John Ruskin (1819-1900) is a difficult personality to analyze as there is a proliferation of connected information that needs to be analysed, a radiating structure of articles. His published works cover 39 volumes.
Fairfax Murray, Portrait of John Ruskin, Head and Shoulders, Full Face 1875
Fairfax Murray, Portrait of John Ruskin as St. Paul
Hewison is the best Ruskin commentator at the moment (e.g. John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye Robert Hewison). Also see Ruskin -Selected Writings (Oxford World of Art).
He combined a visual experience of nature with a pseudo-spiritual narrative. He had a romantic, evangelical view of nature, and the sublime. He combines specific naturalistic words with abstract religious terms.
Turner, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon coming on (“The Slave Ship”), 1840
In the summer of 1840 he made a trip to France. “Amboise especially made a strong impression upon the languid and unwilling invalid. It stirred him up to write, in easy verse, the tale of love and death that his own situation too readily suggested. In ‘The Broken Chain’ he indulged his gloomy fancy, turning, as it was sure to do, into a morbid nightmare of mysterious horror, not without reminiscence of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’.” (taken from The Life of John Ruskin ). Proust’s favourite writer was Ruskin.
- Art – “To see something and show it to someone else.”
- “All art is praise”,
- “Nature is a manifestation of divinity.”
In the 1860s Ruskin lost his faith. There are various opinions on the state of his mental health. He started to like pagan, Greek and Roman art.
The Stones of Venice and Modern Painters are from an earlier period of his life than his Oxford lectures. He did not believe in restoration and had strongly sexist views of women based on the current pseudo-scientific analysis of brain size.
His father (a wine merchant) and mother took him travelling round Europe early on. When he was 17 his parents bought him a Turner and when the Snowstorm was criticised he put pen to paper for the first time in defence of Turner (who was 44 when Ruskin was born), Note he called his book “Modern Painters” and many of the views do introduce ideas associated with modern art.
Turner, The Sun of Venice Going to Sea, 1843
Venice was important to Tuner and he returned again and again. Turner was a European painter and he went on many painting tours of Europe. He went at a time before the railways were built and much of Europe was unspoilt. Ruskin travelled later in the century by rail and saw Turner as representing an elegiac view. Turner was a romantic – someone who offers a deference to nature which is represented with a spiritual grandeur (Diane Birch, Ruskin on Turner).
Ruskin always defended Turner and the basis of his defence was always “truth to nature”. Polyphemus is throwing rocks to sink the ship after he has been blinded by the men who escaped from his cave by hiding under sheep skins. Turner was not a Christian in the conventional sense and saw as much meaning in mythology. Note Apollo’s chariot being pulled out of the sun by horses. Notice how Ruskin disparages the myth as a “Lord Mayor’s procession”.
Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839
At the height of the British Empire 1830s and 1840s and the power of the Empire was in the navy as it defended the realm and protected the trade routes. It is elegiac and looks back 24 years to Trafalgar – a glory that had gone. Does this signify Turner’s belief or concern that the British Empire also would eventually decline?
“The Innocence of the Eye” is another Ruskin phrase from Elements of Drawing. If you look closely you see only line and colour.
Turner, Fingal’s Cave, 1832, Isle of Staffa, Hebrides
Turner visited in 1831 to make sketches for landscapes to illustrate a book. Note: the word geology was introduced into scientific nomenclature by Saussure with the publication of the first volume of his Voyages dans les Alpes (1779-96; “Travels in the Alps”), a work that contains the results of more than 30 years of geologic studies. This inspired Ruskin to consider the accurate geological depiction of nature.
The celebrated vertical, hexagonal; basalt structures are hardly visible in the painting. The sun is setting near the horizon and has burst through a rain cloud creating a meteorologically accurate halo effect.
However, Brett revered Ruskin and tried to accurately depict nature and geology in Val D’Aosta only to have it criticised by Ruskin. Although Ruskin talked about “truth to nature” (although this exact phrase has not actually been found in his writings – correction, found in Section XLI, Chapter V Stones of Venice). Ruskin refers to a higher level of truth, a Platonic truth to nature. He disliked the strict copying of nature (he criticized the brick by brick painting of the Dutch). He believed in the contemplative imagination and the uncovering of higher symbolic truths. Ruskin was brought up as an evangelical Christian and saw the symbolism of light as a representation of love or God. He had a romantic view of mind as a self-contained source. He believed some arrangement and selection was necessary in a landscape painting but that it should not be determined by historic precedent but by “truth to nature”. In other words Ruskin tries to have it both ways – the artist must represent a strict and accurate truth to nature but must not pedantically copy every detail but represent the “higher truth”.
In 1851 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were being criticized and Ruskin wrote to the Times defending them. Although he disliked strict copying and does criticize the PRB, its use of colour, its trickery and so on he also saw some things he liked and he saw the PRB as his disciples (although we know from the PRB’s correspondence that they disliked visiting Ruskin).
Ruskin, Cowslip Bells, 1871 (?)
Brett, Glacier of Rosenlaui, 1856.
Brett adored Ruskin but Ruskin was not enthusiastic about Brett’s work, “a good start but you must try harder”. Ruskin believed we do not see like a camera but what we see is determined by associations and our memories. There is a lot of Kant in Ruskin.
Millais, Portrait of John Ruskin at Glenfinlas, 1853
An un-Turneresque precision, so did the PRB change Ruskin’s perception of art? Ruskin believed that Turner and Millais were the “greatest landscape painters ever”. Ruskin is shown “John the Baptist” like or even Moses. Ruskin chose the place. It was painted in the studio and the figure of Ruskin looks like a cut-out that has been added later.
“Like a vast cortage of undertakers mutes” – Baudelaire, in our dark suits.