Modern Painters  

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True and False Griffins for John Ruskin's Modern Painters (Part IV. Of Many Things), first published in 1856.
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True and False Griffins for John Ruskin's Modern Painters (Part IV. Of Many Things), first published in 1856.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Modern Painters (1843 - 1860) is a five-volume series of books on art by John Ruskin which argues that recent painters emerging from the tradition of the picturesque are superior in the art of landscape to the old masters. The book was primarily written as a defence of the later work of J.M.W. Turner. Ruskin used the book to argue that art should devote itself to the accurate documentation of nature. In Ruskin's view Turner had developed from early detailed documentation of nature to a later more profound insight into natural forces and atmospheric effects.

Ruskin added later volumes in subsequent years. Volume two (1846) placed emphasis on symbolism in art, expressed through nature. The second volume was influential on the early development of Pre-Raphaelitism. Ruskin also added third and fourth volumes in later years.

Contents

Modern Painters I (1843)

Much of the period, from late 1840 to autumn 1842, Ruskin spent abroad with his parents, principally in Italy. Ruskin’s studies of Italian art were chiefly guided by George Richmond, to whom the Ruskins were introduced by Joseph Severn, the friend of Keats (whose son, Arthur Severn, married Ruskin's beloved cousin, Joan). But he was galvanised into writing a defence of J. M. W. Turner when he read an attack on several of Turner's pictures exhibited at the Royal Academy. It recalled an attack by the critic, Rev. John Eagles, in Blackwood's Magazine in 1836, which had prompted Ruskin to write a long essay. John James had sent the piece to Turner who did not wish it to be published. It finally appeared in 1903.

Before Ruskin began Modern Painters, John James Ruskin had begun collecting watercolours, including works by Samuel Prout and, from 1839, Turner himself. Both painters were among occasional guests of the Ruskins at Herne Hill, and 163 Denmark Hill (demolished 1947) to which the family removed in 1842.

What became the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), published by Smith, Elder & Co. under the anonymous but apparently authoritative title, "A Graduate of Oxford," was Ruskin’s response to Turner’s critics. An electronic edition is available online. Ruskin controversially argued that modern landscape painters—and in particular Turner—were superior to the so-called "Old Masters" of the post-Renaissance period. Ruskin maintained that Old Masters such as Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude, and Salvator Rosa, unlike Turner, favoured pictorial convention, and not “truth to nature”. He explained that he meant “moral as well as material truth”. The job of the artist is to observe the reality of nature and not to invent it in a studio—to render what he has seen and understood imaginatively on canvas, free of any rules of composition. For Ruskin, modern landscapists demonstrated a superior understanding of the “truths” of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation, a profound appreciation of which Ruskin demonstrated in his own prose. He described works he had seen at the National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery with extraordinary verbal felicity.

Although critics were slow to react, and reviews were mixed, many notable literary and artistic figures were impressed with the young man’s work, notably Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell. Suddenly Ruskin had found his métier, and in one leap he helped to redefine the genre of art criticism, mixing a discourse of polemic with aesthetics, scientific observation and ethics. It also cemented Ruskin’s relationship with Turner. After the artist died in 1851, Ruskin catalogued the nearly 20,000 sketches Turner gifted to the British nation.

Modern Painters II (1846)

Drawing on his travels, Ruskin wrote the second volume of Modern Painters (published April 1846). The volume concentrated more on Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artists than on Turner. It was also a more theoretical work than its predecessor. Ruskin explicitly linked the aesthetic and the divine, arguing that truth, beauty and religion are inextricably bound together: “the Beautiful as a gift of God”. In defining categories of beauty and imagination, Ruskin was arguing that all great artists must perceive beauty and, with their imagination, to communicate it creatively through symbols. Generally, critics gave a warmer reception to this second volume, although many still found the attack on the aesthetic orthodoxy associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds difficult to take. In the summer, Ruskin was abroad again with his father who still hoped his son might become a poet, even poet laureate just one among many factors increasing the tension between them.

Modern Painters III and IV

Both volumes III and IV of Modern Painters were published in 1856. In MP III Ruskin argued that all great art is "the expression of the spirits of great men". Only the morally and spiritually healthy are capable of admiring the noble and the beautiful, and transforming them into great art by imaginatively penetrating their essence. MP IV presents the geology of the Alps in terms of landscape painting, and its moral and spiritual influence on those living nearby. The contrasting final chapters, "The Mountain Glory" and "The Mountain Gloom" provide an early example of Ruskin’s social analysis, highlighting the poverty of the peasants living in the lower Alps.

Modern Painters V

Ruskin’s explorations of nature and aesthetics in the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters focused on Giorgione, Paolo Veronese, Titian and Turner. Ruskin asserted that the components of the greatest art are held together, like human communities, in quasi-organic unity. Competitive struggle is destructive. Uniting Modern Painters V and Unto This Last is Ruskin’s “Law of Help”:

Government and cooperation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.

Bibliography

  • Modern Painters (5 vols.) (1843–60) (Works 3–7)
    • Vol. I (1843) (Parts I and II) Of General Principles and Of Truth (Works 3)
    • Vol. II (1846) (Part III) Of the Imaginative and Theoretic Faculties (Works 4)
    • Vol. III (1856) (Part IV) Of Many Things (Works 5)
    • Vol. IV (1856) (Part V) Mountain Beauty (Works 6)
    • Vol. V (1860) (Part VI) Of Leaf Beauty (Part VII) Of Cloud Beauty (Part VIII) Of Ideas of Relation (1) Of Invention Formal (Part IX) Of Ideas of Relation (2) Of Invention Spiritual (Works 7)

References

  • Mark Jarzombek, "Recognizing Ruskin: "Modern Painters" and the Refractions of Self", Assemblage, No. 32 (Apr., 1997), pp. 70-87




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