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 of imitation, of relation, of power, of beauty, and of truth—ideas of truth are of the highest value. Truth, however, is not necessarily easily perceived or, indeed, necessarily perceived at first glance. Thus, when a painting appears to deviate from the representational, it does not necessarily deviate from the truth. Similarly, in art, all truths do not necessarily have the same importance. Thus, for the great artist, only rare and particular truths are worth transmitting. This transmission, moreover, must be accompanied by a true love of subject; otherwise, the artist will in no way surpass the product of a superior photographer. Truth transcends mere representation.
Ruskin then goes on to demonstrate with painstaking detail that with regard to truth of comprehension and passion of execution of all modern painters, Turner is without peer. Indeed, Ruskin states with passionate conviction, “In every new insight which we obtain into the works of God, in every new idea which we receive from his creation, we shall find ourselves possessed of an interpretation and a guide to something in Turner’s work which we had not understood before.”
The second volume of Modern Painters focuses upon the definition and interpretation...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)