John Ruskin (1819-1900) was according to Lionel Trilling "the pre-eminent intellectual genius of Victorian England," an influential social philosopher and art critic and a highly talented watercolor painter. Born in London to a wealthy and fiercely religious Scottish sherry merchant, Ruskin learned at an early age to read several languages, write extensively, and appreciate fine art. He began drawing lessons at age 11; for his 12th birthday he received Samuel Roger's poem Italy in an edition illustrated with etchings after J.M.W. Turner; in his autobiography he attributed to that gift "the entire direction of my life's work." Ruskin's family toured Belgium, the Rhine Valley and Switzerland in 1833 to see the many places illustrated by Samuel Prout; two years later he traveled via France to Italy, creating his lifelong passion for the Alps and Venice which he revisited many times in his life. He finally met his painting idol, Turner, in 1840, the same year he became a fellow of the Geological Society. Initially determined to become a Protestant bishop, he turned instead toward art criticism when, at age 24 and while still an undergraduate at Cambridge University, he wrote the first volume of his Modern Painters (1843) expressly as a defense of Turner's art, and in so doing became the first critic to develop a modern esthetic theory for modern painting. Other art critical works followed: four more volumes of Modern Painters (in 1846, two in 1856, and 1860), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851, 1853), as well as many articles on art and architectural preservation. From 1851 he was an early defender and sometimes domineering patron of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. His preeminence as an art expert was confirmed when the National Gallery asked him in 1857 to catalog and develop methods to display and conserve the 20,000 items in the Turner Bequest. Ruskin received painting lessons from Anthony Copley Fielding in 1836 and drawing lessons from James Duffield Harding (1797-1863) in 1841-45, and was himself a drawing instructor for much of his life, offering lessons to many acquaintances and holding weekly drawing classes at the Working Men's College in London (1854-61). In 1860 he published Unto This Last, a critique of the values of the contemporary political economy. This marked the beginning of almost two decades of altruistic work — writing social criticism, supervising urban renewal projects, and lecturing (from 1869) as Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University. It was also of a period of intense mental turmoil and restless travel, facilitated by the fortune Ruskin inherited at the death of his father in 1864. Throughout these decades Ruskin's emotional relationships were complex and conflicted. His disastrous marriage to Effie Gray in 1848 was annulled in 1854 for sexual "non-consummation;" his friendships with modern painters often soured; and he became mentally imbalanced after he was refused marriage in 1866 by Rose La Touche, a religiously obsessed woman almost 30 years his junior who died insane in 1875, at age 27. His stature as a critic was effectively destroyed when the American painter James McNeil Whistler won a suit of libel against him in 1878; but by then Ruskin was already crippled by long episdoes of mental illness, and was forced to resign his Slade professorship the following year. He began writing his eloquent autobiography, Praeterita in 1889, but abandoned it when the story reached his relationship with La Touche. After his final breakdown in 1890 he was removed to the Lake District, living a vegetative and childlike existence under the care of his cousin, Joan Severn, until his death at age 80.



Let's begin with Ruskin the art teacher, and the illuminating discussion of technique in his watercolor "drawing" manual, The Elements of Drawing — so valuable it has gone out of print only once (at Ruskin's request) since it was first published in 1857. As late as the middle 19th century, "drawing" still referred to any artwork consisting primarily of line, whether made with graphite pencil or pointed brush, and beginners were still introduced to watercolors through the methods of the 18th century tinted drawing. Ruskin's teaching examples are very innovative in their emphasis on natural forms, especially plants and trees — including many insights gleaned from Duffield Harding's own Lessons on Trees (1850). Trees in a Lane, Ambleside (1847, 45x57cm) shows the kind of tinted drawing Ruskin was capable of — and the kind he taught others to do. For Ruskin, trees had three fundamental pedagogical advantages: they were infinitely complex, and so challenged even the most intense powers of observation, and they were infinitely varied, so that a great range of textures, shadows, shapes and complex curves were necessary to capture them. But most important: they were alive, and no matter how painstakingly copied from nature, no drawing of trees was a success unless the life of the tree shone through. (Figure drawings create the same kind of standard, but trees are much more convenient and patient subjects.) Ruskin has added the ink shading that transforms the drawing into a painting, but has left it incomplete, and with notations on the place and time in pencil, in the manner that Edward Lear would turn to whimsical effects.

Ruskin was in constant contact with professional artists such as Duffield Harding, who accompanied Ruskin on an Italian sketching tour in 1845. When painters such as William Henry Hunt began using bodycolor and minute stippling touches of the brush to achieve new levels of control, detail and depth of color, Ruskin made sure to learn those methods too. In the Pass of Killiecrankie (1857, 28x25cm) is one of these innovative paintings of which Ruskin was especially proud. Hardly larger than an open paperback book, most catalogs reproduce it full size; yet the complexity of textures and color variations is astonishing. The rock stands as hard proof of Ruskin's command to "draw everything, omitting nothing, adding nothing" — even down to the last crack and pebble, if necessary. Ruskin emphasized that art must contain "the essence and the authority of the Beautiful and the True," by which he meant the poetical and morally uplifting insights of the spirit (which Turner was the master at presenting), and the precisely visualized facts of the natural world (exemplified in this drawing). Overbearing moralism and painstaking visual accuracy were also what Ruskin found praiseworthy in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Ruskin once said that drawings by artists such as Harding were "all for impression," while his were "all for information." But Ruskin's information is always specific, never generalized. If there is something cold or airless in this drawing, it is perhaps the result of Ruskin's unrelenting ambition to make the illusions of art into a vehicle of truth that was equal if not superior to science.

The French painter Rosa Bonheur criticized Ruskin for this obsessive attention to detail, saying he saw nature "with tiny eyes, just like a bird." And Ruskin might have agreed, complaining to a friend in 1846 that "I can do nothing that I haven't before me; I cannot change, or arrange, or modify in the least, and that amounts to a veto on producing a great picture." While this criticism may literally apply to some of Ruskin's naturalist and architectural sketches, it's also a tiny criticism (so like the French) and misses the spirit of the man. Ruskin continually searched for the elemental principles of beauty, especially in the natural world, seeking them in everything from moral codes to mathematics, as shown in his abstract studies of plant forms in the Elements of Drawing, or his perspective studies of cloud formations and light (at right) from the last volume of his Modern Painters. These inquiries both look back to principles of "natural and moral beauty" articulated by the English painter William Hogarth (in his The Analysis of Beauty, 1752), and anticipate by several decades the abstract studies of natural form by the English naturalist D'Arcy Thompson, and by almost a century the exploration of "self similar" patterns in fractal mathematics. Ruskin discovered and articulated many abstract connections between the natural order and the visual arts. Later critics (especially Ernst Gombrich and Rudolph Arnheim) turned toward psychological explanations for beauty: Ruskin's focus on the beauty of the real world is a theme ripe for revival.

The Alps provided his "most intense happinesses," so it seems fitting to leave Ruskin there, on an Afternoon in Spring, with South Wind, at Neuchatel (1866, 17x25cm), with the patterns of clouds, peaks and waves echoing each other across perspective space. This painting still strains after accurate observation (the tiny dark trees along the far shore are carefully outlined in pen), and the combination of strong wind and dark shadow suggests the turmoil of Ruskin's encroaching instability. But the two elemental forms of chaos — water and clouds — also coax him into poetic summary and symbolization. He uses bodycolor to suggest the fleeting whitecaps, and transparent washes to catch the wind churned sky. Skies were one of Ruskin's soul windows: of the dawn sky he advised "Love that rightly with all your heart, and soul and eyes, and you are established in foundation-laws of color;" and on the brink of madness in 1884 he gave a terrifying public lecture on the "plague clouds of Europe" — that is, the industrial pollution that symbolized for Ruskin mankind's untrammeled ambition to blaspheme God and despoil the world. To my eye, this painting expresses the elemental conflicts in Ruskin's character. His involuted and controlling nature made his relationships stormy, his moods were sometimes dark, and his extraordinarily high standards made him believe his life goals were always out of reach. But through all that Ruskin kept his view fixed on that far shore of what art at its best could be, believing to the end that "all great art is praise."

ruskin's perspectival studies of landscape clouds

from Modern Painters (1860)

The best overview by far of Ruskin's life, art, contemporaries and influence is the centenary exhibition catalog Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites by Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell & Stephen Wildman (Tate Gallery, 2000). There is also an excellent chapter on Ruskin's precepts and influence in Victorian Landscape Watercolors by Scott Wilcox and Christopher Newall (Yale Center for British Art, 1992). The finest anthology of Ruskin's extensive, varied and thought provoking writings is John Rosenberg's The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (University Press of Virginia, 1997). I prefer Bernard Dunstan's edition of Ruskin's Elements of Drawing (Watson & Guptill, 1998), but earlier editions are readily available from online used booksellers.