John Ruskin as an Art Critic

WHEN in the year 1843 appeared the first volume of Modern Painters, by a Graduate of Oxford, the world of English connoisseurship was ruled by conventional notions which are hardly now understood. These notions had been a gradual growth out of the teachings of the academic schools of the decadent period of Italian art, with additions from the pseudo-classicism of Winckelmann, and the pedantic antiquarianisms of the school of David. Sir Joshua Reynolds had formulated his rules of the “ grand style,” and Fuseli had elaborated his ideas of beauty and sublimity. Sir George Beaumont, the leading English exponent of convention in landscape subject, gave a true illustration of the state of feeling which some of these ideas had induced in the minds of amateurs when he said to Constable that the tone of a landscape painting ought to resemble that of an old Cremona fiddle.

In English landscape art, which during the eighteenth century had been rising into importance, the main sources of inspiration were the art of Claude and Poussin, and the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century. It is worthy of note that these earliest forms of landscape as a separate branch of art arose at a period of general artistic weakness and conventionality. By the seventeenth century the ideals and impulses which had given life to the best art of the Renaissance had lost their power over the artistic imagination. Men of genius were rare. Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, Claude and Poussin, were exceptional men of their time. The fine qualities of the works of Claude Lorrain were involved with mannerisms derived from the landscape backgrounds of the more conventional historical figure painters, whose renderings of the forms of rocks, trees, and herbage gave no expression of those specific characteristics, and finer structural elements of form, in which resides so much of their essential beauty.

The Dutch landscape art was free from these mannerisms. It was a manifestation of a fresh and wholesome, though an unimaginative, pleasure in the landscape itself. But it had mannerisms of its own, and the Dutch landscapist had little power of beautiful and creative design. Wouverman and Cuyp, Ruysdael and Hobbema, take the most commonplace landscape as they find it, and patiently and laboriously portray its more obvious features, and its most trivial details, with singular inattention to that which is most worthy of expression, and not seldom with inexcusably bad drawing.

The art of Richard Wilson, the first notable English landscape painter, was mainly founded on that of Claude. It reproduced Claude’s conventions of composition and his mannerisms of drawing, though it was not without some fine qualities which show that Wilson had native capacity for better things than the artistic conditions of his time could call out. Gainsborough, on the other hand, who soon followed Wilson, seems to have been more influenced by the Dutch school. But being endowed with a higher order of genius, and a more independent spirit, he introduced a fresher style under the direct inspiration of nature. Gainsborough’s art was, in fact, tending in a new direction. It was leading away from mannerisms and conventions, and opening the way for a more natural expression of poetic feeling. But the conditions were not yet ripe for a wide departure from the conventional paths.

During the early part of the nineteenth century a remarkable development of landscape art had arisen in England which, though still largely based on the school traditions, was at the same time quick with a new life drawn from the feeling for the beauty of nature, which had been strong in the English race from the time of Chaucer. Men like David Cox, Copley Fielding, Peter De Wint, and Thomas Girtin were now producing works full of idyllic poetry, and were entering into the various moods of pastoral and wild nature with a sincerity of feeling that was altogether new in landscape subject. Prout and Harding had developed veins of feeling, and modes of expression, that were still further removed from the older conventions, and Constable had completely broken away from the traditions of the schools, and had taken his canvases out of doors in the effort to give the absolute truth of nature under the open sky. But these, and most other artists of the early English landscape school, though in different degrees possessing poetic sentiment, artistic aptitudes, and passion for nature, were men of limited powers. Not one of them was endowed with the highest order of genius. Their range was narrow, much of their drawing was feeble and often false, their handling, except in the case of Constable, was mannered, and their coloring was conventional.

But one man had arisen among them of a vastly larger calibre. Turner had, before the close of the first decade of the nineteenth century, begun to show a range of powers and an order of genius which distinguished him among his contemporaries, and led him to heights of achievement which place him in the category of the greatest masters of design. The creative imagination was in him as a fountain of perpetual inspiration. After his earliest period of apprenticeship, every work that he produced was stamped with the creative spirit which, governed by an insight that goes to the heart of things, bodies forth, with trenchant precision, and in the fewest expressive characters, an ideal conception. Turner’s art, though based on the underlying principles of all great art, was unconventional. It dealt with new motives and new materials. The inspiration of nature was its strongest element; but the aspects of nature which engaged the master’s attention were not those of common observation ; they were those in which the essential power and beauty of natural things are most manifest. The greater harmonies of light and color, and the more subtle and significant characteristics of organic form, were used by Turner as elements of design in such a way that each work of his hand was both a poem and a commentary on the visual aspects of nature from the point of view of beauty.

To the artistic dilettanti of the day such art was incomprehensible. It seemed to subvert all of the established canons. The puerile mannerisms of Claude were looked upon as the authoritative generalizations of the grand style in landscape, and at the same time it was affirmed by the critics of the press that Turner was untrue to nature.

Such, in brief outline, was the state of things in the English world of art when Ruskin came forward with his first volume in defense of the new landscape art in general, and of the art of Turner in particular. The work was, in fact, almost exclusively an enthusiastic attempt to vindicate Turner. For the author felt, and proclaimed from the first, that while there was much to be admired and commended in the works of other masters of the early English school, the art of Turner was incomparably superior from every point of view. Ruskin was only twenty-three years of age at this time ; but he was already singularly well prepared for his work, both by native aptitude and by cultivation. Indeed, few other critics of art have entered upon their tasks with so good an equipment, and in so admirable a spirit. He was himself endowed with artistic genius, though it was a genius for observation, analysis, and description, more than for original creation.

Like most men of genius he had faults and limitations. His natural temper gave him a strong confidence in his own judgments, and he early acquired a habit of emphatic affirmation, while his ardent enthusiasm often led him into extravagant praise of what he admired, and his easily excited indignation not seldom found equally unmeasured expression in sharpest invective against what he deemed erroneous. The strong terms in which some of his criticism is couched, as where in the preface to the second edition he speaks of the leaders of attack as “ content if, like the foulness of the earth, they may attract to themselves notice by their noisomeness, or like its insects exalt themselves by virulence into visibility ; ” or again, where he describes a critic of Blackwood’s Magazine as a person of “ honest, hopeless, helpless imbecility,” were not so uncommon at the time they were written as they are now. This style of speech was a survival of that of the Grub Street pamphleteers of the eighteenth century, or of the early quarterlies. But it is fair to say that Ruskin employed it sparingly in the body of his work, and only on occasions when strong terms might be excusable. His early training as the only child of wealthy, admiring, and over - attentive, though sternly exacting, parents, seems to have favored, rather than to have checked in him, the natural disposition of youth to overrate the importance of its own wisdom. His self-confidence and his lack of respect for the judgments of other men, when they came in conflict with his own, were sometimes unpleasantly apparent. But notwithstanding such defects and limitations as this implies, Ruskin’s early writings on art and nature have a character which is not now always fairly estimated. And their power is not likely to fail while English-speaking people remain open to impressions of beauty.

In his childhood he showed a passionate fondness for nature. Ranges of blue hills gave him the keenest pleasure, and he early formed a habit of descriptive writing while on journeys through the country, both in England and on the Continent, with his parents. Pictures of scenery gave him great delight. He was especially drawn to the landscapes of Turner by his own love for mountains, and he soon began to copy the engravings after Turner’s designs, which were then appearing as illustrations in such works as Rogers’ Italy and Poems. At the same time he conceived a strong admiration for the drawings of Samuel Prout, — whose remarkable lithographs of the picturesque architecture of Flanders and Germany appeared in the year 1833. On a Continental journey at the age of fifteen, he passed through Flanders and Germany, and over the Alps into Italy, verifying Prout and Turner by the way, studying the subjects of each, and comparing their art with the nature which had furnished its materials. He thus got an insight into the selective processes of each master, which could not be reached in any other way. He made drawings at every point in imitation of them, until by degrees he naturally developed a style of his own. The sight of the Alps awakened in him an interest in geology, from the painter’s point of view, and a study of their structural forms gave him an understanding of Turner’s marvelous mountain drawing. He had, for a time, instruction in drawing from a master of the old-fashioned type; but he learned more by his own independent practice from Prout and Turner, and from nature under the guidance of the works of these masters. In 1835 he had instruction from Copley Fielding, President of the Old Water Color Society, and at a later time he had lessons from Harding. From the pen and wash drawings of David Roberts, also, he learned a good deal, and he subsequently made much use of this economical method of work in his drawing from nature and architecture. But while appreciating the qualities of the works, and feeling the value of the precepts, of these men, he recognized their mannerisms and their narrowness of range.

In London and Paris he had studied the works of the old masters of landscape, Claude, Poussin, and Salvator Rosa, as well as the Dutch masters. It was his habit to draw faithfully the characteristic passages of such works of art, and to make extended written notes on them. The active attention which this effort to delineate compelled opened his eyes to many things, and impressed them on his mind.

In the Academy exhibition of 1836 Turner gave the first evidence of his more mature style, and by his pictures of this year Ruskin was deeply impressed. He saw now that what Turner sought was the ideal truth of nature, that he portrayed Nature in her “ supreme moments,” in her finest forms, and in her vital energy, — Nature as she was revealed to a discriminating eye, and to the poetic imagination. The recognition of this led him to reflect on the relations of art with nature, and to more extended investigation of both nature and art in the manifold aspects of each. Every step of his progress impressed him with the truth, as well as the pictorial power, of Turner’s art, and developed in his mind a burning indignation at what he thought the shortsighted and misleading criticism of the great master’s work.

Thus equipped, and feeling thus, he began the essay which grew into Modern Painters. This was, he tells us, at first intended to be a short pamphlet entitled Turner and the Ancients, but it grew under his hand into five stately volumes. That his philosophy of art, when he was at the age of twenty-three, should not have been in all respects complete and satisfactory was natural enough. But on fair examination it will, I think, be found in the main entirely sound, though over-statements, and even errors, are not wanting. It has not always been correctly represented. It has, in fact, not seldom been inexcusably misrepresented. The affirmation, for instance, has frequently been made that according to Ruskin all perfection of art consists in the exact imitation of nature. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is shown plainly enough in the opening of the work where he defines great art as that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, and says : “ If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature ” (vol. i. p. 11). And in what follows he clearly recognizes, what he consistently maintains throughout his writings, that there is a distinction to be drawn between representative art and art as such, in itself.

In representative art there must be truth to nature, not to make it art, but to make it representative. No argument should be needed to establish the truth of this proposition, which has been recognized at all times in respect to art which represents the human figure, and never more fully than in recent times, when the almost exclusive training offered in professional schools of art has consisted in the rigorous delineation of the human body, including elaborate studies in anatomy as a means of insuring truth to nature. The truth that is necessary in human figure subject is equally so in that of landscape. Mr. Whistler’s affirmation that nature is to the painter what the keyboard is to the musical composer is quite correct; but it does not prove that the painter need not be true to nature. It only shows that the artist must use what he draws from nature in an artistic way, in a way analogous to that in which the musician uses the musical scale. But the analogy between nature and the keyboard is not a close one, for there are harmonies ready made in nature that do not exist in the musical scale. The objects of the natural world are not abstract elements like the notes of the keyboard. There is a closer analogy between abstract lines, colors, and tones, and the musical scale. The artist may use these abstract elements and produce works of art which, like architecture and pure ornamentation, are quite independent of any truth to nature in the sense that representative art is dependent on such truth.

But Ruskin in Modern Painters1 deals primarily with landscape painting, and landscape painting is a representative art, and thus needs to be truthful. Recognizing this, and wishing to vindicate Turner on the score of truth, though he nowhere maintains that this truth constitutes the essential character of Turner’s art, or any other art, he starts out in this first volume with an extended analysis of truth, meaning thereby, as he explains (page 20), the faithful statement of natural fact. In developing this part of his subject he may often seem to be advocating literal transcript of nature, which indeed he does as a temporary discipline, but never as a final end of art. The counsel given at the close of the first volume (page 417) to the young artist to “ go to nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, scorning nothing . . . and rejoicing always in the truth,” has often been quoted as if it contained a summary of the author’s whole art teaching. But an attentive reading of even this first volume will show that this is not the case. Thus on page 75 he praises the modern landscape painters for rejecting bona fide imitation, and seeking to convey the impression of nature. And he affirms that there is, in consequence, a greater sum of essential and impressive truth in their works. While among many other passages to the same effect throughout the work, we find in the third volume (pages 40, 41) the following statements : “ The last characteristic of great art is that it must be inventive, that is, be produced by the imagination. . . . The highest art is purely imaginative, all its materials being wrought into their form by invention.” And again (vol. iv. p. 16), “ Great landscape art cannot be a mere copy of any given scene.” Passages like the one first referred to, and the statement (page 416) that “ from young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature,” are in no conflict with this. The one relates to the early training of the artist, the other to his function after he has learned the rudiments, and is prepared to exercise the freedom of art. And they are in complete accord with the teaching of all other competent authorities. Sir Joshua Reynolds, for instance, enforces the same principle where he complains2 that “the students never draw exactly from the living models which they have before them.” And again (vol. ii. p. 66) where he says, “ Our elements are laid in gross common nature, an exact imitation of what is before us.” There is thus nothing that is fundamentally peculiar in Ruskin’s teaching as to the importance of truth to nature as a foundation for all representative art. He merely applies to the newer art of landscape painting the principles that have been universally enforced in the painting of the human figure.

But the question as to the truth of Turner’s art is another thing. Can it be possible, it has often been asked, that those strange canvases in the National Gallery are defensible on the score of truth to nature ? Ruskin’s answer is emphatically affirmative. But there are, he maintains, different orders of truths with which the artist may be concerned. There are the more obvious, unessential, and trivial truths of nature, and those which are more recondite, fundamental, and characteristic. It is the latter, and not the former, to which, as he teaches, Turner’s art gives expression. These higher orders of visual truths are, however, not those which are generally perceived. People commonly, he tells us (page 54), recognize objects by their least important attributes. To lay hold of the more fundamental and expressive truths, in the manner of Turner, requires a high order of artistic gift, and to appreciate them requires ocular training, as well as natural aptitude. In the delineation of all objects in the landscape he finds Turner invariably true on what may be called the higher plane of truth, and if, in his later work, certain qualities of color and tone cannot always be defended on the score of likeness to nature, it is owing, he maintains, to insuperable difficulties in what he attempted.

In the chapters on the relative importance of truths, and on truth in respect to the various visual elements of nature, as of tone, of color, of chiaroscuro ; and of space, of the open sky, of the conformation of the earth, etc., the works of various artists, both ancient and modern, are examined as to their truthfulness, or lack of truth. The criticism of these works is generally just in respect to the points considered, and it may be noticed that in pursuing his investigations of the truths of nature Ruskin does not lose sight of the fact that it is with visual impressions, and not with physical facts as such, that the artist is concerned. Thus (pages 380, 381) where he shows that the branches of trees do not taper he takes care to observe that to the eye they often appear to taper, and must, within certain limits which are indicated, be represented as doing so. In the analysis of mountain forms in the fourth volume, and in that of leaf and branch structure in the fifth volume, it has been said that he goes too far in the direction of geological and botanical investigation. It should be observed, however, that here, as elsewhere, the structural forms are followed only so far as they bear upon the visual aspects of the objects examined. It is not with the internal anatomy of nature, but with the beauty of its visible anatomy, that he is concerned.

Among the most remarkable and the most valuable portions of Modern Painters are the analysis of abstract lines and the discussion of the principles of composition. These are contributions to the literature of the fine arts which are, I believe, without any parallel. The classification of curves into curves of life, and curves of inertness, the discussion of the principles on which living curves are formed, the endless varieties of such curves, and the illustrations of living curves in natural organic forms, and in various types of ornamental art, contain matter of the highest value to the student of beauty.

The first chapter on composition is entitled The Law of Help ; and after saying that a well - composed picture is not done according to rule, because creative art is not a process that can be regulated by rule, though there are certain elementary laws of arrangement that may be traced a little way, he defines composition as “ the help of everything in the picture by everything else.” A truer definition could hardly be framed. The law of help is the fundamental law of composition, because it is the law of organic relationship throughout the universe. Creative design, he teaches, is the production of harmonic unity by such an adjustment of parts, from least to greatest, as will make each contribute its utmost to the total harmony. In a chapter entitled The Task of the Least he shows how this is in respect to least things, and in another, entitled The Rule of the Greatest, he considers in what the expression of magnitude consists, and how the sense of it depends on our estimate of the many small things of which the greater are composed. And he shows here, also, that the qualities of largeness and breadth in a work of art result from the habit with great composers of regarding the relations of things, rather than their separate nature. Breadth, or largeness of treatment, in composition is thus seen to be independent of scale. The artist does not need a great canvas in order to work in the grand style.

In the Elements of Drawing we have a further analysis of composition. The sense of pleasure in rhythm and metre is here said to be happily a common possession of all orders of minds, while power of composition is rare and unteachable. Yet some simple laws of arrangement, deduced from the works of great composers, are set forth with unexampled acuteness of insight and lucidity of illustration. Among these are : The Law of Principality, which involves subordination ; The Law of Repetition, by which some kind of sympathy between objects is marked, and under this law symmetry is treated ; The Law of Continuity, the establishment of some orderly succession in the arrangement of objects more or less similar; The Law of Curvature, which includes the modulations of curves. Under each head the principles are discussed in a clearly intelligible manner, and in such a way as to stimulate enjoyment of some of those qualities which, more than all others, make a work of art to be a work of art. This is very rare. Most writers on composition give us little more than arbitrary rules and vague generalities. The subject is a difficult one, even in respect to the more obvious principles involved, while the more subtle laws of design are too fine to be grasped by the intellect alone, and are apprehended only by the artistic imagination. The more competent writers on the fine arts feel the difficulty, and say little about composition. Thus Sir Joshua Reynolds, through all his writings, has almost nothing specific to tell us about it; his most explicit direction to the student on this head being, “ to put all things in a beautiful order and harmony, that the whole may be of a piece.” 3

Ruskin’s artistic apprehensions were of wide range. He understood the essential oneness of the arts ; and thus he was led to consider the principles of architecture, sculpture, and the so-called minor arts, as well as of painting. His interest in architecture was awakened early. An admiration for the picturesque drawings of Samuel Prout had led him, as we have seen, to verify Prout in the cities of Flanders and Germany, as he had verified Turner in the Alps ; and his architectural interest appears always to have been governed primarily by the painters’ point of view. It was thus natural that the architecture of Italy should appeal to him with a special attraction ; for in Italian building of all epochs, the painters’ habits of conception and treatment are strongly emphasized. The structural logic of the best northern building is not found in Italy; and in Ruskin’s time the true Gothic of the north was not yet understood. The light, the warmth, and the color of the broadly walled Italian art gave him the keenest delight, and called out his most ardent efforts in analysis, description, and graphic illustration.

His monumental architectural work, The Stones of Venice, has probably done more than any other book to awaken admiration for the beauty of the enchanting city of the sea. In an earlier essay, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he had already formulated what he regarded as the fundamental principles of architectural design. Under the first of these, The Lamp of Sacrifice, he affirms that all noble architecture is produced in a spirit of ardor which prompts the builders to do their utmost, to spend rather than to save, both in labor and materials, that the monument may become a worthy embodiment of noble aspirations. In the chapter entitled The Lamp of Truth he discusses the question of architectural deceits, supporting his conclusions by cogent reasonings; and throughout the book he spares no pains to fortify his positions by carefully reasoned arguments. The charge of dogmatic arrogance, which is sometimes brought against him, is therefore hardly warranted. Yet mistaken affirmations are frequent, and are sometimes made with vexatious assurance, as, for instance, where (page 55) he states that the decline of Gothic art is marked by the “ substitution of the line for the mass.” But Gothic architecture is essentially an architecture of line, rather than of mass. He makes this statement in connection with a discussion of the development of window tracery, and this whole discussion is erroneous because he mistakes the late survivals of plate-tracery in Norman Gothic for examples of early Gothic work.

No right theory of Gothic development, or any branch of it, can be drawn from the pointed architecture of Normandy in any period, and least of all from the later Gothic of that province. Ruskin was, however, true here according to his lights. The early Gothic of France was practically unknown when he was writing. And there is, indeed, a sense in which his statement is true. In the Gothic skeleton of the best period, the lines were not attenuated, or accented with painful sharpness, or excessively multiplied. The piers and shafts had a full-rounded breadth and even massiveness, as compared with those of the decadent Gothic ; and lines were not used ornamentally in needless tracery and panelings, as they were in the flamboyant Gothic style. True Gothic art, like all other good art, had a monumental simplicity and severity which, as contrasted with the flamboyant linear complexity, may rightly enough be characterized as massive. But this is not the sense in which Ruskin here supposes Gothic to be massive, as an examination of the passage will show. A truer statement of the cause of Gothic decline is given on page 61 where he says, “ It was because it had lost its own strength, and disobeyed its own laws.” The law laid down in the chapter on Beauty that everything is ornamental that is imitative of nature, and the converse, that what is not thus imitative is unfit for ornament, can hardly be accepted, though the qualifying considerations added greatly modify the bald statement. The emphatic condemnation (page 97) of the Greek fret, and other kindred forms of ornamentation, must be regarded as shortsighted and indefensible, while on page 129 the doubtful conclusion is reached that “ all arrangements of color, for its own sake, in graceful forms, are barbarous ; and that, to paint a color pattern with the lovely lines of a Greek leaf moulding, is an utterly savage procedure.” Yet we now know that the Greeks themselves painted the leaf moulding, and Ruskin has himself 4 illustrated the subtle beauty of the lines of French missal illuminations, in which the exquisiteness of abstract color arrangements constitute an equal charm.

The Stones of Venice abounds in misconceptions and mistaken affirmations ; but these are largely due to the state of ideas and understanding in respect to mediæval architecture half a century ago. I have said that Ruskin’s interest in architecture was primarily pictorial. I do not, however, mean that he was wholly wanting in apprehension of its structural basis. To a limited extent he felt this strongly. He has, in many parts of the work, shown a just, and even an acute, sense of the elementary structural principles of ordinary wall, column, and arch construction. But beyond this he has hardly understood the more important types of mediæval building on their structural side. What he recognized was enough for his purpose in respect to those forms of architecture in which the basilican elements predominate; but it was not enough to enable him to appreciate the very different structural character of the Byzantine architecture of St. Mark’s, much less was it adequate to an understanding of the organic Romanesque and Gothic art. The structural character of a given monument was not what primarily impressed him, and in consequence he is often led into error. Thus when, after his eloquent general description of the church of St. Mark (vol. ii. p. 70) —which has the beauty of a poem — he comes to what he calls a sketch of the principles exemplified in the building, the pictorial feeling promptly asserts itself, and he declares (page 74) that “ the first broad characteristic of the building, and the root nearly of every other important peculiarity in it, is its confessed incrustation.” The great Byzantine structural system of the dome on pendentives, so magnificently carried out here, which is the essential governing characteristic of the edifice, is wholly overlooked. The incrustation is but a superficial adornment, which this building shares with many others of various types, as notably the basilican churches of southern Italy and Sicily.

It is a splendid and appropriate mode of adornment for such a building; but it is not an integral characteristic of the architecture itself. Further misapprehension, and even confusion of thought, are shown on page 80, where it is laid down as a “ law ” that “ science of inner structure is to be abandoned ” in architecture like this, for since “ the body of the structure is confessedly of inferior, and comparatively incoherent materials, it would be absurd to attempt in it any expression of the higher refinements of construction.” But what higher refinements of construction could be attempted in any case ? The inner structure proper to a system of domes on pendentives being fully, and grandly, carried out, anything more would be superfluous. The broad expanses of wall and pier were not sought by the designer as a field for the mosaic incrustation. He did not have to abandon anything in order to obtain them. These expanses are natural to the structural system employed, and must have been the same (as they are in the similar church of St. Front of Périgueux) had the body of the edifice been of solid stone, instead of brick. And again, on page 98, it is affirmed of the church architecture of the Middle Ages, that what we now regard in it with wonder and delight was then the natural continuation, in the principal edifice of the city, of a style which was already familiar in domestic building. “ Let the reader,” he says, “ fix this great fact well in his mind.” And, he continues, “ I would desire here clearly and forcibly to assert, that wherever Christian church architecture has been good and lovely, it has been merely the perfect development of the common dwelling-house architecture of the period.” And still further : “No style of noble architecture can be exclusively ecclesiastical. It must be practiced in the dwelling before it is perfected in the church.”

This is not the place for discussion of this point; but it would be more true to say that all great architectural styles have been primarily ecclesiastical, extending the term ecclesiastical to include every form of religious monument from the Egyptian temple down. But we need not pursue these things further. We are not reviewing Ruskin’s works, we are merely gathering from them some illustrations of his general teaching on the fine arts. His equipment as a critic was, in respect to architecture, inadequate. His strongest work is Modern Painters. The Seven Lamps and The Stones of Venice contain much that is fine and enduring. They are, in fact, in many ways monumental works ; but his theory of architecture is not so sound as his theory of painting. Yet his interest in architecture was strong, and his imagination and eloquence enable him to impart to the reader of his architectural works something of his own noble enthusiasm. The value of these works consists chiefly in this, and in this they are unlike most other books.

His main interest was in painting. He had himself a painter’s genius of no common order, and a brief consideration of the character of his artistic work will help us to understand better his qualifications as a critic of painting. Through all his life the practice of drawing with the lead pencil, the pen, and in water colors, formed usually a large part, and often the best part, of each day’s occupation. He was in no sense a mere amateur, except that he did not make his art a means of livelihood. Few men who have practiced the art of painting as a profession have had so fine and so thorough a technical training. His skill of hand was remarkable, and nearly all of the vast numbers of his drawings exhibit rare subtleties of expressive execution. His sense of form was keen, and his feeling for color was exquisite. His work was not only refined in respect to both of these qualities, it was also strong. He worked with a clearly understood aim, and he knew well how to suit his method, in any given case, to the most direct and economical accomplishment of this aim. When his subject was an extended scene, fine in composition, and subtle in proportions, he would generally, in his mature period, limit himself to lead-pencil outline. The line, in such cases, was a soft and broken one, wonderfully suggestive of the mystery and fullness of nature, as well as true in its course ; and the outline was more or less supplemented with expressive, though hasty, markings, suggestive of details as well as of solid masses.

I have before me such a drawing made in 1876. It is a view near Brieg looking toward the Simplon. A winding reach of the Simplon road, with a high retaining wall above, and another wall with an undulating parapet below, is seen in perspective on the left. To the right the mountains fall away into a vast hollow. In the middle ground is a grandly composed group of buildings with towers, whose masses mate finely with the natural features of the scene; and beyond the great hills close in on either side, leaving a vista through which the eye catches a more distant range. It contains but an hour’s work, yet the sublimity and the poetry of the Alps are in it. In other instances, where the subject called for it, he would add a rapid suggestion of chiaroscuro, laying broad shades with the side of the lead, sometimes, in haste, rubbing in finer tones with his finger, and deftly painting, as it were, with the pencil point. In still other cases, a broad color scheme is washed in with water colors; and often an interesting passage is more fully worked out in detail.

His eye was quick to discover a good subject, and in all such work he had a quite Turnerian power of seizing the expressive lines. To understand the source of this power we must look back to his earlier work, of which, also, a good example is before me. It represents a shoot of hawthorn, outlined with lead pencil, and faintly tinted with watercolor wash. This drawing must have been executed about the year 1850. The delicate precision of this outline and the frank skill with which the color wash is struck are consummate. The whole character of the beautiful thing is set forth with marvelous expression of its vigorous energy and tender elasticity of growth. The aim is limited to the rendering of these essential qualities, and the means are at once simple and adequate. This drawing is engraved in plate 52 of the fifth volume of Modern Painters. Ruskin made vast numbers of such drawings, and it is, I think, safe to say that no other man has delineated plant forms with such tender feeling, and such masterly power. The line, in these earlier drawings, is firm and even, like the line of Raphael and da Vinci. The sureness of his hand is wonderful.

In the later work he slowly developed a style in which the firm even line gave place to a freer and more broken treatment expressive of mass and mystery, rather than of keenly marked contours. An example of this later manner of rendering leafage represents a group of dried autumnal oak leaves. Here the qualities to be set forth were the beauty of organic structure, and of surface flexures, ruling the torn raggedness of the shriveled, wind-blown spray. It is wrought broadly with the water-color pencil, in purple and brown, with loaded body-color in the lights. No lead-pencil outline is visible, and no minute elaboration of contours occurs ; but the forms are rapidly swept in with marvelous skill and with subtle sense of action. I know nothing comparable to it but the more sketchy work of Tintoretto and the larger handling of Turner.

Of architectural drawing he also did much, at first in the manner of Prout, but with a superior refinement and beauty. In preparation for The Seven Lamps, and The Stones of Venice, he made many drawings, and in these he developed a manner which was his own. The economical methods of lead pencil and wash, or pen and wash, were generally employed; but occasionally he went further, and made large and elaborate water-color drawings of architecture. Among the most beautiful of these is one of the south porch of St. Mark’s, made in 1876, and now in the possession of Professor Norton. In its massive structure and opalescent color this drawing is most noteworthy. In all renderings of architecture he gives the entire visual aspect of a building as it stands to-day, with the marks of time and the softening touches of nature.

He sets forth the total pictorial charm, rather than the purely architectural character, of a given monument, or detail. In addition to such drawings from nature and from architecture Ruskin made large numbers of drawings and color notes from the works of great masters of painting. He did this as a means of study, and as for this end complete copying is generally not so useful as the making of abstracts in line and color, he rarely made complete copies; but from nearly all of the great Italian masters, from Giotto to Titian, he made studies in outline, or simple renderings of color schemes. Less frequently he made more finished studies of parts of works that particularly interested him, and among such studies is the remarkable one of the head of Carpaccio’s sleeping St. Ursula, now in the Sheffield Museum. While in these copies he strove hard in each case to be faithful to his original, and rarely failed to secure a trustworthy record of it, he was yet unable to efface himself. He could not make a mechanical copy. He naturally emphasized the qualities which chiefly appealed to him, and his own genius is delightfully recognizable in every such study.

An essential feature of Ruskin’s philosophy of art is the affirmation of the influence upon art of moral conditions, and the reaction of art itself upon moral character. It is this which constitutes the chief peculiarity of his teaching ; and it is on this point that this teaching has of late, in some quarters, been most energetically opposed. Of the proposition that moral conditions influence the arts, and determine their quality, there can, however, be no serious question. The works of man inevitably reflect his character, moral or immoral, as the case may be. And the fine arts are always man’s fullest expression of himself. It does not, however, follow that a great artist is always a man of the highest moral principle. It is undeniable that many great artists have had grave moral weaknesses. Individuals are not wholly responsible for their moral tendencies (though they are for their moral conduct). But a man’s work is not a reflection of himself as an individual alone. Where great art exists there must have been fine moral fibre somewhere back of it, if not in the individual producer, at least in his predecessors. The artistic power of a person, or of a people, is largely a matter of inheritance. If an artistic race, actuated by high ideals, develops like the Greeks a noble art, the artistic power will not instantly fail when the ideals are forsaken ; but it will not long survive in its integrity. The relaxed moral restraints and the coarser sentiments of the later Greek civilization are mirrored in the later art of Greece.

As to the influence of art upon moral character, it has been thought that Buskin has formulated some questionable conclusions on this head, as where in the opening of the Oxford lecture on The Relation of Art to Morals, he states that one of the functions of the fine arts is that of “ perfecting the morality or ethical state of men.” It has been denied that art has any power to exert a moral influence. History, it has been said, shows that familiarity with the greatest works of art has not availed to strengthen morals in times of moral weakness. But the same may be said of all moral forces. They are always powerless against determined resistance. It is only where some favorable disposition exists that any moral influence avails; and where this does exist it is impossible to believe that all forms of expression of the beautiful have not their influence in quickening the moral sense.

From the time when he began to write on social matters his art teaching has been involved with theories which have met with not wholly unmerited opposition. His ideas on social and political order, while springing from a noble heart, and containing a vast amount of wholesome truth set forth with matchless eloquence and prophetic fervor, are weakened by fundamental misconceptions, and even by temperamental perverseness. His doctrine of authority, as laid down in Time and Tide (pages 72-79), has in it too much of the arbitrary element; and the impossibility of enforcing it under existing conditions does not seem to occur to him. He presupposes an entirely wise and incorruptible central authority, with a system of oversight, guidance, and discipline, from which no individual in the state could escape.

For a social reformer he was not well equipped, either by nature or by education. He did not see that men must be led in freedom. He did not respect freedom. He did not see that character can be formed only by voluntary conformity with the divine laws of life. Repression and compulsion, while necessary, under existing conditions, for the maintenance of outward order, have no potency to reform human nature. He desired to enforce principles of right living, and the slowness of men to conform to such principles made him impatient. But a reformer needs vast patience. Impatience, anxiety, irritability, and excitability are weaknesses which unfit a man to help his fellows ; and with all his genius and all his nobility of soul, Ruskin had these weaknesses in large measure. He also had a large share of the common weakness of egotism. Into his teaching on social order he put himself too much. In his later years his selfconfidence became almost a mania, which greatly impaired his power for good. He suffered acutely during these years. What seemed to him the reckless pursuit of commonplace material ends in the world around him kept his mind in a state of hot indignation. He could see nothing hopeful in the signs of the times, and he became incapable of faith in ultimate good. The disfigurement of the landscape by the inroads of mechanical works, and the wanton destruction of great monuments of the past, pained him to the quick. He felt that everything was going hopelessly to the bad. Thus his later writings are often weakened by querulousness, and vitiated by fallacies. Yet even in these the generosity of his nature, the tenderness of his sympathies, and the noble elevation of his aims are always manifest. But his work as a teacher and critic of art was substantially done before he began to preach on social reform, and before his infirmities had broken him down. This work is, in the main, sound and illuminating. It is on the highest plane of thought and feeling ; and no criticism can rob it of its enduring value. It is full of inspiration which lifts the mind continually into the realm of the ideal.

Charles H. Moore.

  1. New York : John Wiley & Son. 1873.
  2. Literary Works, vol. i. p. 312.
  3. Discourses, vol. ii. p. 403.
  4. Modern Painters, vol. iv. pp. 281, 282.