? Answer: ‘Oh, I knock one off possibly in a couple of days – one day to do the work and another to finish it.’ Question: ‘The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?’ Answer: ‘No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.’

The jury’s task was invidious: whether to recognise artistic merit in the (then) unorthodox ‘modern’ painting style of so-called Impressionism; and, if so, to place a monetary value on Ruskin’s damage to Whistler’s professional reputation. Ruskin was found guilty and ordered to pay one farthing in damages. Costs were borne by each party. Such derisory awards were commonplace at the time, whenever juries in civil trials were faced with ‘a delicate and ultimately insoluble legal dilemma’.

The courtroom is clearly the wrong place for a forensic fight over aesthetic merit. It has often been said over the intervening century that Whistler’s lawyers would have been wiser to claim (if at all) damage to Whistler’s sales of work (of which there was ample hard evidence following Ruskin’s public attack) rather than damage to his artistic competence. This is probably the last time an artist will sue a critic for defamation.

© Henry Lydiate 2018


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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.