Ruskin was born into the commercial classes of the prosperous and powerful Britain of the years immediately following the Napoleonic Wars. His father, John James Ruskin, was a Scots wine merchant who had moved to London and made a fortune in the sherry trade. John Ruskin, an only child, was largely educated at home, where he was given a taste for art by his father’s collecting of contemporary watercolours and a minute and comprehensive knowledge of the Bible by his piously Protestant mother.
This combination of the religious intensity of the Evangelical Revival and the artistic excitement of English Romantic painting laid the foundations of Ruskin’s later views. In his formative years, painters such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and John Sell Cotman were at the peak of their careers. At the same time religious writers and preachers such as Charles Simeon, John Keble, Thomas Arnold, and John Henry Newman were establishing the spiritual and ethical preoccupations that would characterize the reign of Queen Victoria. Ruskin’s family background in the world of business was significant, too: it not only provided the means for his extensive travels to see paintings, buildings, and landscapes in Britain and continental Europe but also gave him an understanding of the newly rich, middle-class audience for which his books would be written.
Ruskin discovered the work of Turner through the illustrations to an edition of Samuel Rogers’s poem Italy given him by a business partner of his father in 1833. By the mid-1830s he was publishing short pieces in both prose and verse in magazines, and in 1836 he was provoked into drafting a reply (unpublished) to an attack on Turner’s painting by the art critic of Blackwood’s Magazine. After five years at the University of Oxford, during which he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry but was prevented by ill health from sitting for an honours degree, Ruskin returned, in 1842, to his abandoned project of defending and explaining the late work of Turner.
In 1843 Ruskin published the first volume of Modern Painters, a book that would eventually consist of five volumes and occupy him for the next 17 years. His first purpose was to insist on the “truth” of the depiction of Nature in Turner’s landscape paintings. Neoclassical critics had attacked the later work of Turner, with its proto-Impressionist concern for effects of light and atmosphere, for mimetic inaccuracy, and for a failure to represent the “general truth” that had been an essential criterion of painting in the age of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Drawing on his serious amateur interests in geology, botany, and meteorology, Ruskin made it his business to demonstrate in detail that Turner’s work was everywhere based on a profound knowledge of the local and particular truths of natural form. One after another, Turner’s “truth of tone,” “truth of colour,” “truth of space,” “truth of skies,” “truth of earth,” “truth of water,” and “truth of vegetation” were minutely considered, in a laborious project that would not be completed until the appearance of the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters in 1860.
This shift of concern from general to particular conceptions of truth was a key feature of Romantic thought, and Ruskin’s first major achievement was thus to bring the assumptions of Romanticism to the practice of art criticism. By 1843 avant-garde painters had been working in this new spirit for several decades, but criticism and public understanding had lagged behind. More decisively than any previous writer, Ruskin brought 19th-century English painting and 19th-century English art criticism into sympathetic alignment. As he did so, he alerted readers to the fact that they had, in Turner, one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art alive and working among them in contemporary London, and, in the broader school of English landscape painting, a major modern art movement.
Ruskin did this in a prose style peculiarly well adapted to the discussion of the visual arts in an era when there was limited reproductive illustration and no easy access to well-stocked public art galleries. In these circumstances the critic was obliged to create in words an effective sensory and emotional substitute for visual experience. Working in the tradition of the Romantic poetic prose of Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, though more immediately influenced by the descriptive writing of Sir Walter Scott, the rhetoric of the Bible, and the blank verse of William Wordsworth, Ruskin vividly evoked the effect on the human eye and sensibility both of Turner’s paintings and of the actual landscapes that Turner and other artists had sought to represent.
In the process Ruskin introduced the newly wealthy commercial and professional classes of the English-speaking world to the possibility of enjoying and collecting art. Since most of them had been shaped by an austerely puritanical religious tradition, Ruskin knew that they would be suspicious of claims for painting that stressed its sensual or hedonic qualities. Instead, he defined painting as “a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.” What that language expressed, in Romantic landscape painting, was a Wordsworthian sense of a divine presence in Nature: a morally instructive natural theology in which God spoke through physical “types.” Conscious of the spiritual significance of the natural world, young painters should “go to Nature in all singleness of heart…having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.”
Three years later, in the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), Ruskin would specifically distinguish this strenuously ethical or Theoretic conception of art from the Aesthetic, undidactic, or art-for-art’s-sake definition that would be its great rival in the second half of the 19th century. Despite his friendships with individual Aesthetes, Ruskin would remain the dominant spokesman for a morally and socially committed conception of art throughout his lifetime.
Art, architecture, and society
After the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, Ruskin became aware of another avant-garde artistic movement: the critical rediscovery of the painting of the Gothic Middle Ages. He wrote about these Idealist painters (especially Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Benozzo Gozzoli) at the end of the second volume of Modern Painters, and he belatedly added an account of them to the third edition of the first volume in 1846. These medieval religious artists could provide, he believed, in a way in which the Dutch, French, and Italian painters of the 17th and 18th centuries could not, an inspiring model for the art of the “modern” age.
This medievalist enthusiasm was one reason that Ruskin was so ready to lend his support to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of young English artists formed in 1848 to reject the Neoclassical assumptions of contemporary art schools. Ruskin published an enthusiastic pamphlet about the PRB (in which he misleadingly identified them as the natural heirs of Turner) in 1851, wrote letters to the Times in 1851 and 1854 to defend them from their critics, and recommended their work in his Edinburgh Lectures of 1853 (published 1854).
But medievalism was even more important in the field of architecture, where the Gothic Revival was as direct an expression of the new Romantic spirit as the landscape painting of Turner or Constable. Ruskin had been involved in a major Gothic Revival building project in 1844, when George Gilbert Scott redesigned Ruskin’s parents’ parish church, St. Giles’s Camberwell. In 1848, newly married to Euphemia (Effie) Gray, Ruskin went on a honeymoon tour of the Gothic churches of northern France and began to write his first major book on buildings, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Conceived in the disturbing context of the European revolutions of 1848, the book lays down seven moral principles (or “Lamps”) to guide architectural practice, one of which, “The Lamp of Memory,” articulates the scrupulous respect for the original fabric of old buildings that would inspire William Morris and, through him, the conservation movement of the 20th century. In November Ruskin went abroad again, this time to Venice to research a more substantial book on architecture.
The Stones of Venice was published in three volumes, one in 1851 and two more in 1853. In part it is a laboriously researched history of Venetian architecture, based on long months of direct study of the original buildings, then in a condition of serious neglect and decay. But it is also a book of moral and social polemic with the imaginative structure of a Miltonic or Wordsworthian sublime epic. Ruskin’s narrative charts the fall of Venice from its medieval Eden, through the impiety and arrogance (as Ruskin saw it) of the Renaissance, to its modern condition of political impotence and social frivolity. As such, the book is a distinguished late example of the political medievalism found in the work of William Cobbett, Robert Southey, Thomas Carlyle, and the Young England movement of the 1840s. Ruskin differs from these predecessors both in the poetic power of his prose and in his distinctive—and widely influential—insistence that art and architecture are, necessarily, the direct expression of the social conditions in which they were produced. Here, as elsewhere, the Aesthetic movement, with its view of art as a rebellious alternative to the social norm and its enthusiasm for Renaissance texts and artifacts, stands in direct contrast to Ruskin’s Theoretic views.
The Stones of Venice was influential in other ways as well. Its celebration of Italian Gothic encouraged the use of foreign models in English Gothic Revival architecture. By 1874 Ruskin would regret the extent to which architects had “dignified our banks and drapers’ shops with Venetian tracery.” But, for good or ill, his writing played a key part in establishing the view that the architectural style of Venice, the great maritime trading nation of the medieval world, was particularly appropriate for buildings in modern Britain. The other enduring influence derived, more subtly, from a single chapter in the second volume, “The Nature of Gothic.” There Ruskin identified “imperfection” as an essential feature of Gothic art, contrasting it with the mechanical regularity of Neoclassical buildings and modern mass production. Gothic architecture, he believed, allowed a significant degree of creative freedom and artistic fulfillment to the individual workman. We could not, and should not, take pleasure in an object that had not itself been made with pleasure. In this proposition lay the roots both of Ruskin’s own quarrel with industrial capitalism and of the Arts and Crafts movement of the later 19th century.
Turner died in 1851. Ruskin’s marriage was dissolved, on grounds of nonconsummation, in 1854, leaving the former Effie Gray free to marry the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Ruskin withdrew somewhat from society. He traveled extensively in Europe and, from 1856 to 1858, took on a considerable body of administrative work as the chief artistic executor of Turner’s estate. He contributed both financially and physically to the construction of a major Gothic Revival building: Benjamin Woodward’s Oxford University Museum. In 1856 he published the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, with their penetrating inquiry into the reasons for the predominance of landscape painting in 19th-century art and their invention of the important critical term “pathetic fallacy.” His annual Academy Notes (a series of pamphlets issued by an English publisher from 1855 to 1859) sustained his reputation as a persuasive commentator on contemporary painting. But by 1858 Ruskin was beginning to move on from the specialist criticism of art and architecture to a wider concern with the cultural condition of his age. His growing friendship with the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle contributed to this process. Like Carlyle, Ruskin began to adopt the “prophetic” stance, familiar from the Bible, of a voice crying from the wilderness and seeking to call a lapsed people back into the paths of righteousness.
This marginal role as a disenchanted outsider both legitimized and, to an extent, required a ferocity and oddness that would be conspicuous features of Ruskin’s later career. In 1858 Ruskin lectured on “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy” (published in The Two Paths, 1859), a text in which both the radical-conservative temper and the symbolic method of his later cultural criticism are clearly established. Beginning as an art critic, Ruskin contrasts the exquisite sculptured iron grilles of medieval Verona with the mass-produced metal security railings with which modern citizens protect their houses. The artistic contrast is, of course, also a social contrast, and Ruskin goes rapidly beyond this to a symbolic assertion of the “iron” values involved in his definition of the just society. By wearing the fetters of a benignly neofeudalist social order, men and women, Ruskin believed, might lead lives of greater aesthetic fulfillment, in an environment less degraded by industrial pollution.
These values are persistently restated in Ruskin’s writings of the 1860s, sometimes in surprising ways. Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris (1862 and 1872 as books, though published in magazines in 1860 and 1862–63) are attacks on the classical economics of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Neither book makes any significant technical contribution to the study of economics (though Ruskin thought otherwise); both memorably express Ruskin’s moral outrage at the extent to which the materialist and utilitarian ethical assumptions implicit in this new technique for understanding human behaviour had come to be accepted as normative. Sesame and Lilies (1865) would become notorious in the late 20th century as a stock example of Victorian male chauvinism. In fact, Ruskin was using the conventional construction of the feminine, as pacific, altruistic, and uncompetitive, to articulate yet another symbolic assertion of his anticapitalist social model. The Crown of Wild Olive (1866, enlarged in 1873) collects some of the best specimens of Ruskin’s Carlylean manner, notably the lecture “Traffic” of 1864, which memorably draws its audience’s attention to the hypocrisy manifested by their choice of Gothic architecture for their churches but Neoclassical designs for their homes.
John Ruskin, 1870. [Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]The dogmatic Protestantism of Ruskin’s childhood had been partially abandoned in 1858, after an “unconversion” experience in Turin. Ten years later, in a moving lecture on “The Mystery of Life and Its Arts,” Ruskin reflected on his returning sense of the spiritual and transcendent. In The Queen of the Air (1869) he attempted to express his old concept of a divine power in Nature in new terms calculated for an age in which assent to the Christian faith was no longer automatic or universal. Through an account of the Greek myth of Athena, Ruskin sought to suggest an enduring human need for—and implicit recognition of—the supernatural authority on which the moral stresses of his artistic, political, and cultural views depend.
His father’s death in 1864 had left Ruskin a wealthy man. He used his wealth, in part, to promote idealistic social causes, notably the Guild of St. George, a pastoral community first planned in 1871 and formally constituted seven years later. From 1866 to 1875 he was unhappily in love with a woman 30 years his junior, Rose La Touche, whose physical and mental deterioration caused him acute distress. During these years he began, himself, to show signs of serious psychological illness. In 1871 he bought Brantwood, a house in the English Lake District (now a museum of his work) and lived there for the rest of his life.
John Ruskin, tinted lithograph published in London, c. 1880. [Credit: Photos.com/Jupiterimages]Ruskin’s appointment as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1870 was a welcome encouragement at a troubled stage of his career, and in the following year he launched Fors Clavigera, a one-man monthly magazine in which, from 1871 to 1878 and 1880 to 1884 he developed his idiosyncratic cultural theories. Like his successive series of Oxford lectures (1870–79 and 1883–84), Fors is an unpredictable mixture of striking insights, powerful rhetoric, self-indulgence, bigotry, and occasional incoherence. As a by-product of the Fors project, however, Ruskin wrote his last major work: his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). Unfinished, shamelessly partial (it omits, for example, all mention of his marriage), and chronologically untrustworthy, it provides a subtle and memorable history of the growth of Ruskin’s distinctive sensibility.
In November 1878 the painter James McNeill Whistler’s action for libel against Ruskin—brought after Ruskin’s attack on the impressionist manner of a Whistler Nocturne—came to trial. The trial made the conflict between Ruskin’s moral view of art and Whistler’s Aestheticism a matter of wide public interest. Whistler, awarded only a farthing’s damages and no costs, was driven into bankruptcy. Ruskin suffered no financial ill effects, but his reputation as an art critic was seriously harmed. After this date there was a growing tendency to see him as an enemy of modern art: blinkered, eccentric, and out-of-date.
Modernist artists and critics rejected Ruskin. His stress on the moral, social, and spiritual purposes of art and his Naturalist theory of visual representation were unpopular in the era of Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada. Gothic Revival buildings became deeply unfashionable; the architecture critic Geoffrey Scott, in 1914, would dismiss Ruskin’s architectural theory as “The Ethical Fallacy.”
Amboise, watercolour over pencil on paper by John Ruskin, 19th century. … [Credit: In a private collection]Since then, Ruskin has gradually been rediscovered. His formative importance as a thinker about ecology, about the conservation of buildings and environments, about Romantic painting, about art education, and about the human cost of the mechanization of work became steadily more obvious. The outstanding quality of his own drawings and watercolours (modestly treated in his lifetime as working notes or amateur sketches) was increasingly acknowledged, as was his role as a stimulus to the flowering of British painting, architecture, and decorative art in the second half of the 19th century.
Above all, Ruskin was rediscovered as a great writer of English prose. Frequently self-contradictory, hectoringly moralistic, and insufficiently informed, Ruskin was nonetheless gifted with exceptional powers of perception and expression. These are the gifts that the poet Matthew Arnold acknowledged when he spoke of “the genius, the feeling, the temperament” of the descriptive writing in the fourth volume of Modern Painters. This unusual capacity to see things and to say what he saw makes Ruskin’s work not just an important episode in the history of taste but also an enduring and distinctive part of English literature.