"Hitherto I have only had instinct to guide me in judging art," wrote Charlotte Brontë after reading John Ruskin's Modern Painters, Volume 1, in 1848; "I feel more as if I had been walking blindfold— this book seems to give me eyes. I do wish I had pictures within reach by, which to test the new sense. . . . However eloquent and convincing the language in which another's opinion is placed before you, you still wish to judge for yourself. 
uskin has a plays a very strange role in Victorian Art Criticism and the Woman Writer: Brontë's Ruskin, who teaches his readers, male and female, to see and think for themselves, appears in a positive light throughout most of the book, but in the extraordinarily poor on chapter on Mrs. Eastlake, he seems to be an incompetent upper-class, sexist male critic interested more in telling stories than looking at art. And of course he supposedly had all kinds of advantages not possessed by the women critics whose cause Kanwit tries to advance. He tells us, for example, that “most early women writers, including Eastlake, gained their expertise from private study and firsthand experience — not from the kind of university education enjoyed by Ruskin and others” (58). The preceding remark perfectly exemplifies how Kanwit carelessly slides between categories. Yes, Ruskin went to Oxford and Lady Eastlake did not, but there was no art education at Oxford or other British universities — Ruskin after all was the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford! — so in terms of art criticism, the matter supposedly under discussion, whether one attended a university or not is irrelevant. Later the book points out that that Eastlake and Jameson acquired their art historical knowledge as tourists in Europe, which of course is precisely the way Ruskin also became knowledgeable about painting and architecture.
The book has some promising moments, but on the whole in appears poorly conceived and badly organized. Most of Victorian Art Criticism and the Woman Writer concerns the effect Victorian art criticism had upon a few books by major women writers, but chapter III — “‘My name is the right one’: Lady Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake and the Story of Professional Art Criticism” — attacks Ruskin, Pater, and other male critics but does not demonstrate the effect of Eastlake's writing upon women novelists. The book opens with a chapter entitled “Encouraging Visual Literacy: Early Victorian State Sponsorship of the Arts and the Growing Need for Art Commentary,” which begins with a discussion the pre-Victorian Select Committee on the State of Arts and Manufactures, moves to a brief section on the Royal Academy, after which follow “The National Gallery” and “The Westminster Competitions and the Superioroty of British Artistic Talent.” The second chapter — “‘Mere outward aappearnces?’ Teaching Household taste and social Perecption in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South and Contemporary Art Criticism” — makes an accurate, if obvious, interpretation of the vulgarity of furnishings in the Thornton's home. Next come chapters on Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell hall, Criticism of Mid-Victorian exhibitions, Charlotte Brontë's Villette and George Eliot's Middlemarch, Impressionism and late-Victorian art criticism, and a conclusion on artistic value after September 11th.
Kanwit's basic point in his defense of Eastlake and claim of her supposed superiority to Ruskin and other critics is that she emphasizes fact whereas they just like to tell stories. Thus, he approvingly notes that “Eastlake chastises Ruskin and other writers for emphasizing stories about artworks” (70). A few pages earlier Kanwit had made one of his more bizarre misstatements:
Canonical Victorian art critics, including Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde, shunned this kind of historical research in favor of legends about artists. . . . Eastlake's attributive practice underscores the centrality of carefully researched fact in her art historicism. This factualism was key to the most prominent aim of her writing: positioning her historical method as superior to art criticism. [63, 64]
Eastlake's supposedly superior attention to fact turns out to rest on her emphasis on attributions, something Ruskin turns to in the course of larger arguments. Thus when examining the accuracy of Claude's La Riccia to the actual landscape it depicts — a matter of fact determinable only by having gone to the actual place — he points out that those attacking Turner incorrectly attribute the painting to Claude, and modern scholarship agrees. Ruskin then proceeds to compare what the hostile critics thought to be a Claude to Tuner and to the actual landscape.
Arguing that Eastlake emphasizes fact whereas Ruskin likes to tell stories is one of Kanwit's more bizarre errors, one which more than any other suggests he hasn't read Ruskin, who is after all the master of fact. After the critics attacked Turner's inaccuracy in his late works of must and fire, he began Modern Painters to demonstrate his truthfulness, and to do he found that he had to explain visual fact — that shadows on grass are purple not green and the ways that water reflects light. In The Stones of Venice he explains at length various kinds of fact: the history of Venice, the relation of byzantine and gothic architecture, and the precise nature of individual architectural elements, including columns, arches, buttresses, and so on.
At one point Kanwit praises Eastlake on very odd grounds, telling us that “unlike Ruskin, she does not believe that art is necessarily a reflection of the culture in which it is produced” (65). Arnold Hauser credits Ruskin for inventing the sociology of art, but Kanwit apparently believes (or at least he appears to do when he wrote this one sentence) that ignoring the social and political contexts of art constitutes a virtue. But Kanwit, who approvingly quotes Eagleton, surely in part a descendant of Ruskin, claims to employ a "feminist lens" (6) and frequently discusses the contextual matters of class and gender. This kind of inconsistency, which suggests Kanwit doesn't grasp the implications of the authors and critics he discusses, permeates the book, weakening its good points.
Consistently wrong as he is about Ruskin, Kanwit certainly doesn't help the reputation of Eastlake, since he never cites examples of her supposed excellent scholarship or quotes from her criticism. Throughout his discussion, Kanwit gives the impression, perhaps mistaken, that he has read a little about art criticism, Ruskin, Eastlake, and others but that he hasn't actually read their works, or at least he hasn't read them at all carefully. A major part of Kanwit's problems here derive from the fact that he ignores the dominant form of Victorian art criticism, that which appeared in periodicals, not only in journals specifically devotes to the arts, such as The Art-Journal and The Studio but also reviews in Blackwood's and The Times. His index has a single mention of The Art-Journal and none of The Studio. And of course he doesn't mention the women who wrote for these periodicals.
Originally, I planned to write a joint review of Kanwit's Victorian Art Criticism and the Woman Writer and James Hamilton's superb A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Great Britain. Comparing the two books at length would simply be too cruel. Suffice to point out that Hamilton's three paragraphs on the Manchester Art Exhibition of 1857 have far more to offer than Kanwit's dozen.
Kanwit, John Paul M. Victorian Art Criticism and the Woman Writer. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013.
Last modified 1 July 2014