John Ruskin was a prolific essayist who, like his intellectual and stylistic mentor Thomas Carlyle, railed against many of the advances of modern society. Many of his major works were epistolary or delivered as lectures, making generic classification problematic; nevertheless, the wide range of Ruskin’s interests may be viewed as a series of interrelated essays. As an art critic and social economist Ruskin defined the relationship between art and society and between the worker and society in novel ways, influencing figures as diverse as Proust and Gandhi. In a rapidly changing world, in which workers were becoming alienated from the works they produced and science was competing with art and literature as a source of knowledge and spiritual sustenance, Ruskin championed art as both ethical teacher and moral yardstick against which society could be measured.
The publication of volume one of Modern Painters in 1843 launched Ruskin’s career as “sage” and intellectual guide for his era. Expanding on ideas espoused in uninspired essays written while Ruskin was a student at Oxford, Modern Painters began as a defense of Turner’s landscape painting against the charge that it was untrue to nature. The five volumes of Modern Painters (1843–60) became an ambitious series of essays on the social context in which art is produced and which in turn mirrors the society that produces it. Art, therefore, appeals to the intellect as well as to the aesthetic sensibility. In accordance with his lofty aims, Ruskin employs a formal and literary prose in the first three volumes of Modern Painters. He is a master at exemplifying major points through succinct examples. In illustrating the connection between art’s power to evoke great thought, as well as its capacity to give aesthetic pleasure, Ruskin states in volume three:
“A finished work of a great artist is only better than its sketch if the sources of pleasure belonging to colour and realization—valuable in themselves—are so employed as to increase the impressiveness of the thought.”
The writing of Modern Painters was interrupted by the creation of two of Ruskin’s most important works, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and the three volumes of The Stones ofVenice (1851–53). The Seven Lamps is largely a theoretical work applying many of the standards of art to architecture. Ruskin, in great part, attempts to resolve the apparent dichotomy between architecture’s practical restraints and what should be one of its important aims: the imitation of nature. In The Stones of Venice he applies theoretical considerations to Venetian architecture. No doubt influenced by his recent visit to Northern Italy in 1849, where he made many sketches of Venice’s famous buildings, The Stones of Venice contains Ruskin’s characteristic attention to detail and a luxuriant “painterly” prose, syntactically harmonious, full of minute descriptions of the forms and colors of the city. His “portrait” of Piazza San Marco demonstrates his rich prose:
…for beyond those troops of ordered arches there rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away;—a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory,—sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes…
Ruskin admittedly had little reading in economic theory, but his philosophical assumptions about the relationship between art and morality led him naturally into the field. Believing that only a spiritually nourishing environment could lead to great art, Ruskin opposed Bentham’s laissez-faire economic doctrines as morally debilitating. In a series of forceful but sometimes illogical essays published in Cornhill Magazine, Ruskin contests the popular view that man is selfishly motivated in pursuit of his economic interests. The public was infuriated by many of Ruskin’s assertions and publication of the essays was terminated. The essays were later collected in Unto This Last (1862), which many years after its publication became a popular and influential work.
Several books followed, which were collections of essays and lectures Ruskin delivered to a variety of audiences, including his students at Oxford. They demonstrate an impressive eclecticism and intellectual prowess, but also a self-indulgence and lack of logic which may have been caused by several bouts of mental illness suffered during the later years of his life.
Ruskin’s views were often extreme, exalting minor artists and vilifying others such as Whistler, who won a libel suit against him. His strict evangelical upbringing, his daily reading in the Bible, and his frustrated personal life have all been offered as causes of his sermon-like prose; but his breadth of knowledge and his masterful use of language to help us “see” mark him as a unique essayist of the English language.
Born 8 February 1819 in London. Studied at Christ Church, Oxford, 1836–40, 1842, B.A., 1842, M.A., 1843. Married Euphemia Chalmers Gray, 1848 (marriage annulled, 1854). Lived mainly in Venice, 1849–53. Wrote annual review catalogues for Royal Academy exhibitions, 1855–59 and 1875; taught drawing, Working Men’s College, London, 1850s; lectured throughout England, 1855–70; catalogued Turner bequest to the National Gallery, London, 1857–58; teacher, Winnington Hall girls’ school, from 1857;
Rede Lecturer, Cambridge University, 1867; first Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford University, 1869–79 and 1883–84. Founder of a drawing school in Oxford, 1870, a school in Camberwell, London, Whitelands College, Chelsea, London, St. George’s Museum, Walkley, near Sheffield, and the Guild of St. George, 1871 (wrote the guild’s journal Fors Clavigera, 1871–74). Bought Brantwood house, by Coniston Lake, 1871, and lived there from 1889. Suffered first of several mental breakdowns, 1878.
Awards: honorary degrees from Cambridge and Oxford Universities; Honorary Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1871; Honorary Member, Royal Society of Painters in Water- Colours, 1873; Fellow, Royal Geological Society, Royal Zoological Society, and Royal Institute of British Architects. Died at Coniston, 20 January 1900.
Essays and Related Prose
Modern Painters, 5 vols., 1843–60; abridged edition, edited by David Barrie, 1987
The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849
The Stones of Venice, 3 vols., 1851–53; selections edited by Arnold Whittick, 1976, and Jan Morris, 1981
Lectures on Architecture and Painting, 1854
The Political Economy of Art (two lectures), 1857; enlarged edition, as “A Joy for Ever”, 1880
The Two Paths, Being Lectures on Art and Its Application to Decoration and Manufacture, 1859
Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy, 1862; edited by J.D.C.Monfries and G.E. Hollingsworth, 1931, and Lloyd J.Hubenka, 1967
Sesame and Lilies: Two Lectures, 1865
The Ethics of the Dust: Ten Lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallisation, 1866; edited by R.O.Morris, 1914
The Crown of Wild Olive: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War, 1866; edited by W.F.Melton, 1919
Time and Tide, by Weare and Tyne: Twenty-Five Letters to a Working Man of Sunderland on the Laws of Work, 1867; edited by P.Kaufman, 1928
The Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm, 1869
Lectures on Art, 1870; revised edition, 1887
Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, 8 vols., 1871– 84
Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy, 1872
Aratra Pentelici: Six Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, 1872
The Eagle’s Nest: Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art, 1872
Love’s Meinie: Lectures on Greek and English Birds, 3 vols.,1873–81
Ariadne Florentina: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving, 3 vols., 1873–75
Val D’Arno: Ten Lectures on the Tuscan Art Directly Antecedent to the Florentine Year of Victories, 1874
Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers, 10 vols., 1875–86
Deucalion: Collected Studies of the Lapse of Waves, and Life of Stones, 9 vols., 1875–83
Mornings in Florence, Being Simple Studies of Christian Art for English Travellers, 6 vols., 1876–77
Arrows of the Chace, Being a Collection of Scattered Letters Published Chiefly in the Daily Newspapers, 1840–1880, edited by A.D.O.Wedderburn, 2 vols., 1880
On the Old Road: A Collection of Miscellaneous Essays, 1834–1885, edited by A.D.O.Wedderburn, 2 vols., 1885; revised edition, 3 vols., 1899
Verona and Other Lectures, edited by W.G.Collingwood, 1894
Lectures on Landscape, 1897
The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art, edited by Joan Evans, 1959; revised editions, 1980, 1995
The Genius of Ruskin: Selections, edited by John D.Rosenberg, 1963
Ruskin Today (selections), edited by Kenneth Clark, 1964
The Art Criticism, edited by Robert L.Herbert, 1964
The Literary Criticism, edited by Harold Bloom, 1965
Unto This Last, and Other Writings, edited by Clive Wilmer, 1985
The Social and Economic Works, 6 vols., 1994
Selected Writings, edited by Philip Davis, 1995
Other writings: the three-volume autobiography Praeterita (1886–89) and many volumes of correspondence.
Collected works edition: Works (Library Edition), edited by E.T. Cook and A.D.O.Wedderburn, 39 vols., 1903–12, reprinted in microfiche, 1986.
Beetz, Kirk H., John Ruskin: A Bibliography, 1900–1974, Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1976
Cate, George Allan, John Ruskin: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1988
Wise, Thomas J., and James P.Smart, A Complete Bibliography of the Writings in Prose and Verse of John Ruskin, LL.D., London: privately printed, 2 vols., 1889–93
Helsinger, Elizabeth K., Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982
Hewison, Robert, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, and London: Thames and Hudson, 1976
Hilton, Tim, John Ruskin: The Early Years, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1985
Hunt, John Dixon, The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin, New York: Viking, and London: Dent, 1982
Kirchhoff, Frederick, John Ruskin, Boston: Twayne, 1984
Rosenberg, John D., The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963
Rosenberg, John D., “Style and Sensibility in Ruskin’s Prose,” in The Art of Victorian Prose, edited by George Levine and William Madden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968:177–200
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