The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin

The Critic: Sane or Insane? A Note to Chapter Two

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Raymond Lister, Victorian Narrative Paintings (London, 1966), 80, writes: "The artist, who was a neurotic, was deeply hurt [by Ruskin's criticism] and this, with the death of his wife in 1862, caused him to abandon professional painting and to destroy nearly all he had so far painted." Graham Reynolds, Victorian Painting (London, 1966), 67, rather strangely writes that the artist unfortunately "encountered Ruskin in one of his more unbalanced moods." Neither Ruskin's comment on the painting nor his actions at this period suggests that he was in any way "unbalanced," and since Reynolds, who admits the "morbidity" of the painting, apparently agrees with Ruskin, one finds it difficult to understand the reason for such commentary.

Ever since Wilenski's cruel and rather inept attempt at a psychological biography, critics who feel unhappy with Ruskin's judgments attribute them to insanity. Wilenski's John Ruskin, An Introduction to the Further Study of His Life and Work (London, 1933), which throughout contains amateur psychological analyses of the most pernicious kind, frequently appears more an essay in character assassination than a prolegomena to the study of Ruskin's work. The author paints Ruskin's portrait in darkest colors, holding that he was insane throughout his life and only clearheaded at brief moments. For example, Wilenski states that Ruskin never worked very hard (!), though to do so he must ignore the enormous body of sketching and writing that he produced. He makes Ruskin's statements that he was recording buildings about to be torn down or defaced seem untrue, whereas E. T. Cook and others have demonstrated the importance of this work. Similarly, he informs the reader that Ruskin was mad enough to pay high prices for rocks and even collected shells on the beach -- a sure sign of insanity -- but fails to mention until much later that Ruskin was an amateur geologist with publications to his credit. Perhaps the most astonishing example of motive-mongering comes when Wilenski explains many reasons for Ruskin's donation of his beloved Turners to Oxford, including (1) desire to buy his way into the good graces of the university; (2) guilt at his own wealth; (3) loss of interest in art; (4) an attempt to forestall accusations that he was inflating the prices of Turner for his own profit. He does not feel it necessary, however, to mention Ruskin's stated intention of acquainting students with the artist's work.

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Last modified 2000