From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- On his wedding night, John Ruskin was so shocked by his discovery of his wife Effie's pubic hair that he rejected her, and the marriage was later legally annulled. ...
John Ruskin (February 8, 1819 – January 20, 1900) is best known for his work as an art critic and social critic, but is remembered as an author, poet and artist as well. Ruskin's essays on art and architecture were extremely influential. He is best-remembered for the books Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice; the speculations surrounding his sexuality; and the art controversy with James Whistler on Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket.
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.
Ruskin's range was vast. He wrote over 250 works which started from art history, but expanded to cover topics ranging over science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, the environmental effects of pollution, and mythology. After his death Ruskin's works were collected together in a massive "library edition", completed in 1912 by his friends Edward Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. Its index is famously elaborate, attempting to articulate the complex interconnectedness of his thought.
Art and design criticism
Ruskin based his early work in defense of Turner on a belief that art communicated an understanding of nature, and that authentic artists should reject inherited conventions, and study and appreciate effects of form and colour by direct observation. His most famous dictum was "go to nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing and selecting nothing." He later believed that the Pre-Raphaelites formed "a new and noble school" of art that would provide a basis for a thoroughgoing reform of the art world. For Ruskin, art should communicate truth above all things. However, he believed this was not revealed by mere display of skill, but the expression of the artist's whole moral outlook. Ruskin rejected the work of Whistler because he considered it to epitomise a reductive mechanisation of art.
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 and 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.(Kenneth Clark, "A Note on Ruskin's Writings on Art and Architecture," from Ruskin Today 1964)
Ruskin's belief in preservation of ancient buildings had a significant influence on later thinking about the distinction between conservation and restoration of old buildings. Ruskin was a strong proponent of the former, while his contemporary, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, advocated for the latter. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin writes:
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.
Though he never exhibited his paintings, Ruskin's own work was very distinctive. He created many careful studies of natural forms, adapting the style of Turner to detailed botanical, geological and architectural observation. He also painted a decorative floral border in the central room of Wallington Hall in Northumberland, home of his friend Pauline Trevelyan. The stained glass window in the Little Church of St Francis Funtley, Fareham, Hampshire is reputed to have been designed by him. Originally placed in the St. Peter's Church Duntisbourne Abbots near Cirencester, the window depicts the Ascension and the Nativity.
The fantasy novel
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).
Turner erotic drawings
Until 2005, biographies of both J. M. W. Turner and Ruskin had claimed that in 1858 Ruskin burned bundles of erotic paintings and drawings by Turner to protect Turner's posthumous reputation. In 2005, these works by Turner were discovered in a neglected British archive, proving Ruskin did not destroy them.
James Whistler trial
In 1878 James Whistler sued the critic John Ruskin for libel after the critic condemned his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, writing that he "never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
After the Ruskin trial, everything he mentioned or wrote about his work, and especially everything he told his biographers was done in a way in which he could dissociate himself from the English school of painting. His main purpose was to lose any relations he had with the couple of enemies he had made among the Royal Academicians, and the artists who he had been close to during the 1860's. Despite his attempts to give the notion that he did not belong to any school, he is without a doubt one of the few Victorian painters who is known for revitalizing the 'grand manner' of British painting. [James McNeil Whistler, 23]
Ruskin's sexuality has led to much speculation and critical comment. His one marriage, to Effie Gray, was annulled after six years because of non-consummation. His wife, in a letter to her parents, claimed that he found her "person" (meaning her body) repugnant. 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".
- Poems (1835-1846)
- The Poetry of Architecture: Cottage, Villa, etc., to Which Is Added Suggestions on Works of Art (1837-1838)
- The King of the Golden River, or The Black Brothers (1841)
- Modern Painters
- Part I. Of General Principles (1843-1844)
- Part II. Of Truth (1843-1846)
- Part III. Of Ideas of Beauty (1846)
- Part IV. Of Many Things (1856)
- Part V. Mountain Beauty (1856)
- Part VI. Of Leaf Beauty (1860)
- Part VII. Of Cloud Beauty (1860)
- Part VIII. Of Ideas of Relation: – I. Of Invention Formal (1860)
- Part IX. Of Ideas of Relation: – II. Of Invention Spiritual (1860)
- Review of Lord Lindsay's "Sketches of the History of Christian Art" (1847)
- The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849)
- Letters to the Times in Defense of Hunt and Millais (1851)
- Pre-Raphaelitism (1851)
- The Stones of Venice
- Volume I. The Foundations (1851)
- Volume II. The Sea–Stories (1853)
- Volume III. The Fall (1853)
- Lectures on Architecture and Poetry, Delivered at Edinburgh, in November, 1853
- Architecture and Painting (1854)
- The True and the Beautiful in Nature, Art, Morals and Religion (1858)
- Letters to the Times in Defense of Pre-Raphaelite Painting (1854)
- Academy Notes: Annual Reviews of the June Royal Academy Exhibitions (1855-1859 / 1875)
- The Harbours of England (1856)
- "A Joy Forever" and Its Price in the Market, or The Political Economy of Art (1857 / 1880)
- The Elements of Drawing, in Three Letters to Beginners (1857)
- The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art, and Its Application to Decoration and Manufacture, Delivered in 1858–9
- The Elements of Perspective, Arranged for the Use of Schools and Intended to be Read in Connection with the First Three Books of Euclid (1859)
- "Unto This Last": Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy (1860)
- Munera Pulveris: Essays on Political Economy (1862-1863 / 1872)
- Cestus of Aglaia (1864)
- Sesame and Lilies (1864-1865)
- The Ethics of the Dust: Ten Lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Chrystallisation (1866)
- The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic and War (1866)
- Time and Tide by Weare and Tyne: Twenty-five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland on the Laws of Work (1867)
- The Flamboyant Architecture of the Somme (1869)
- The Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm (1869)
- Verona and its Rivers (1870)
- Lectures on Art, Delivered before the University of Oxford in Hilary Term, 1870
- Aratra Pentelici: Six Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture Given before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1870
- Lectures on Sculpture, Delivered at Oxford, 1870–1871
- Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain
- Volume I. (1871)
- Volume II.
- Volume III.
- Volume IV. (1880)
- The Eagle's Nest: Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art, Given before the University of Oxford in Lent Term, 1872
- Love's Meinie (1873)
- Ariadne Florentia: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving, with Appendix, Given before the University of Oxford, in Michaelmas Term, 1872
- Val d’Arno: Ten Lectures on the Tuscan Art antecedent to the Florentine Year of Victories, given before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1872
- Mornings in Florence (1877)
- Pearls for Young Ladies (1878)
- Review of Paintings by James McNeill Whistler (1878)
- Fiction, Fair and Foul (1880)
- Deucalion: Collected Studies of the Lapse of Waves and Life of Stones (1883)
- The Art of England: Lectures Given at the University of Oxford (1883-1884)
- St Mark's Rest (1884)
- The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884)
- The Pleasures of England: Lectures Given at the University of Oxford (1884-1885)
- Bible of Amiens (1885)
- Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers while the Air was Yet Pure among the Alps and in the Scotland and England Which My Father Knew (1886)
- Præterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life (1885-1889)
- Giotto and His Works in Padua: Being an Explanatory Notice of the Series of Woodcuts Executed for the Arundel Society after the Frescoes in the Arena Chapel
- Hortus Inclusus
- In Montibus Sanctis
- Cœli Enarrant
- Notes on Samuel Prout and William Hunt
- Guide to the Principal Pictures of the Venice Academy of Fine Arts
- Catalogue of the Drawings and Sketches of J.M.W. Turner
- An Inquiry into Some of the Conditions at Present Affecting "The Study of Architecture" in our Schools
Fictional portrayals of Ruskin
- The Passion of John Ruskin (1994), a film directed by Alex Chappel, starring Mark McKinney (Ruskin), Neve Campbell (Rose la Touche) and Colette Stevenson (Effie).
- The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard (1998) is mainly about A. E. Housman, but Ruskin appears.
- The Steampunk Trilogy (1997) by Paul Di Filippo includes a brief reference to John Ruskin in the short story "Victoria".
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."
- Used by and after Ruskin as the reverse of wealth in the sense of ‘well-being’: Ill-being. (Oxford English Dictionary)