Ruskin’s principal literary and philosophical focus during his fifty-year-long career centered upon the examination of the moral significance of the function of art and the role of the artist in society. He first expressed that focus at the beginning of his career while at Oxford, when he came most directly under the influence of the artist J. M. W. Turner. Turner’s landscape painting at that time remained virtually unknown to the general public and unappreciated by all who were aware of it except for a small circle of admirers and patrons who recognized his genius. Ruskin was among that circle, young as he was, and had already begun collecting Turner drawings following his meeting with the artist during Ruskin’s third year at Oxford. When Turner’s landscape paintings began to receive hostile commentary because of their impressionistic innovations in such respected London literary journals of the day as the Literary Gazette and the Athenaeum, such attacks provoked the young Ruskin to set the public right about the true genius of his hero and the true nature and function of art. That he did in the first volume of Modern Painters, a work over which he labored for nearly three years before his father, acting on his behalf, submitted it for publication. Appearing under the title Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters Proved by Examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual, from the Works of Modern Artists, Especially from Those of J. M. W. Turner, Esq. R. A., it was published anonymously because both Ruskin and his father feared that exposure of the author’s age would detract from the seriousness with which it would be received by the public. Very early in this work, Ruskin reveals his philosophy of art, from which he would never deviate, and which forms the basis of all of his other work and theory. Simply stated, this philosophy avows that a work of art can be judged only according to the values of the artist that are reflected in it.
Ruskin’s interest in helping to shape the way in which art and the world of nature would be perceived by his compatriots predated the publication of this seminal work and can be seen, already, in his first serious effort at critical analysis in “The Poetry of Architecture,” which appeared in The Architectural Magazine in 1837 and 1838 under the pseudonym “According to Nature.” There, he expresses his desire to have a positive influence upon the transformation of a materialistic, poorly educated, increasingly industrial, and, therefore, increasingly economically polarized population into a nation that is at once moral and sensible to the beauties of the natural world, as well as the world of individual craftsmanship and personal virtue.
The essay compares the architecture of English and French cottages as they reveal the idiosyncratic nature of the national character of the individuals who inhabit them, with the edge in this comparison definitely falling upon the more meritorious values of the English architects. Finally, the essay examines the ideal that was to become the ultimate goal of Ruskin’s lifelong mission: the formation of taste, his parallel commitment to the ideals of Truth and Beauty, as William Wordsworth and John Keats would have interpreted these ideals, an aim that he imparts with evangelical zeal in the preface to volume 1 of Modern Painters.
The harmonious connection that Ruskin saw between Virtue, Truth, Beauty, and their expression in great art represents the cornerstone upon which all of his prolific, voluminous examinations of art, history, and literature would rest for the remainder of his life. It is clearly reiterated in one of his public Oxford lectures given during the 1870’s, where he once again defines the nexus that exists between the one and the other:You must have the right moral state first, or you cannot have the art. But when the art is once obtained, its reflected action enhances and completes the moral state out of which it arose, and, above all, communicates the exultation to other minds which are already morally capable of the like.
As Ruskin moved on from the brilliant beginnings of his career as moral arbiter and architect of a nation’s taste, his purpose and promise never swerved but increased in recognition until the final decade of his life, when he succumbed to the debilitating pathological depression that prevented him from writing all but the briefest notes to his closest friends and companions. Beginning in the 1860’s, he traded the more cloistered audience of the literary and art journals and the private society of a privileged, intellectually attuned, largely academic circle of friends for that of the public lecture platform. There, he transformed a theory of art and culture into a social and political philosophy rooted in the ethical and spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ and coupled with an abiding belief in the ability of human society to be transformed into a paradise of working men and women freed from the tyranny of industrial exploitation and avarice.
During these years, he became a journalist through his workers’ newsletter, Fors Clavigera, as well as a lecturer and teacher of art in the Workmen’s College experiment that transformed British higher education by opening it to laborers and the children of the working class. The thrust of this popularization of his ideals and ideas can be seen flourishing today in ecological and environmental circles throughout the world.
First published: 1843-1860
Type of work: Art history and criticism
The greatness of a work of art is measured by its careful observation of the moral and spiritual superiority of the natural or real world over the mechanical.
Modern Painters is the work that gained for Ruskin the recognition of the English world of letters and creativity. Published in 1843, when Ruskin was twenty-four, it represents the young Oxford graduate’s defense of his spiritual and intellectual mentor, J. M. W. Turner, the great English Romantic landscape painter, against the adversarial criticisms of the British intellectual press. Although Turner was an associate of the Royal Academy of Art, he was principally noted for his illustrations of such famous British authors as Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. The work goes far beyond Ruskin’s expressed aim, however, as it expresses in its earliest and most seminal form the author’s philosophy of art and his most profound spiritual and moral philosophies of life. This philosophy is, perhaps, best expressed in his perception that the appreciation and ability to transform such appreciation into full-blown artistic fruition depends upon a physical sensibility that can aesthetically and truthfully evaluate the physical attributes of beauty and truth and transform them, honestly, upon canvas into a higher expression of the spiritual significance of the natural.
Of all the ideas that art seeks to communicate, Ruskin states—ideas...
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