John Ruskin 1819-1900
English critic, essayist, historian, nonfiction writer, poet, novella writer, autobiographer, and diarist. The following entry provides an overview of Ruskin's career. For further information on Ruskin's life and works, see TCLC, Volume 20.
Endowed with a passion for reforming what he considered his "blind and wandering fellow-men" and convinced that he had "perfect judgment" in aesthetic matters, Ruskin was the author of over forty books and several hundred essays and lectures that expounded his theories of aesthetics, morality, history, economics, and social reform. Although his views were often controversial and critical reception of his works was frequently hostile, Ruskin became one of the Victorian era's most prominent and influential critics of art and society, and his admirers have included such figures as Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas K. Gandhi. Ruskin is also considered one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language and is perhaps as well known today for the eloquence of his prose as for its substance.
Ruskin was the only child of a wealthy London wine merchant and his wife. From an early age he was dominated by his mother, a devout Puritan and strict disciplinarian who was responsible for much of his early education. Her emphasis on Bible study played a prominent role in the formation of Ruskin's prose style as well as his moral thought. A precocious child, Ruskin began studying Latin at the age of seven and Greek shortly thereafter in preparation for what his parents hoped would be a career in the ministry. The elder Ruskins were excessively protective of their son's moral and physical well-being and demanded much of him. According to biographers, Ruskin's interest in art dates from his thirteenth birthday, when he was given a copy of Samuel Rogers's poem "Italy," with illustrations by J. M. W. Turner. Captivated by Turner's depictions of nature, Ruskin conceived what became a lifelong fascination for both landscape painting and Turner's art. Four years later, in 1836, a vicious review of Turner's latest works prompted Ruskin to write an eloquent defense of the artist, but at Turner's request the manuscript was not submitted for publication.
In the fall of 1836 Ruskin left home and entered Oxford University. He graduated in 1842, and in that same year a further attack on Turner's work prompted Ruskin to compose a second defense of the artist. Although he envisioned the work as a brief pamphlet similar to the essay of 1836, Ruskin found himself unable to limit his argument and the pamphlet gradually developed into a lengthy treatise on art and taste. Published in 1843 as Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to the Ancient Masters, the work sold slowly but received praise from such prominent literary figures as Elizabeth Browning, Charlotte Bronte, Walt Whitman, and William Wordsworth, and launched Ruskin's career as an art critic. In order to elaborate the argument begun in Modern Painters, he published Modern Painters II in 1846, followed in rapid succession by five volumes of architectural studies, two more volumes of Modern Painters, and numerous minor works. According to R. H. Wilenski, Ruskin's works of the 1840s and 1850s were generally disparaged by leading artists and architects, who considered Ruskin a pretentious dilettante whose enthusiasm and eloquence were insufficient to offset the amateurish quality of his aesthetic judgments. Undaunted by their criticism, however, Ruskin continued to write prolifically on aesthetic subjects, and his works gained a small following among the cultured public.
During the late 1850s the focus of Ruskin's works gradually shifted from aesthetics to social problems. According to biographers, the sense of mission instilled in Ruskin as a child endowed even his aesthetic studies with an overriding moral purpose, and led him to question the justifiability of the study of art "while the earth is failing under our feet, and our fellows are departing every instant into eternal pain." His writings of the late 1850s and the 1860s are dominated by the problems of the underprivileged, the elderly, and the working class, and by proposals for the amelioration of social and economic inequities. During this period he also taught at Frederick D. Maurice's Working Men's College, became a popular public lecturer, and wrote prolifically on numerous subjects, including art, mythology, education, war, law, geology, botany, and ornithology.
Commentators have observed in Ruskin's writings of the 1860s an increasing diffuseness, which they attribute to emotional distress resulting from failures and frustrations in his personal life. Although married in 1848, Ruskin remained under the domination of his parents, and his inability to assert his independence from them contributed to the discord that beset his marriage. At his wife's request the marriage was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of Ruskin's impotence, causing a minor public scandal. Five years later Ruskin fell in love with eleven-year-old Rose La Touche, a physically weak, mentally unstable, and fanatically devout child who repeatedly rejected Ruskin as a suitor over the course of the next sixteen years, but for whom Ruskin harbored an obsessive passion long after her death at the age of twenty-seven. As Ruskin's emotional distress intensified, his writings and lectures became more personal, fragmented, and at times nearly incoherent, and by the end of the 1860s he had begun to fear insanity.
In 1870, through the intervention of friends, Ruskin was elected Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University. Although pleased with the position, which he felt elevated him from amateur to official status in the art world, Ruskin continued to question the social and moral value of the study of art. In what he considered atonement for his continued work in aesthetics, Ruskin began Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, a series of monthly "letters" through which he sought to instigate social action and which he used to publicize his Guild of St. George, a utopian organization devoted to "the health, wealth, and long life of the British nation." Although few reforms were effected by the group, both the Guild and Fors Clavigera attracted a great deal of attention, and the increasing eccentricity of Ruskin's behavior established an image in the public mind of a mad prophet and literary genius. During the last decades of his life Ruskin acquired a large following. In 1878 he suffered a severe mental breakdown, followed by a series of delusions and obsessions that plagued him until his death. According to biographers his remaining years constituted a struggle to write during periods of lucidity, which alternated with bouts of madness. After spending the last decade of his life in seclusion, Ruskin died in 1900.
The dominant tone of Ruskin's writings on art and architecture was established in The Poetry of Architecture, a series of articles published while he was a student at Oxford, in which he wrote: "Our object, let it always be remembered, is not the attainment of architectural data, but the formation of taste." The Poetry of Architecture also introduced Ruskin's concept of an intrinsic relationship between art and morality, which formed the basis of the doctrines developed in his most important study of aesthetics, Modern Painters. In Ruskin's view, moral virtue and beauty were inseparable, and the success of a work of art was at least partially a reflection of the integrity of the artist. Critics often cite Modern Painters for intentional digressions from the subject of Turner's artwork to such topics as the nature of truth and beauty and for the internal contradictions arising from the evolution of author's thought during the work's eighteen-year composition. Critics also object to contradictions in the work resulting from Ruskin's apparent compulsion to legitimize his personal aesthetic prejudices through elaborate theoretical justifications. At the same time, at least one critic attributes the strength of Ruskin's works to the apparent chaos other critics find so repellent in Modern Painters. Robert Hewisohn asserts that "it is precisely his refusal to distinguish between the normally accepted divisions of thought—aesthetic, ethical, social, economic, philosophical and personal—that is the source of his most important insights."
Like Modern Painters, Ruskin's architectural writings are primarily moralistic in nature, arguing that a structure is not only a reflection of the architect's moral state but also of the morality of the era in which it was built. His most famous study of architecture, The Stones of Venice, traces the history of the city in order to demonstrate the effect of national morality on the evolution of art. According to Ruskin, the book had "no other aim than to show that the Gothic architecture of Venice had arisen out of… a state of pure national faith, and of domestic virtue, and that its Renaissance architecture had arisen out of…a state of concealed national infidelity, and of domestic corruption." Commentators observe that Ruskin's architectural writings are almost exclusively concerned with areas of his particular interest or expertise. As a result, some scholars criticize these works for their excessive preoccupation with such architectural styles as Venetian Gothic and such elements as ornamentation. Others, however, applaud Ruskin's attempt to relate a society's art to its beliefs and values, and consider The Stones of Venice both Ruskin's greatest work and one of the most significant studies of architecture written during the Victorian era.
Ruskin's writings on economics are similarly valued for their moral force, rather than for their importance to the study of political economy. Unschooled in economics Ruskin based his economic theories on the same moral principles as those on which he based his aesthetic theories. Ruskin's economic works are often criticized for their basis in untenable analogies between the economics of an estate and those of a nation, as well as for the same disorder and illogic that mar his aesthetic writings. Critical reception of these works at the time of their publication was universally hostile and initial sales were poor; however, Ruskin's writings on economics gradually gained popularity and eventually came to exert a strong influence on public thought. Today critics credit these works with helping to raise the social consciousness of Victorian readers and economists.
Although his social, aesthetic, and economic theories were oftencriticized by experts in those fields, Ruskin was the most widely read art and social critic of the Victorian era. His ideas influenced some of the most prominent figures of his time, including Bernard Shaw, William Morris, and Gandhi, who asserted that Unto This Last "brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life." Critics today consider Ruskin one of the most perceptive social and cultural observers of his era, and praise his organic vision of art and life. According to Kirchhoff, Ruskin "teaches a way of thinking that not only bridges intellectual disciplines, but fuses intellect with perception and feeling." The conflicting characteristics of Ruskin's works—which have been lauded and disparaged with equal enthusiasm by critics for over a century—have been accurately summarized by Marcel Proust, who wrote that although Ruskin's writings are "often stupid, fanatical, exasperating, false, and irritating," they are also "always praiseworthy and always great."