Article abstract: Ruskin was the most influential critic of art and architecture in the nineteenth century, promoting the notion that art had a moral purpose; as a social critic, he worked to undercut notions of laissez-faire economics and utilitarianism, championing the dignity of individual workers and the need for national programs of education and welfare.
John Ruskin’s parents, wine merchant John James Ruskin and his wife Margaret, were convinced that their child was destined for greatness. With this future in mind, they reared him in sheltered comfort, keeping him from activities that might lead to injury, affording him few opportunities to play with children his own age. Young John read the Bible with his devout mother, who believed he would one day be a great divine, and listened to the works of Sir Walter Scott and other literary luminaries read by his father, who thought John destined for fame as a poet. In the isolation of his home, Herne Hill, outside London, Ruskin wrote poetry and sketched for amusement. There, too, he was privately tutored in preparation for entry into Oxford.
Business activities meant frequent trips for his father, and as a child Ruskin had ample opportunity to see both Great Britain and later the Continent in his parents’ company. On a trip through France in 1835, he met Adèle Domecq, eldest daughter of his father’s business partner; unaccustomed to the company of young females, Ruskin fell helplessly and confusedly in love. For several years he harbored deep feelings for Adèle, but he was eventually disappointed when she married a French nobleman in 1840.
Meanwhile, Ruskin was already writing on subjects that would occupy him for much of his adult life: art and architecture. He had published scientific papers when he was only fifteen, and had already published poetry before he enrolled at Oxford in 1837. While a student there, he began a series for Architectural Magazine titled “The Poetry of Architecture”; these essays stress the importance of landscape art as an expression of the artist’s view of nature, not mere slavish imitation—a theme he would elaborate in his multivolume Modern Painters (1843-1860).
Ruskin’s life at Oxford was by most standards unusual. Friends at Christ Church College knew him as a friendly sort, slender, with reddish hair, and pale blue eyes accentuated by the blue cravat he wore. Though he resided at the college, his mother had taken rooms nearby to oversee his education. For three years, Ruskin strove for the Newdigate Prize for poetry, largely at his father’s insistence, winning the prize in 1839. Unfortunately, he found his preparation for Oxford insufficient in some areas and eventually had to take a leave of absence to recover from a stress-related illness. Not until 1842 did he receive a B.A., taking a double fourth in classics and mathematics.
Ruskin’s emergence into the public forum came as a result of his passion for art. Long an admirer of the iconoclastic painter J. M. W. Turner, in 1842 Ruskin found himself compelled to undertake a systematic defense of the artist to rebut a savage review of Turner’s work. At the same time, his family moved to Denmark Hill, which was to be Ruskin’s home for three decades. There he wrote diligently what eventually became the first of a multivolume work explaining the principles that characterize great art: power, imitation, truth, beauty, and relation. The first volume of Modern Painters was published in 1843; Ruskin identified himself on the title page simply as “A Graduate of Oxford,” ostensibly to mask the fact that he was so young to write so authoritatively.
Modern Painters was favorably received, and Ruskin set about immediately to continue his study. In 1845, he was allowed to travel to the Continent without his parents for the first time. In Italy he studied the works of antiquity and the Renaissance, a period for which Ruskin had great antipathy. He also spent considerable time studying the architecture of the cities through which he traveled. As a consequence, the second volume of Modern Painters did not follow slavishly the plan set out in the first volume and implied in its title; instead, Ruskin digressed to discuss the art he had observed during his more recent trips.
The success of his work made Ruskin popular socially, and his parents hoped he would eventually marry Charlotte Lockhart, granddaughter of Sir Walter Scott. Ruskin, however, had other ideas; he fell in love with Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray, daughter of a Perth businessman. After some months of awkward courtship, they were married, on April 10, 1848.
Marriage did not change Ruskin’s life-style greatly; he continued his travels and writings, preparing studies of architecture that appeared in 1849 as The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Further investigations, and deeper thought about the relationship between great buildings and those who built them, resulted in the three volumes published in 1851-1853 as The Stones of Venice. In the work, Ruskin argues that one can read a city’s history in its architecture, and make judgments about a society based on the kind of buildings it erects. During this same period, Ruskin began what was to be a lifelong defense of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets.
Meanwhile, relations between Ruskin and his wife deteriorated, as John’s parents found their daughter-in-law an interloper in their close-knit family, a view their son came to share. By 1854, Effie could no longer stand the constant upbraiding and mental harassment; she fled back to her family, initiating a suit for annulment on the grounds that the marriage had never been consummated. Ruskin did not contest the suit. Two years later, Effie married the painter John Everett Millais, with whom she had a large family.
Freed from the constraints of married life, Ruskin returned to his parents’ home and resumed work on Modern Painters. The third volume appeared in January, 1856; the fourth followed in April. In these books, Ruskin stated clearly his belief that great art can be produced only by men who feel acutely and nobly. At the same time, he began developing what was to become an important thesis in his later works: the inextricable...
(The entire section is 2614 words.)