John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) is best known for his work as an art critic, sage writer, and social critic, but is remembered as an author, poet and artist as well. Ruskin's essays on art and architecture were extremely influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
His first work, serialised in Loudon's Architecture Magazine in 1836-7, under the pen name "Kata Phusin" (Greek for "according to Nature") was The Poetry of Architecture. This was a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings which centred around a Wordsworthian argument that buildings should be sympathetic to local environments, and should use local materials. Soon afterwards, in 1839, he published, in Transactions of the Meteorological Society (pages 56-59), his "Remarks on the present state of meteorological science". He went on to publish the first volume of one of his major works, Modern Painters, in 1843, under the anonymous identity "An Oxford Graduate". This work argued that modern landscape painters—and in particular J.M.W. Turner—were superior to the so-called "Old Masters" of the post-Renaissance period. Such a claim was controversial, especially as Turner's semi-abstract late works were being denounced by some critics as meaningless daubs. The degree to which Ruskin reversed an anti-Turnerian tide may have been overemphasised in the past, as Turner was a renowned and major figure in the early Victorian art world and a prominent member of the Royal Academy. Ruskin's criticisms of Old Masters like Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude Lorrain, and Salvator Rosa, was much more controversial, given the immense respect they held at the time. The attack on the old masters centred on what Ruskin perceived as their lack of attention to natural truth. Rather than 'going to nature', as Turner did, the old masters, 'composed' or invented their landscapes in their studios. For Ruskin, modern painters like Turner and James Duffield Harding (Ruskin's art tutor) showed a much more profound understanding of nature, observing the 'truths' of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation.
Ruskin considered some Renaissance masters, notably Titian and Dürer, to have shown similar devotion to nature, but he attacked even Michelangelo as a corrupting influence on art. The second half of Modern Painters I consists of detailed observations by Ruskin of exactly how clouds move, how seas appear at different times of day, or how trees grow, followed by examples of error or truth from various artists.
Ruskin had already met and befriended Turner, and eventually became one of the executors of his will. Many long believed that, as an executor, Ruskin took it upon himself in 1858 to destroy a large number of Turner's sketches because of their 'pornographic' subject matter. More recent discoveries cast doubt on this idea (see below).
Ruskin followed Modern Painters I with a second volume, developing his ideas about symbolism in art. He then turned to architecture, writing The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, both of which argued that architecture cannot be separated from morality, and that the "Decorated Gothic" style was the highest form of architecture yet achieved.
By this time, Ruskin was writing in his own name and had become the most famous cultural theorist of his day. In 1848, he married Effie Gray, for whom he wrote the early fantasy novel The King of the Golden River. Their marriage was notoriously unhappy, eventually being annulled in 1854 on grounds of his "incurable impotency, a charge Ruskin later disputed, even going so far as to offer to prove his virility at the court's request. In court, the Ruskin family counter-attacked Effie as being mentally unbalanced. Effie later married the artist John Everett Millais, who had been Ruskin's protegé, in July of 1855.
Ruskin came into contact with Millais following the controversy over Millais's painting Christ in the House of his Parents, which was considered blasphemous at the time. Millais, with his colleagues William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The Pre-Raphaelites were influenced by Ruskin's theories. As a result, the critic wrote letters to The Times defending their work, later meeting them. Initially, he favoured Millais, who travelled to Scotland with Ruskin and Effie to paint Ruskin's portrait. Effie's increasing attachment to Millais, among other reasons (including Ruskin's impotency; the marriage was never consumated) created a crisis in the marriage, leading Effie to leave Ruskin, which caused a public scandal. Millais abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite style after his marriage, and Ruskin often savagely attacked his later works. Ruskin continued to support Hunt and Rossetti. He also provided independent funds to encourage the art of Rossetti's wife Elizabeth Siddal. Other artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites also received both written and financial support from him, including John Brett, Burne-Jones. and John William Inchbold. In 1858 he also opened the School of Art in Sidney Street, Cambridge, laying the foundation for what is now Anglia Ruskin University.
During this period Ruskin wrote regular reviews of the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy under the title Academy Notes. His reviews were so influential and so judgmental that he alienated many artists, leading to much comment. For example, Punch published a comic poem about a victim of the critic, which contained the lines, "I paints and paints, hears no complaints...then savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in and nobody will buy."
Ruskin also sought to encourage creation of architecture based on his theories. He was friendly with Sir Henry Acland, who supported his attempts to get the new Oxford University Museum of Natural History built as a model of modern Gothic. Ruskin also inspired other architects to adapt the Gothic style for modern culture. These buildings created what has been called a distinctive "Ruskinian Gothic" style.
Following a crisis of religious belief, and under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics. In Unto This Last, he expounded theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour party and Christian socialism. On his father's death, Ruskin declared it was not possible to be a rich socialist, and gave away most of his inheritance. He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s, and endowed it with large sums of money and a remarkable art collection. He gave money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He attempted to reach a wide readership with his pamphlets Fors Clavigera, aimed at the "working men of England". He taught at the Working Men's College, London, and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879. His lectures were so popular that they had to be given twice - once for the students, and again for the public. Ruskin College, Oxford is named after him.
While at Oxford, Ruskin became friendly with Lewis Carroll, another don, who photographed him. After Carroll parted with Alice Liddell, she and her sisters pursued a similar relationship with Ruskin, according to his autobiography, Praeterita.
During this period Ruskin became enamoured of Rose la Touche, an intensely religious young girl. He met her in 1858, when she was only ten years old, proposed to her eight years later, and was finally rejected in 1872. She died soon afterward. These events plunged Ruskin into despair and led to bouts of mental illness. He suffered from a number of breakdowns and delirious visions.
In 1878, he published a scathing review of paintings by James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. He found particular fault with James Abbot McNeill Whistler 012.jpg, and accused Whistler of "ask[ing] two hundred guineas for throwing a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin. Whistler won the case, but the jury awarded him only one farthing for damages; it split court costs between Ruskin and Whistler. The episode tarnished Ruskin's reputation, and may have accelerated his mental decline.
The emergence of the Aesthetic movement and Impressionism alienated Ruskin from the art world, and his later writings were increasingly seen as irrelevant, especially as he seemed to be more interested in book illustrators such as Kate Greenaway than in modern art. He continued to support philanthropic movements such as the Home Arts and Industries Association
Much of his later life was spent at a house called Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water located in the Lake District of England. His assistant W. G. Collingwood, the author, artist and antiquarian lived nearby and in 1901 established the Ruskin Museum in Coniston as a memorial to Ruskin.
Ruskin's famous diatribe rejecting Classical tradition in The Stones of Venice—one of the nineteenth century's most influential books—embodies the inextricable mix of aesthetics and morality in his thought:
"Pagan in its origin, proud and unholy in its revival, paralysed in its old age... an architecture invented, as it seems, to make plagiarists of its architects, slaves of its workmen, and sybarites of its inhabitants; an architecture in which intellect is idle, invention impossible, but in which all luxury is gratified and all insolence fortified.
Rejection of mechanisation and standardization also informed Ruskin's theories of architecture, and his emphasis on the importance of the Medieval Gothic style. He praised the Gothic style for what he saw as its reverence for nature and natural forms; the free, unfettered expression of artisans constructing and decorating buildings; and for the organic relationship he posited between worker and guild, worker and community, worker and natural environment, and between worker God. Nineteenth century attempts to reproduce Gothic form (pointed arches, etc.) was not enough to make these buildings expressions of what Ruskin (however erroneously) saw as true Gothic feeling, faith, and organicism.
For Ruskin, the Gothic style embodied the same moral truths he sought in art. It expressed the 'meaning' of architecture—as a combination of the values of strength, solidity and aspiration—all written, as it were, in stone. For Ruskin, creating true Gothic architecture involved the whole community, and expressed the full range of human emotions, from the sublime effects of soaring spires to the comically ridiculous carved grotesques and gargoyles. Even its crude and "savage" aspects were proof of "the liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure. Classical architecture, in contrast, expressed a morally vacuous repressive standardisation. Ruskin associated Classical values with modern developments, in particular with demoralising consequences of the industrial revolution, resulting in buildings such as The Crystal Palace, which he despised as an oversized greenhouse. Although Ruskin wrote about architecture in many works over the course of his career, his much-anthologized essay "The Nature of Gothic" from the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853) is widely considered to be one of his most important and evocative discussions of his central argument.
Ruskin's arguments encouraged a revival of Gothic styles, but Ruskin himself was often dissatisfied with the results. He objected that forms of mass-produced faux Gothic did not exemplify his principles, but showed disregard for the true meaning of the style. Even the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a building designed with Ruskin's collaboration, met with his disapproval. The O'Shea brothers, freehand stone carvers chosen to revive the creative "freedom of thought" of Gothic craftsmen, disappointed him by their lack of reverence for the task.
Ruskin's distaste for oppressive standardisation led to later works attacking Laissez-faire capitalism, which influenced many trade union leaders of the Victorian era. He also was an inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement, the founding of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund, and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Ruskin's views on art, wrote Kenneth Clark, "cannot be made to form a logical system, and perhaps owe to this fact a part of their value." Ruskin's accounts of art are descriptions of a superior type that conjure images vividly in the mind's eye. Certain principles, however, remain consistent throughout his work, which Clark summarized as:
- Art is not a matter of taste, but involves the whole man. Whether in making or perceiving a work of art, we bring to bear on it feeling, intellect, morals, knowledge, memory, and every other human capacity, all focused in a flash on a single point. Aesthetic man is a concept as false and dehumanizing as economic man.
- Even the most superior mind and the most powerful imagination must found itself on facts, which must be recognized for what they are. The imagination will often reshape them in a way which the prosaic mind cannot understand; but this recreation will be based on facts, not on formulas or illusions.
- These facts must be perceived by the senses, or felt; not learnt.
- The greatest artists and schools of art have believed it their duty to impart vital truths, not only about the facts of vision, but about religion and the conduct of life.
- Beauty of form is revealed in organisms which have developed perfectly according to their laws of growth, and so give, in his own words, 'the appearance of felicitous fulfillment of function.'
- This fulfillment of function depends on all parts of an organism cohering and cooperating. This was what he called the 'Law of Help,' one of Ruskin's fundamental beliefs, extending from nature and art to society.
- Good art is done with enjoyment. The artist must feel that, within certain reasonable limits, he is free, that he is wanted by society, and that the ideas he is asked to express are true and important.
- Great art is the expression of epochs where people are united by a common faith and a common purpose, accept their laws, believe in their leaders, and take a serious view of human destiny.
Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.
This abhorrence for restoration is in marked contrast to Viollet-le-Duc, who wrote that restoration is a "means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.
Ruskin had a deep respect for Gothic architecture and old buildings in general. To him, the building's age was the most important aspect of its preservation: "For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, not in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.”
Ruskin's pioneering of ideas that helped lead to the Arts and Crafts movement was related to the growth of Christian socialism, an outlook that he helped formulate in his book Unto This Last, in which he attacked laissez faire economics because it failed to acknowledge complexities of human desires and motivations. Ruskin believed that jobs should be paid at a fixed rate, so that the best workmen got employed, instead of those that offered to do the job at a lower price:
"Nay, but I choose my physician and my clergyman, thus indicating my sense of the quality of their work. By all means, also, choose your bricklayer; that is the proper reward of the good workman, to be "chosen." The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed, and the bad workman unemployed. The false, unnatural, and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half-price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum."
He argued that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of such higher values. These ideas were closely related to those of Thomas Carlyle, but whereas Carlyle emphasised the need for strong leadership, Ruskin emphasised what later evolved into the concept of "social economy" - networks of charitable, co-operative and other non-governmental organisations.
In The Stones of Venice, the previously mentioned chapter "The Nature of Gothic" attacked the division of labour, which Adam Smith advocated in the early books of The Wealth of Nations. Ruskin believed the division of labour to be the main cause of the unhappiness of the poor. Ruskin argued that the rich had never been so generous in the past, but the poor's hatred of the rich was at its greatest point. This was because the poor were now unsatisfied by monotonous work that used them as a tool, instead of a person. These ideas later influenced William Morris.
Ruskin's fantasy novelette The King of the Golden River (1841) prepared the ground for the major fantasy novels of his close friend George MacDonald, who in 1858 wrote what may be the first fantasy novel for adults, Phantastes. The manner in which Ruskin wrote The King of the Golden River—as a gift to the twelve year old Effie Grey—is remarkably parallel to Lewis Carroll's later work, Alice's Adventures Under Ground, which Carroll wrote for Alice Liddell and later revised and published as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Ruskin also contributed to the scholarship on this newly emerging genre later in his life, defining the aims of fantasy literature in his lecture "Fairy Land" (in The Art of England, 1884).
Ruskin's influence extends far beyond the field of art history. The author Leo Tolstoy described him as, "one of those rare men who think with their heart." Marcel Proust was a Ruskin enthusiast and helped translate his works into French. Mahatma Gandhi quoted Ruskin's Unto this last frequently, and even translated the work into Gujarati, calling it Sarvodaya. He spoke often of the influence Ruskin had on his philosophy. Ruskin's views also attracted Oscar Wilde's imagination in the late 19th century.
A number of Utopian socialist "Ruskin Colonies" attempted to put his political ideals into practice. These communities included Ruskin, Nebraska; Ruskin, Florida; Ruskin, British Columbia; and the Ruskin Commonwealth Association, a colony which existed in Dickson County, Tennessee from 1894 to 1899. Ruskin's ideas also influenced the development of the British Labour Party. In Britain, many streets, places and colleges are named after Ruskin.
The cause of this mysterious "disgust" has led to much speculation. Ruskin's biographer, Mary Lutyens, suggested that he rejected Effie because he was horrified by the sight of her pubic hair. Lutyens argued that Ruskin must have known the female form only through Greek statues and paintings of the nude lacking pubic hair and found the reality shocking. This speculation has been repeated by later biographers and essayists and it is now something that "everyone knows" about Ruskin. However, there is no proof for this, and some disagree. Peter Fuller in his book Theoria: Art and the Absence of Grace writes, "It has been said that he was frightened on the wedding night by the sight of his wife's pubic hair; more probably, he was perturbed by her menstrual blood." Ruskin's biographers Tim Hilton and John Batchelor also take the view that menstruation is the more likely explanation, though Batchelor also suggests that body-odour may have been the problem.
Ruskin's later relationship with Rose la Touche has also led to claims that he was a paedophile, on the grounds that he stated that he fell in love with her when he met her at the age of nine. In fact he did not approach her as a suitor until she was seventeen, and he repeatedly proposed to her for as long as she lived. Ruskin is not known to have had any other romantic liaisons or sexual intimacies. However, during an episode of mental derangement after Rose died he wrote a letter in which he insisted that Rose's spirit had instructed him to marry a girl who was visiting him at the time. Letters from Ruskin to Kate Greenaway also exist, in which he repeatedly asks her to draw her "girlies" (as he called her child figures) without clothing:
Ruskin's biographers disagree about the allegation of paedophilia. Hilton, in his two-volume biography, baldly asserts that "he was a paedophile", while Batchelor argues that the term is inappropriate because his behaviour does not "fit the profile.
Ruskin coined quite a few distinctive terms, some of which the Nuttall Encyclopedia has collected:Pathetic Fallacy: He invented this term to describe the ascription of human emotions to impersonal natural forces, as in "the wind sighed".Fors Clavigera:Ruskin gave this name to a series of letters he wrote to workmen during the 1870s. The phrase was intended to designate three great powers which go to fashion human destiny. These were: Force, symbolised by the club (clava) of Hercules; Fortitude, symbolised by the key (clavis) of Ulysses; and Fortune, symbolised by the nail (clavus) of Lycurgus. These three powers (the "fors") together represent human talents and abilities to choose the right moment and then to strike with energy. The concept is derived from Shakespeare's phrase "There is a tide in the affairs of men/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune". Ruskin believed that the letters were inspired by the Third Fors: striking out at the right moment.Modern Atheism:Ruskin applied this label to the unfortunate persistence of the clergy in teaching children what they cannot understand, and in employing young consecrate persons to assert in pulpits what they do not know.The Want of England:"England needs," says Ruskin, "examples of people who, leaving Heaven to decide whether they are to rise in the world, decide for themselves that they will be happy in it, and have resolved to seek, not greater wealth, but simpler pleasures; not higher fortune, but deeper felicity; making the first of possessions self-possession, and honouring themselves in the harmless pride and calm pursuits of peace."Illth:Used by and after Ruskin as the reverse of wealth in the sense of ‘well-being’: Ill-being. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Representation: From Ruskinian Drawing Exercises to Advanced Mathematics-With Architecture, Painting and Sculpture in Between-Representation of Ideas and Objects Lies at the Heart of Intellectual Endeavour
Feb 01, 2005; Robert Hewison Ruskin famously said that, 'the teaching of art is the teaching of all things', setting his pupils at the London...
Delight: changeful as a Ruskinian Church, wild as the strangest gothick fantasy from Hollywood, this extraordinarily exuberant timber building towers over the grim texture of Archangel.
Jun 01, 2002; This very strange erection is in the White Sea port city of Archangel, whacked up in a moment of post-Gorbachevian ebullience. In...