PRINT January 2000


John Ruskin

THE VICTORIAN MEN AND WOMEN portrayed in the novels of Anthony Trollope seem surprisingly like us, far more so than literary creatures from only a century earlier (Tom Jones, say, or Clarissa Harlowe). Their feelings and motives are sufficiently like ours that we feel we understand them as well as we understand one another. Something like this is true of the Victorian art world as well, in which we find ourselves immediately at home, while it requires a leap of historical imagination to see an artist’s life at the time of Hogarth or Reynolds from inside. This is because we owe to the Victorians many of the practices and attitudes that define the art world today. The art gallery, as we know it, was a product of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which also invented the hot artist, the art movement, the breakthrough, the press release, the manifesto, the buzz of sensational openings, and the idea that art must be set on a new path. The New Path, indeed, was the journal in which the American Pre-Raphaelites—the “Pre-Rafs,” as they called themselves—denounced the academy as the enemy of visual truth.

The British Pre-Raphaelites, moreover, reinvented the role of art criticism by seeking the most authoritative critic they could find to promote their cause. They boldly petitioned John Ruskin (1819-1900), the most celebrated living writer on art, to publish something about their work, which, amazingly, he agreed to do. In the first of two letters to The Times in 1851, Ruskin wrote that his young proteges

desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture making; and they have chosen their unfortunate though not inaccurate name because all artists did this before Raphael’s time, and after Raphael’s rime did not this, bur sought to paint fair pictures rather than represent stern facts, of which the consequence has been that from Raphael’s time to this day historical art has been in acknowledged decadence.

In the second letter Ruskin declared that the Pre-Raphaelites may “lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for three hundred years.” You need look no further for the origins of ideological art criticism, which announces the direction art must take and denounces art that does not take it.

The Pre-Raphaelites had been inspired by Ruskin’s brilliant apologia, in Modern Painters, for the art of J.M.W. Turner. So it is appropriate that the Tate should have organized “Ruskin, Turner and The Pre-Raphaelites” (March 9–May 28) to mark the centenary of the great critic’s death. Another exhibition, “Ruskin: Past, Present, and Future,” opens at the Yale Center for British Art on January 20 (the very date of Ruskin’s death in 1900) and runs through February 27. The Tate show will take the form of a biography, with different galleries devoted to the artists in whom Ruskin took a particular interest, positive or negative, at a particular time. His relationship to the American James McNeill Whistler was so vehemently negative that Whistler sued for damages. Ruskin published a monthly manifesto with an untranslatable title, Fors Clavigera, in which he declared that he had “seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” These words, coming from a writer of Ruskin’s eminence, had to be as injurious to an artist’s reputation as his praise of the Pre-Raphaelites was advantageous to them. Charging libel, Whistler won token damages of one farthing.

It is difficult to say what the impact on critical invective might have been had artists in America emulated Whistler in nullifying unfavorable reviews by resorting to litigation. But since they did not, critical language in the US has more often than not reflected Ruskin’s fire-eating style. Henry James, covering the trial for The Nation in 1878, said, “Mr. Ruskin’s language quite transgresses the decencies of criticism, and he has been laying about him for some years past with such promiscuous violence that it gratifies one’s sense of justice to see him brought up as a disorderly character.” Both men lost: “Mr. Ruskin is formally condemned, but the plaintiff is not compensated.” Still, James writes, “Mr. Ruskin is not gratified by finding that the fullest weight of his disapproval is thought to be represented by the weight of one farthing.” In truth, he never again enjoyed the authority he accorded himself in matters of art, and he suppressed Fors Clavigera not long afterward. He suffered several bouts of madness over the following decade.

At his best, Ruskin wrote magnificently on art, though mainly on the art of the masters, among whom he unhesitatingly classed Turner. In 1858, on a holiday in Turin, he underwent a religious “unconversion” caused by Veronese’s Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, which he had been studying in Turin’s Municipal Museum. “I was struck by the gorgeousness of life,” he wrote. “Has God created the splendour of substance and the love of it; created gold, and pearls, and crystal, and the sun that makes them gorgeous . . . only that all these things may lead His creatures away from Him?” It was entirely Victorian that he henceforward saw in art the best instrument for the enhancement of life, which at once made him an aesthetic prophet and what James describes as “a general scold.” He saw artistic: derelictions as moral derelictions, and bad art as an impediment to moral progress. This perhaps accounted for the heavy irascibility of his prose, though Ruskin’s was not an entirely stable personality, and, outside his relation to art, his life, though privileged, was not especially happy. He lost his neglected wife—the marriage was never consummated—to the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais. His late passion for the much younger and passionately religious Rose La Touche did not, fortunately for them both, lead to marriage. She died insane. His death came at the end of a decade of paralyzing depression. Very likely he died a virgin.

He was, meanwhile, a draftsman of considerable talent, and room 6 in the Tate’s installation is to be “an exhibition within an exhibition,” of Ruskin’s drawings, 1840–82. His contemporary Rosa Bonheur put his drawings down: “He sees nature with a little eye—tout à fait comme un oiseau.” He was no Veronese, but visual truth in his case meant exact transcriptions of details in nature. Because of their certainty and graphic energy, his drawings are more likely to engage our aesthetic interest today than many of the paintings he celebrated—Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, 1853–56, Millais’s The Order of Release, 1852–53, and John Brett’s Val d’Acosta, 1858, at the Tate, and Paul Naftel’s Head of Loch Lomond, with Ben Lomond in the Distance, 1859, at Yale, to name just a few.

After the final attack of madness in 1889, Ruskin stopped writing and drawing altogether. He was a genius, but a dour, chill, spoiled, and arrogant man. The two exhibitions present him as he would have wanted to be seen: as an art critic, a cultural critic concerned with the role of art in the ideal society, a visionary and inspiring writer, and an artist whose happiest moments were devoted to drawing natural objects—roots, rock formations, and the like—truly and well. The art critics around whom such exhibitions could be organized are few and far between.