“The Labour of Two Days, Is That for Which You Ask Two Hundred Guineas!” “No; I Ask It for the Knowledge of a Lifetime.”

James McNeill Whistler? Pablo Picasso? John Ruskin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a famous painter once created a work of art in a very rapid and seemingly slipshod fashion. Yet the price assigned to the piece was exorbitant. The artist was asked why the price of the painting was so large when the time expended in its construction was so small. The reply was something like:

I am not asking this high price for a brief amount of work. I ask it for the knowledge gained during the efforts of a lifetime.

I have heard versions of this anecdote referring to James McNeill Whistler and Pablo Picasso. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1877 James McNeill Whistler exhibited several paintings including “Nocturne in Black and Gold” at the Grosvenor Gallery in London which was operated by Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wife. The famous art critic John Ruskin’s evaluation was extraordinarily harsh; the prices were absurdly high, and the technique was crude he maintained. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

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 wilful 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 believed that Ruskin’s remarks were libelous, and he initiated a court case against the critic. In 1878 “The Times” of London wrote about the trial and described Whistler’s testimony. The painter admitted that “Nocturne in Black and Gold” was completed quickly, but he believed it was still quite valuable: 2

Of course, he expected that his pictures would be criticized. The “Nocturne in Black and Gold” he knocked off in a couple of days. He painted the picture one day and finished it off the next. He did not give his pictures time to mellow, but he exposed them in the open air, as he went on with his work, to dry. He did not ask 200 guineas for two days’ work; he asked it for the knowledge he had gained in the work of a lifetime.

Whistler prevailed at trial, but the jury awarded him only the nominal sum of one farthing. In addition, the judge did not allow Whistler to recover the costs he incurred while arguing the lawsuit.

Whistler published a transcript of his remarks during the trial within his 1890 book “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”. See further below to read that text.

A thematically similar anecdote about Pablo Picasso is also circulating, and information about that topic is available here. Another pertinent tale called “Knowing where to tap” is examined here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1878 a collection of notes by Ruskin was released in book form. Ruskin discussed the drawings of J. M. W. Turner, an artist he often championed. Interestingly, Ruskin contended that a work created by Turner in twenty minutes would be superior to a work requiring ten years by an inexperienced artist. Hence, he supported a point that was comparable to the one made by Whistler: 3

But mind you—the twenty minutes to half an hour, by such a master, are better in result than ten years’ labour would be—only after the ten years’ labour has been given first: and while the pupil should copy these vignettes, that he may know what entirely first-rate work in water-colour is, he can only obtain a similar power in the proportion attainable by his own natural genius . . .

In 1879 a book reviewing the events of the previous year titled “The Annual Register” contained a description of the libel trial. The statements attributed to Whistler were slightly different. For example, the phrase “knowledge he had gained in the work of a lifetime” became the concise “studies of a lifetime”: 4

When I send pictures to exhibitions I expect they will be criticised. The “Nocturne in Blue and Gold” I knocked off in a couple of days. I painted the picture in one day, and finished it off the next day. I do not ask 200 guineas for a couple of days’ work; the picture is the result of the studies of a lifetime.

In 1890 Whistler published “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”, and he printed material from the trial including the following exchange between himself and Ruskin’s defense lawyer. The first line shows Whistler’s response when asked the price of “A Nocturne in Black and Gold”: 5

“It was marked two hundred guineas.”

“Is not that what we, who are not artists, would call a stiffish price?”

“I think it very likely that that may be so.”

“But artists always give good value for their money, don’t they?”

“I am glad to hear that so well established. (A laugh.) I do not know Mr. Ruskin, or that he holds the view that a picture should only be exhibited when it is finished, when nothing can be done to improve it, but that is a correct view; the arrangement in black and gold was a finished picture, I did not intend to do anything more to it.”

“Now, Mr. Whistler. Can you tell me how long it took you to knock off that nocturne?”

. …”I beg your pardon?” (Laughter.)

“Oh! I am afraid that I am using a term that applies rather perhaps to my own work. I should have said, How long did you take to paint that picture?”

“Oh, no! permit me, I am too greatly flattered to think that you apply, to work of mine, any term that you are in the habit of using with reference to your own. Let us say then how long did I take to—’knock off,’ I think that is it—to knock off that nocturne; well, as well as I remember, about a day.”

“Only a day?”

“Well, I won’t be quite positive; I may have still put a few more 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.”

“Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!”

“No;—I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.” (Applause.)

In conclusion, James McNeill Whistler did state that the value of a painting he had rapidly created stemmed from “the knowledge of a lifetime”. QI suggests employing the text given in Whistler’s 1890 book.

Image Notes: “Nocturne in Black and Gold” by James McNeill Whistler; Portrait of James McNeill Whistler circa 1872 titled “Arrangement in Gray: Portrait of the Painter”; both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons; both images have been cropped and resized.

(This article was inspired by posts on Quora and Snopes together with a twitter exchange about a Picasso anecdote. Great thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Josh Kramer, and Janice Chu whose tweets led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1879, The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad for the Year 1878, Part II, Remarkable Trials: Whistler v. Ruskin, Start Page 215, Quote Page 216 and 217, Rivingtons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1878 November 26, The Times, Whistler v. Ruskin: Before Baron Huddleston and a Special Jury, Quote Page 9, Column 2, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive of Gale Cengage)
  3. 1878, Notes by Mr. Ruskin on His Collection of Drawings by the Late J. M. W. Turner, Quote Page 123 and 124, The Fine Art Society, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1879, The Annual Register: A Review of Public Events at Home and Abroad for the Year 1878, Part II, Remarkable Trials: Whistler v. Ruskin, Start Page 215, Quote Page 216 and 217, Rivingtons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1890, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies by James McNeill Whistler, Chapter: The Action, Quote Page 3 thru 5, John W. Lovell Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link