John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose life and work are currently the subject of a superb documentary exhibition at the Morgan Library, is often said to have been the most influential English critic of his time. Yet even this high estimate fails to give us a sufficient sense of the exalted place that Ruskin’s voluminous writings on art, nature and society enjoyed in his lifetime and for some years thereafter. Ruskin Societies were founded in his honor. His public lectures drew large audiences, and even the longest of his books -Modern Painters (five volumes, 1843-1860) and The Stones of Venice (three volumes, 1851-53)-had a wide readership.
Both as a master of English prose and an accomplished draftsman and watercolorist, moreover, Ruskin was himself an artist of distinct achievement, and he had the added distinction of being a source of inspiration for a great many artists and writers who read him. Charlotte Brontë spoke for many in her response to the first volume of Modern Painters . “Hitherto I have only had instinct to guide me in judging of art; I feel now as if I had been walking blindfold-this book seems to give me eyes.” George Eliot called him “one of the great teachers of the day” and compared him to “a Hebrew prophet.”
Yet today, a full century after his death, Ruskin is a writer more often read about than read. Early in the 20th century, his views on painting-especially his doctrine of “Truth to Nature”-were categorically rejected by the modernists of the Bloomsbury circle. Later in the century, when Freudian psychoanalysis became the measure of human wisdom, Ruskin was far better known as a casualty of Victorian sexual repression, owing to his failed marriage and his penchant for little girls, than as a prophet of art and society. The great collected editions of his writings, once a staple of every respectable public or private library, are now more often found gathering dust in the second-hand bookshops than in the hands of students, travelers and connoisseurs.
The reader who comes to Ruskin for the first time in the 21st century had better be prepared, then, to undertake a mission of rediscovery-or, better still, a project in literary excavation. For Ruskin’s literary oeuvre is vast-in the Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin , edited by E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London, 1903-12), it runs to 39 stout volumes-and is not easily categorized. Fortunately, the 100th anniversary of his death this year has made such a project somewhat less daunting than it might otherwise have been. It has already brought us the completion of Tim Hilton’s two-volume Life of Ruskin , published by the Yale University Press in March and by far the best of the many biographies that have been devoted to this amazing writer. And of the several exhibitions that have been organized to mark this anniversary, the show at the Morgan Library, which is called Ruskin’s Italy, Ruskin’s England , is the best I have seen.
I must also point out that this anniversary has even brought us a new play about Ruskin’s failed marriage-Gregory Murphy’s The Countess , at the Lambs Theater-but whether this is a plus or a minus for understanding Ruskin as a writer, I cannot say; I haven’t seen it.
Ruskin’s Italy, Ruskin’s England , however, is an exhibition that requires repeated visits to be fully grasped. The Morgan Library is one of the great repositories of Ruskin manuscripts and other materials related to his life and work, and a dazzling selection of these is accompanied by short, well-written commentaries, often quoting directly relevant passages from Ruskin himself, to form a documentary narrative of the writer’s career. It is a pity that this material has not also been made available as a catalog to the show, but that is a minor irritation compared to the rare pleasures of the exhibition itself.
As one would expect in a Ruskin exhibition, there are some fine watercolors by J.M.W. Turner, the painter whose work prompted Ruskin to write the first volume of Modern Painters at the age of 24, and a good selection of Ruskin’s own drawings and watercolors. We are given glimpses of the manuscripts of both Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice . There are even some photographs of Venice that Ruskin used to illustrate his lectures. (He apparently had his own equipment for making Daguerreotypes in Venice.) There are examples, too, of the Pre-Raphaelite painters whose work Ruskin also championed, and of the artist who was his last enthusiasm: Kate Greenaway. Not surprisingly, he especially admired her pictures of little girls.
There is even a drawing by John Constable, whose work Ruskin excoriated in Modern Painters -a reminder, if we need one, that even the greatest critics are rarely right about everything. (He was also wrong about Whistler.) Like many writers who become critics at an early age, Ruskin turned to criticism in order to argue with received opinion. He was angered by some of the dumb things that were being written about Turner, whose genius he responded to with a passion. Yet, in attempting to set the record straight about Turner’s particular achievement and about landscape, too, he went on to write about a lot of other things as well-at considerable length, and with extraordinary eloquence. He was not a tidy writer, as Tim Hilton was concerned to point out about Modern Painters, Volume 1 , in John Ruskin: The Early Years .
“Ruskin’s first book is in a grand sense miscellaneous,” he wrote. “It is philosophy and aesthetics, and much more than that. It is poetry. It is prose. It is a treatise. It is a great pamphlet. It is a defense, or rather a vindication. It is a sermon. It is art criticism, art history, a commentary on recent exhibitions, or an introduction to certain collections. It is a meditation on landscape, or an exercise in how the eye may examine nature. Ruskin did not think to choose between his various interests: hardly any book of his belongs to a genre .”
This remained largely true of Ruskin’s criticism whatever his ostensible subject might be. When he turned to writing about social and political issues in the late 1850′s and early 1860′s, he could be just as untidy. At times he was proud to call himself a Tory, yet at other times he called himself a Communist. On the lecture platform and on the printed page, he called upon the “rich men of England” to use their wealth to improve society. He advocated jobs for the unemployed, old-age pensions, great art collections for ordinary people, and much else that we now take for granted.
He wasn’t exactly a complete democrat, however, for he opposed extending the franchise to the working class. (It is worth recalling that Ruskin had also taught drawing at the Working Men’s College.) Writing in Time and Tide (1867), he was anything but subtle: “You want to have voices in Parliament! Your voices are not worth a rat’s squeak, either in Parliament or out of it, till you have some ideas to utter with them.” Well, Ruskin gave the working class some of the ideas it needed, mainly through his influence on the founders of Britain’s Labour Party.
He was a remarkable writer in everything he undertook, and, in the end, took a grim and often prescient view of the future. In the 1846 edition of Modern Painters, Volume 1 , he had high praise for Turner’s watercolor of Lucerne from the Lake (1845), which Ruskin had himself commissioned. When he returned to the subject in Modern Painters, Volume 4 , in 1856, he had had a glimpse of what the burgeoning tourist business portended for the European landscape: “I can foresee … Lucerne consisting of a row of symmetrical hotels around the foot of the lake, its old bridges destroyed, an iron one built over the Reuss, and an acacia promenade carried along the lake-shore, with a German band playing under a Chinese temple at the end of it, and the enlightened travelers, representatives of European civilization, performing before the Alps, in each afternoon summer sunlight, in their modern manner, the Dance of Death.”
Was he also a bit of a crank? Sure. Many great critics have been thought to be. Did he go completely mad at the end of his life? There was that, too. Still, he is one of the greatest critics European civilization ever produced.
For newcomers to Ruskin, I suggest starting with the Penguin paperback edition of Unto This Last, and Other Writings , edited with an excellent introduction and notes by Clive Wilmer. Meanwhile, Ruskin’s Italy, Ruskin’s England , organized by Robert Parks, remains on view for repeat visits for another three months (through Jan. 7, 2001), at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street.