Issues and Context of Modern Painters by John Ruskin
By Hanna Yakovleva
‘There is no more in Turner’s painting of water surface than any philosophy of reflection.'
‘The marvellous brilliance of the arrangement of color in this picture… to my mind, one of Turner’s leading works in oil.’
‘The most perfectly beautiful piece of colour of all that I have seen produced by human hands, by any means, or at any period’. ‘No man had ever painted the surface of calm water but Turner’ - Sensuous & literal element.'
'Nothing could be more faithful than the boat, … it occupies the center, … a stream of spending color fell from it.'
'Sea is not plaint gray sea surface but playing surface, full of indefinite hue.'
Quites from Modern Painters by John Ruskin in the description of this painting.
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the greatest Victorians, the leading English art critic, art patron, watercolorist, social critic and philosopher. His range of interests and achievements were very wide. It was fundamental for him to make links between all subjects and disciplines - for example, nature and art, science and religion. Somehow he could always see the whole picture. Leo Tolstoy said that Ruskin was: "one of those rare men who think with their hearts."
Ruskin was extremely influential in the latter half of the 19th century by his concerns and ideas, difficult to overestimate his influence on environmentalism, sustainability and craft. Looking ahead, providing some vivid numbers: “Ruskin’s thirty-nine volumes of work contain nine million words; his correspondence ran to twenty thousand letters; his sketches, drawing and paintings would also run into the thousands.”
The most influential artist through Ruskin’s art critic career and beyond that was, undoubtedly, Turner.
He first became aware of Turner’s work at the age of thirteen, having a gift book of poems with artist’s engravings. Ruskin was touched by that experience so much that later he will describe it: ‘I had of looking carefully at Turner's work, and I might, not without some appearance of reason, attribute to the gift the entire direction of my life's energies'.
Ruskin should have visited annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the British Institution from the late 1830’s. He together with his father began to collect Turner’s works, owned few important oil paintings and some watercolors.
Their first meeting at the house of the picture dealer was in 1840 and Ruskin claimed that Turner was ‘the great [artist] of the age… at once the painter and the poet of the day’ despite of everybody’s opinion of him being unintellectual and vulgar, as he wrote in his diary. Indeed, Turner was mocked by the critics and unappreciated by the public due to artist’s new true-to-life style.
WHAT WAS IT in William Turner's art that so immensely captured John Ruskin that he almost devoted his life to the advocacy of it? Maybe he saw some of his own transformed desires in the works of the great master of light, surf and rock. I deliberately avoid the modern term sublimation, since this mental state neither was modern nor sublime, but heavy as the stones of Venice he also chose to write about and life surely taught Ruskin lessons as harsh as those ethics of the dust he lectured the young girls at Winnington school about.
SUBLIMATE - verb
1 [with object] (especially in psychoanalytic theory) divert or modify (an instinctual impulse) into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity: people who will sublimate sexuality into activities which help to build up and preserve civilization he sublimates his hurt and anger into humour.
By 1840 Ruskin had become more and more single-minded in his appreciation of Turner’s art, which seamed to him as the highest principles of landscape. Taste, the ability to depict beauty, is not caprice. For Ruskin it represents human intelligence and form in which intelligence interacts with morality.
Ruskin formulated why certain forms give pleasure and why others are not suppose to, one can no more choose to like what is good in art and, on the other hand, gave satirize suggestion that one can ‘choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemon sour’. Volume 1 is subtitled ‘Of General Principles, and of True’.
The world TRUTH, in terms of art, signifies the faithful statement of any fact of nature. Charles Harrison, in his book about Art in Theory analyzes difference between ideas of truth and of imitation by Ruskin in three points:
Firstly, - imitation can only be something material, but truth has reference to statements both of the qualities, and of material things and of emotions, impressions and thoughts. Truth as a term of universal application, while imitation limits field of art and narrows to only material things.
Secondly, - as conceptive, may be stated by any signs or symbols, which have a signification in the minds of those to whom they are addressed, but ideas of imitation require the likeness of the object, it speaks to the perspective facilities only. Truth speaks to the conceptive.
Thirdly, - the idea of truth exists in the statement of one attribute of anything, but an idea of imitation requires the similarity of as many attributes as we usually recognize of its real presents.
'Turner is never satisfied only with the calm water only. ‘[Turner] tells us something either the past commotion of the water, or of some present’ … or reason, or future…
Takes advantage of all the placidity of repose
Enormous swell (of these three reflections)
New moon falling in a white zigzag line.’
John Ruskin at Modern Painters
“People talk a great deal about sunsets,” Turner himself wrote, “but when you are all fast asleep I am watching the effects of sunrise far more beautiful. And then, you see, the light does not fail, and you can paint them.” In a famous view, the sun that lies low over the water near Mauves is up stream (to the east).
Finally, although critics were slow to react and reviews were mixed, many notable literary and artistic figures were impressed with the young man’s work, notably. Suddenly Ruskin had found his métier, and in one leap helped redefine the genre of art criticism, mixing a discourse of polemic with aesthetics, scientific observation and ethics.
A recent biographer, Tim Hilton, speaking on the BBC 'Omnibus' program in 2000, said of Ruskin: "No-one apart from Ruskin, in the 19th Century, gives so complete and various an account of the continuing life of the mind - a mind that, as if propelled by electricity, runs down the pen and sprints across the page... It is absolutely unique, and something for which he should be treasured."
‘Although Ruskin may possibly have read too deeply in these particular paintings, there can be no doubt that he well understood Turner's aims and methods, and that Turner found in Ruskin a better interpreter and defender than any other artist has had the good fortune to encounter’.
1. Ruskin museum, http://www.ruskinmuseum.com/ruskin.htm, accessed 14/10/13.
2. George P. Landow, Ruskin's allegorical interpretations of Turner, Brown University Chapter Five, Section VI, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/ruskin/atheories/5.6.html, accessed 14/10/13.
3. Lancaster University, http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/ruskin/empi/notes/gsturnerz02.htm, accessed 14/10/13
4. Ruskin on Turner, Thirst for largeness - grasp of terror, Art Bin,
http://art-bin.com/art/oruskincontents.html, accessed 14/10/13.
5. Oxford Dictionary, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com, accessed 22/10/13
6. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, Jason Gaiger, Art in theory 1815-1900, an anthology of changing ideas, 1st edition, Oxford, Blackwell 2000, pp. 199-204
7. Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell, Stephen Wildman, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, London, Tate Publishing 2000, pp.61-66
8. University of Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, ‘Unstable States: John Ruskin and the Truth of Water’,
http://www.whitworth.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/pastexhibitions/unstablestates/, accessed 23/10/13
9. Adam Ruck, ‘Turner’s Loire’ from the book ‘France on Two Wheels’. Internet publication by Short Books,
http://www.france2wheels.com/route-5-down-the-loire/turners-loire/, accessed 25/10/13