John Ruskin Ruskin, John - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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."

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape

Painting to the Ancient Masters (criticism) 1843

Modern Painters II (criticism) 1846

The Seven Lamps of Architecture (criticism) 1849

Poems (poetry) 1850

The King of the Golden River (novella) 1851

Pre-Raphaelism (essay) 1851

The Stones of Venice I (criticism) 1851

The Stones of Venice II (criticism) 1853

The Stones of Venice III (criticism) 1853

Lectures on Architecture and Painting (lectures) 1854


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Audrey Williamson (essay date 1976)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ruskin: Art and the Critic," in Artists and Writers in Revolt: The Pre-Raphaelites, David & Charles, 1976, pp. 16-34.

[In the following essay, Williamson examines Ruskin's conflicted relationship to the social and artistic status quo of Victorian England.]

Described as 'the most eloquent and original of all writers upon art', John Ruskin was the fountain-head of the most vital developments of painting up to the time of the Impressionists. He was born on 8 February 1819, the son of a wealthy Edinburgh wine merchant settled in London. There was a possible dark psychological legacy from his grandfather, John Thomas Ruskin, who committed suicide at Bowerswell...

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Marc Shell (essay date 1978)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Ruskin and the Political Economy of Literature," in The Economy of Literature, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, pp. 129-51.

[In the following essay, Shell explores Ruskin's belief that aesthetic taste is inseparable from political and economic realities.]

John Ruskin attempted to hold in a single vision the theoretical and practical problems of esthetics and economics. In works such as The Political Economy of Art (1857), Munera Pulveris (1862-63), and Sesame and Lilies (1865), he sought to explain the economic value of art and the relation of esthetic taste to economic organization. For Ruskin, esthetics and politics are...

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John Dixon Hunt (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Oeuvre and Footnote," in The Ruskin Polygon: Essays on the Imagination of John Ruskin, edited by John Dixon Hunt and Faith M. Holland, Manchester University Press, 1982, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Hunt examines Ruskin's tendency to footnote, cross-reference, and recast aspects of his own work.]

My theme is simply how we should read Ruskin. There is, first of all, the sheer bulk of the oeuvre—not only the thirty-nine volumes of The Works, but close on as many more volumes of subsequently edited diaries, letters and other 'primary materials'. Then there is the problem of how to use all the material that Ruskin's editors, Cook and Wedderburn,...

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Robert Hewison (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Notes on the Construction of The Stones of Venice," in Studies in Ruskin: Essays in Honor of Van Akin Burd, edited by Robert Rhodes and Del Ivan Janick, Ohio University Press, 1982, pp. 131-50.

[In the following essay, Hewison analyzes The Stones of Venice in terms of the politics, economics, and religious beliefs of the mid-1800s.]

The Stones of Venice is arguably Ruskin's most successful work. It is also arguably his most important. It is the only one of his books for which he had a predetermined plan, a plan that he largely carried out. It is the only major work in which he began by saying what he was going to say and...

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Francis G. Townsend (essay date 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Reading John Ruskin," in The Victorian Experience: The Prose Writers, edited by Richard A. Levine, Ohio University Press, 1982, pp. 150-73.

[In the following essay, Townsend discusses the inspiration for and logical inconsistencies in Ruskin's work, particularly Time and Tide.]

I first made the acquaintance of John Ruskin in January, 1946, about a month after I had been honorably discharged from the United States Marine Corps. Ruth and I had chosen Ohio State because we had heard of its general strength in nineteenth-century literature. On the first day of class at my new institution, I found myself in a Victorian seminar conducted by one Charles Frederick...

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Richard L. Stein (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Milk, Mud, and Mountain Cottages: Ruskin's Poetry of Architecture," in PMLA, Vol. 100, No, 3, May, 1985, pp. 328-41.

[In the following essay, Stein offers a critique of Ruskin's idealized view of nature and of rural life as expressed in The Poetry of Architecture.]

Ruskin teaches us how to see, Charlotte Bronte remarked. He also teaches us how to read, particularly his own works and certainly the forbidding collection of early essays called The Poetry of Architecture. The standard approach to this series follows a path laid out in Ruskin's autobiography, which scans the past for the dawning of his genius. "Now, looking back from 1886 to that...

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Anthony Hecht (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pathetic Fallacy," in The Yale Review, Vol. 74, No. 4, Summer, 1985, pp. 481-99.

[In the following essay, Hecht explores the meaning of "pathetic fallacy," a term coined by Ruskin.]

Un paysage quelconque est un etat de l'ame.

—Henri-Frederic Amiel

The world is a fair field fresh with the odor of Christ's name.

—St. Augustine

My title is a famous coinage of John Ruskin's, and comes from his five-volume study called Modern Painters. I want to begin by quoting Ruskin at some length, intruding an occasional impertinent interruption, as a way of recalling to you his...

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Dinah Birch (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ruskin's 'Womanly Mind,' " in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, October, 1988, pp. 308-24.

[In the following essay, Birch argues that while Ruskin's work has enraged feminists, his thinking was often "Womanly" and not antagonistic to some of the tenets of modern feminism.]

Ruskin's reputation survives, but in a fragmented form. His writings are voluminous, demanding, and often out of print. The books, lectures, or passages that do retain currency are usually studied in specific contexts. For students of Victorian literature, 'The Nature of Gothic' and, more recently, 'Traffic' have gained solid status as classics of social thought. Unto This...

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Brian Maidment (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Ruskin and Ruskin Readers," in PN Review, Vol. 14, No. 5, 1988, pp. 50-3.

[In the following essay, Maidment suggests that Ruskin's importance lies in how his ideas have been understood, as well as in his largebut largely unreadoeuvre.]

Reading books about Ruskin always makes me wonder if anyone ever reads, or ever read, Ruskin's own books. His cultural presence has always been something more than that of a producer of texts. Beyond being an author he has always been a rallying place for a whole variety of heterodox social views, many of them unsanctioned by any conceivable reading of his works, and the owner of a proud and sad...

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Timothy Peltason (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ruskin's Finale: Vision and Imagination in Praeterita," in ELH, Vol. 57, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 665-83.

[In the following essay, Peltason examines Ruskin's last work, Praeterita, which he wrote after he had suffered several bouts of mental illness.]

Like the "Mutabilitie Cantos" or the last awkward bow of Keats's letters, the final paragraphs of John Ruskin's Praeterita have a conclusive rightness that cannot easily be ascribed either to chance or to design. The book stops well short of its projected length, just four chapters into a third volume, but at a moment in Ruskin's troubled history when he knew that any words he wrote might be...

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Richard Dellamora (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Ruskin and the Character of Male Genius," in Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism, University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 117-29.

[In the following essay, Dellamora explores Ruskin's changing views of sexuality as reflected in his writings about art history.]

Thus far I have said little about John Ruskin, England's leading critic of the visual arts at midcentury and a presence unavoidable for a young man beginning a career as a critic of art in the 1860s. The following chapter considers the contribution that Ruskin made almost despite himself to the reflections on the character of artistic genius that culminate in Pater's...

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Paul Sawyer (essay date 1990)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ruskin and the Matriarchal Logos," in Victorian Sages and Cultural Discourse: Renegotiating Gender and Power, edited by Thais E. Morgan, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 129-41.

[In the following essay, Sawyer discusses Ruskin's view of girls and women in The Ethics of the Dust, "Of Queens' Gardens," and The Queen of the Air.]

To define Victorian nonfiction prose as a discourse is almost invariably to think of it as masculine discourse—at least so long as we accept the customary description of the sages as a group of secular prophets. At the very beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Hebrew prophets marked all sacred human speech as...

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Sheila Emerson (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Authorization of Form: Ruskin and the Science of Chaos," in Chaos and Order. Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, edited by N. Katherine Hayles, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 149-66.

[In the following essay, Emerson examines how order and chaos function in Ruskin's theories of artistic composition and in his autobiographical writings.]

Ruskin's relentless discriminations between order and disorder seem to leave no intervening space for what is now named the science of chaos. Yet he would not have been the least bit surprised to learn that in 1984 one of the world's leading physicists would be reported to


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E. H. Gombrich (essay date 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Conservation of Our Cities: Ruskin's Message for Today," in Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-Century Issues in Learning and in Art, University of California Press, 1991, pp. 74-91.

[In the following essay, Gombrich uses quotations and excerpts from Ruskin's The Seven Lamps of Architecture to argue for conserving buildings from earlier times.]

Be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all...

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David C. Hanson (essay date 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: " 'Out of the Same Mouth Proceedeth Blessing and Cursing': Ruskin as the 'Strange Disciple'," in Modern Philology, Vol. 90, No. 3, February, 1993, pp. 360-380.

[In the following excerpt, Hanson examines Ruskin's idealized version of his own childhood from the perspective of a God who is capable of condemning as well as blessing.]


In his childhood conception of a sacred covenant, John Ruskin exulted in the exchange of a child's obedience for the Father's blessing. He was reluctant, however, to confront the Lord's cursing, which, inescapable in Scripture, left him silent and incapacitated. He abruptly ended his childhood sermons, the...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Bradley, Alexander. "Ruskin at Oxford: Pupil and Master." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 32, No. 4 (Autumn 1992): 747-64.

Explores Ruskin's years at Oxford and his disinclination to accept instruction from others.

Hilton, Tim. John Ruskin: The Early Years 1819-1859. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, 301 p.

The first volume of Hilton's projected two-volume biography of Ruskin, focusing on Ruskin's childhood, his early education, and his travels through Europe.


Austin, Linda M. "Praeterita: In the Act of Rebellion." Modern Language...

(The entire section is 638 words.)