John Ruskin

John Ruskin’s role as an influence on the Pre-Raphaelites may have been overstated. The conventional story found in most books on the PRB is that Holman Hunt (and sometimes Millais) read the first volumes of Modern Painters sometime between their publish date of 1843 and 1848. The key part of Modern Painters that is often quoted is:

‘go to nature, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing’
Modern Painters II)

‘the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one.’
(Modern Painter Vol. III, Part 4, Chap. 16)

‘the world proliferates in a sea of multiplying information, observation, instruction and analysis. With its consideration of painting, it also includes material on geology, poetry, history, botany and mythology.’
(source unknown)

However, as Paul Barlow says the ‘go to nature’ quote is proceeded by this advice to young artists ‘They should keep to quiet colours, greys and browns; and , making the early works of Turner their example, as his latest are to be their object of emulation, should got to nature…’ From this it is clear that Ruskin was not recommending a Pre-Raphaelite style of painting as early Turner painted in the style of Claude. Ruskin’s advice was more to do with having more humility and less flashiness so the anti-establishment approach of the PRB and their bright colours were counter to Ruskin’s advice.

Hunt says in his autobiography that he read Modern Painters but he also says he skimmed it in a few hours so it is likely he extracted some points that appealed to his already formed opinions rather than studying it to learn a way of painting. Rossetti also says later that Ruskin played no part in their discussions of their approach to painting.

Ruskin had a strong belief that the close observation and study of nature was a study of God through God’s work. He lost his faith in 1850s and recovered some belief in 1875.

Ruskin it seems only fell in love with two people, Euphemia (‘Effie’) Chalmers Gray (1828-1897) and Rose la Touche (1848-1875) who he fell in love with when she was 9 (some say 11) and proposed when she was 17 (in 1865 when Ruskin was 45). She died in 1875 aged 27.

Ruskin was very close to his parents and took their death badly, his father died in 1864 (aged 79) leaving him a large fortune that he largely gave away. His mother died shortly after in 1871 aged 90.

Understanding Ruskin is difficult because of the large corpus he left and because he reinvented himself every 5-10 years. He wrote about social issues, poverty and pollution but the key texts relating to the Pre-Raphaelites were Modern Painters, The Elements of Drawing, his two letters to The Times in 1848 and what he said in his lectures in the 1870s about Hunt, Millais and Rossetti.

Ruskin was also an artist himself although most of his works are in the form of studies:
Ruskin study of Velvet Crab

Study of Velvet Crab, John Ruskin, c.1870, watercolour and bodycolour on blue paper

Ruskin Study of Gneiss Rock Glenfinlas 1853

John Ruskin’s Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, 1853. Pen and ink and wash with Chinese ink on paper, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


An important concept in these considerations is authority, what is it and where does it come from? Does a close study of nature borrow authority from the scientist. If science is perceived as successful and this success is based on the close and accurate study of nature does this mean an artist who illustrates nature accurately will also be successful?

The classic realists style of for example Charles Dickens can be seen to borrow authority from the scientist. He observes the particular, an inn sign held up by chains that have two links one side and three the other. This documentary approach gives the impression of science but is pseudo-science. Science involves not mere observation but it gathers multiple observations in controlled circumstances in order to make a general statement that makes predictions that can be tested. For example, in botany individual plants are recorded not as particular examples of the individual with their damaged leaves, diseases and damage but in order to ascertain the distinctive feature of each species or sub-species. In fact, studies of individual plants avoid showing the contingent and accidental.

If we look at Hunt’s Our English Coasts:

Hunt Our English Coasts 1852
Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852

We find the “scientific” gaze, for example, recording the precise colour of the sheep’s ear as sunlight filters through (bottom right) and shadows that are blue or purple, the bright edge of backlight fur. All of this is optical verisimilitude, recording what is actually seen as best as possible with the materials available. Of course, with any reproduction a translation must be made that is limited by the techniques and materials available, we see an interpreted view of the world with a central moving focus and an oval visual field stereoscopically. A painting is limited by the pigments, the range of brightness is limited by reflection from an absorbing surface, colours are limited, the overall scene is represented with some or all points in focus in an arbitrary way, painting takes time and decisions must be made about the moment in time and how moving features are fixed.

Hunt took a particular interest in colour theory and wrote to George Field and read books on colour theory by Henry Richter (Daylight: A Recent Discovery in the Art of Painting, 1817) and Kant.

The above painting was exhibited in Paris in 1855 as Strayed Sheep (to avoid the political embarrassment of is original title which expressed concern about our vulnerability to French invasion) and it was widely praised for its optical revelations and admired by the young impressionists.

Hunt The Afterglow in Egypt 1854-63
Hunt, Afterglow in Egypt, 1854-63

Incredible fine brushwork and the use of prismatic colours (which can only be seen microscopically). The microscopic appearance of the painting looks like a full-size painting by Renoir in its brushwork and use of colours. Each kernel of what in the bundle on her head is painted individually. The bird at the lower edge of her dress looks brown but has no brown in its plumage it is made up of blue, red, yellow and white strokes. Hunt was famous for testing every new pigment that came on the market just like the Impressionist. He was pioneering a new approach to colour and using it to enhance the pictorial effect. Hunt trained as a textile designer like Matisse.

Collins Convent Thoughts 1851

Charles Collins, Convent Thoughts (brother Wilkie Collins, author of The Woman in White, 1860 and The Moonstone, 1868)

Charles Collins was a close associate of the Brotherhood but gave up painting in 1858. He joined Hunt and Millais at Worcester Park Farm in Esher in 1851 when Hunt was painting The Hireling Shepherd and Millais Ophelia. He painted a study for the head of the nun.

She is absorbed in nature, an example of the optical gaze that reveals not only a scientific truth but also a higher spiritual truth.

Millais Ophelia 1851-2

Millais, Ophelia, 1851-2 observes every plant in detail but represents the plants as individuals rather than as specimens. Not the reed on the left, the broken, bent and diseased leaves are shown, it is a particular reed that has been painted.

Typological Symbolism

The Pre-Raphaelites painted mimetically but also symbolically. Hunt’s famous symbolic painting that was rejected by many critics as too clever in its symbolism shows a goat that prefigures Christ (typological symbolism, were an element in the Old Testament prefigures a figure in the New Testament).

Hunt The Scapegoat 1854

Hunt, The Scapegoat, 1854

The bones on the right symbolise Golgotha and the crucifixion and the horns the crown of thorns. In the background is Sodom symbolising sacrifice and redemption.
At the top of the frame is ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted’ (Isaiah, 53:4)

At the bottom of the frame: ‘And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited’ (Leviticus 16:22)

Ruskin describes the effect of typological symbolism in Tintoretto’s painting of the Annunciation:

Tintoretto The Annunciation c1582-57

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Annunciation, c. 1582-57

The wall represents the old Church that will be rebuilt be Christ into the new Church.

Time and Focus

Two important problems the artist has to grapple with are how to represent time and how to freeze the changing attention and focus of the eyes. Events flow past us, so how do we freeze the moving flux of the world yet still claim verisimilitude? We see a small part of the world in focus at any one time so how does the artist represent this in a static painting?

In Scapegoat above the foreground and background are both shown in focus. We see a spatially odd goat whose feet are aligned with the edge of the frame but whose back goes back. Hunt hat to represent a moving goat that took weeks to paint
(and in fact involved more than one goat).

The painting falls apart. Contemporary critics describe painting conventions as
‘cracking apart’ under the strain of trying to represent the unrepresentable mimetically.

Millais Autumn Leaves 1855-6
Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6

Millais takes a different approach starting with this painting, he is not trying to represent a moment mimetically but a mood. He is trying to give us the same feeling of autumn leaves, smoke, dusk, vague light effects and the ephemeral feeling of nostalgia and loss.

The attempt at ultimate visual authority is ultimately undermined. Hunt struggled with the attempt all his life and said that sometimes when he first went to his painting in the morning it looked like crazy paving.

Both Hunt with Afterglow and Millais are representing time passing, female figures, dusk and mortality and they were both produced at exactly the same date. Millais paints his quickly and is proud of it. Millais accepts the ephemeral, transient and contingent but Hunt struggles to represent it.

Dioramas and the panoramic view that is all in focus take away from the individual artists or photographers involvement and this gives them an authority resulting from this visual democracy where everything is presented equally and there is no central point of attention and focus.

Millais was an experimental painter who came to the limits of visual perception and the limits of knowledge and he then accepts the sense of not knowing, the mystery of the unknown. Ruskin described the sunset in Autumn Leaves as the most perfect every painted.

Millais Chill October 1879
Millais, Chill October,1879

Is about memory and light. It takes the ideas of the scientific and in a melancholy way alludes to its limits.

Millais Portrait of a Girl Sophie Gray 1857
Portrait of a Girl (Sophie Gray), Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96), oil on paper laid over panel, signed with monogram and dated 1857. Dimension: 12 x 19 inches, 30 x 23 cm.

Sophie Gray was his wife’s sister. This painting seems to say there is no such thing as precise cold scientific perception our translation into paint is coloured by mood, feelings, love and emotion. It is a very early symbolist painting.

When we reach the extremes and limits of optical authority we go beyond to an emotional response.

Millais The Bridesmaid 1851
Millais, The Bridesmaid, 1851

wallis the stonebreaker

Henry Wallis, The Stonebreaker, 1857

A comment on the ‘New’ Poor Law of 1834. The frame bears the legend, ‘Now is thy long day’s work done’, from Tennyson’s ‘A dirge’ (which was, however, written in 1830). From this and the gloomy sunset we can safely deduce that the stonebreaker is dead, not just having a nap. It is the painting of a corpse of a stonebreaker killed by breaking stones one by one as the artist paints stroke by stroke. The painting suggests redemption as his head is aligned with the bright light from the lake.

(These are notes of a course given at Birkbeck College by Carol Jacobi in 2006/2007)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.