Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2614
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 relationship between art and the economy.
In 1857, Ruskin spent considerable time cataloging the nineteen thousand drawings that Turner had bequeathed to the nation upon his death in 1851. That same year, Ruskin delivered a series of lectures in Manchester. In them, he argued for public patronage of the arts, straying from strict commentary about art to remark on the status of Great Britain’s economy and the ways in which the masses were being exploited and impoverished.
By 1860, Ruskin had finally finished Modern Painters. In the seventeen years during which he worked on this magnum opus, he had grown significantly in the appreciation of various artists, developed a moralistic theory of art and architecture, and suffered several personal setbacks. Never one to deal well with women, Ruskin found himself associating often with young ladies, even girls; his affiliation with Margaret Bell’s girls’ school at Winnington was one way in which he satisfied his psychological needs to share such company. A chance meeting in 1858 led to his infatuation with ten-year-old Rose La Touche. For more than a decade he pursued her affection, eventually proposing marriage when she turned eighteen (he was forty-seven at the time). Her continual rejection brought anguish to Ruskin, an anguish that found its way into his public writings through a series of private symbols and obscure autobiographical references.
Though he had spoken publicly and written often about the state of the economy for some time before 1860, in that year Ruskin emerged as a major critic of current economic and social programs. In the fifth volume of Modern Painters, he launched what would amount to a crusade, with himself cast in the role of Saint George against the dragon of a country obsessed with money and unwilling to recognize the dignity of its laborers. Meanwhile, Ruskin composed a series of essays on political economy for the new Cornhill Magazine; unfortunately, these were too controversial, and the editor, William Makepeace Thackeray, was forced to cancel them after several had appeared. Undaunted, Ruskin published the complete set in 1862 in a volume titled Unto This Last.
Ruskin’s father objected to his son’s new field of inquiry, and the early 1860’s were difficult years. The senior Ruskin’s death in 1864 freed Ruskin from constant criticisms but left him to care for his mother until she died in 1871. To help at Denmark Hill, Ruskin’s cousin Joan Agnew came for a brief visit—and stayed almost constantly for the rest of the century, first assisting with Mrs. Ruskin, then serving as a younger companion and later nurse for Ruskin himself. Their relationship, which became quite intimate in its own way, survived Joan’s marriage to Arthur Severn.
Throughout the 1860’s Ruskin devoted himself to writing about economic issues, trying to relate the disparate branches of his studies into a coherent vision of human society. In 1867, he began writing “open letters” on a variety of social and economic issues. The first series he collected in 1872 as Munera Pulveris. A year earlier, he had initiated a monthly series of letters (which slowed in frequency after several years) addressed to the workingmen of Great Britain. Titling his series Fors Clavigera (1871-1884), a name he said implied “force” or “fortune” in the first word and “strength” or “patience” in the second, Ruskin wrote on a wide variety of topics, mingling autobiography and private symbology in tracts about art, politics, and economics. Many were considered incomprehensible by even the most astute Ruskin devotees; the intended audience was undoubtedly confused, even bewildered, by this strange mixture of personal narrative and public pronouncement.
His commitment to social issues did not keep Ruskin from pursuing his work in art. In 1870, he assumed the Slade Professorship of Art at Oxford, the first professor of art appointed in Great Britain. For several years, he used that forum to further his ideas concerning the relationship between art and religion, and art and morality. He also assembled a fine collection of works to illustrate his lectures, eventually bequeathing them to the university. In 1871, he funded a new school of art at Oxford, the Ruskin School of Drawing, still among the most prestigious of such institutions.
Meanwhile, Ruskin tried to implement some of the social theories about which he had written. In 1871, he officially founded the Guild of St. George, a Utopian society to promote humanistic living. Though the project eventually failed, Ruskin worked diligently to obtain land to establish ideal communities where men could share the products of their labors, and where they could enjoy the beauties of art (much of which Ruskin himself obtained for these planned communities).
The death of Rose La Touche in 1875 may have been responsible for the frenzy of work in which Ruskin engaged for the next several years. He continued to visit the Continent, to write new works or revise those which he thought required a change of focus, and to promote social causes. In the late 1870’s, he began to suffer from intermittent fits of mental instability. Fighting the effects of this illness, Ruskin worked on a host of projects, including his autobiography, Praeterita, left unfinished in 1889 when his condition worsened to the point that he lost all capacity for work. In effect, he spent the last eleven years of his life totally incapacitated, simply existing at his home under the care of Joan Agnew Severn. He died in 1900 and was buried in the churchyard at Coniston.
Author of more than a hundred books and pamphlets on subjects ranging from art to politics, John Ruskin was one of the most influential writers of his age. To him is owed the recognition of the greatness of the painter Turner and the group of painters and poets known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. More significant, Ruskin established principles for evaluating art that became touchstones for later critics and art historians. While his notion that all great art is inherently moral may have subsequently been discredited, his method of close reading of paintings and especially of architecture has had marked influence on the study of these art forms. Ironically, his imperative judgment that art has value for society, and is not simply ornament, led to the development of the art for art’s sake movement, which also claimed an inherent value for art—but divorced from any utilitarian or moral value.
Like many other social commentators, Ruskin attracted a contemporary following, but subsequent generations have not sought his work as a model for their society. He was influential in bringing his countrymen to see the dangers of Benthamism and similar systems that treated people as ciphers.
Even though his direct influence on theories of art and economics has waned, Ruskin remains a significant figure in the living tradition of English literature. His best writings, laden with echoes of the Bible and literary classics, are often cited as models of the richness that can be achieved by one whose prose approaches poetry in style, allusion, and use of metaphor.
Abse, Joan. John Ruskin: Passionate Moralist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Carefully researched biography focusing on Ruskin’s efforts to promote various causes, and noting the importance that events in his personal life had in shaping his writings and public lectures. Includes a valuable bibliography of primary and secondary sources for those wishing to read more by or about Ruskin.
Burd, Van Akin, ed. The Ruskin Family Letters: The Correspondence of John James Ruskin, His Wife, and Their Son, John, 1801-1843. 2 vols. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973. These important letters between Ruskin and his parents, covering the first forty years of Ruskin’s life, provide valuable insight into the role his parents played in Ruskin’s development as a critic. The letters also expand, or in some instances, correct, information provided in Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita.
Cook, E. T. The Life of John Ruskin. 2 vols. London: George Allen and Co., 1911. The first detailed biography of Ruskin, written by one of the editors of the standard edition of Ruskin’s works. Contains significant excerpts from letters and diaries, but omits details of Ruskin’s decade-long relationship with Rose La Touche and his battle with mental instability.
Hilton, Tim. John Ruskin. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985, 1988. A scholarly biography based on a comprehensive study of available documents at the major Ruskin collections. Stresses the significance of Ruskin’s later work, highlighting the writings on society and the economy, especially Fors Clavigera. Attempts to correct errors, lapses, and omissions in earlier biographies, especially those of Cook and other Victorian and Edwardian chroniclers.
Hunt, John Dixon. The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin. New York: Viking Press, 1982. Detailed, comprehensive biography that highlights the importance of travel in shaping Ruskin’s ideas; concentrates on Ruskin’s personal life, providing brief analyses of individual works.
Ruskin, John. The Diaries of John Ruskin. Edited by Joan Evan and J. H. Whitehouse. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-1959. Though not a complete collation of such materials, these diaries are a key to understanding Ruskin’s method of composition, and reveal much about the way his mind worked as an artist, a traveler, and an observer of life.
Ruskin, John. Praeterita. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Ruskin’s celebrated autobiography, highly selective in its presentation of details from the author’s earlier life. Written between Ruskin’s bouts with mental illness, it was intended to present those things that had given him enjoyment. Hence, stress is placed on travel and relationships with parents and mentors; there is no discussion, however, of his six-year marriage.
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