Color holds a decidedly mixed status in the first volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters. Ruskin states in his discussion "Of General Principles" that "color is indeed the most unimportant characteristic of objects" (32). Ruskin aligns himself with Locke, who assigns color the status of a secondary sensation. While primary qualities, such as extension and number, are "part of the essence of the body," secondary characteristics are nothing more than "powers of producing on other objects, or in us, certain effects and sensations" (32). With Locke's help, Ruskin leads up to the conclusion that colors are a byproduct of light and shade: "If we look at nature carefully, we shall find that her colors are in a perpetual confusion and indistinctness, while her forms, as told by light and shade, are invariably clear, distinct, and speaking" (33). Whereas the play of color is always uncertain, the mind perceives light and shade with sharper distinction and therefore with greater clarity.
Ruskin's willingness to downplay the significance of color is surprising given its prominence in his word-painting as well as in his vindications of Turner. In an episode from Ruskin's chapter "Of Truth of Color," he describes the scenery of Gaspar Poussin's painting, La Riccia, and narrates his encounter with a passing storm as he traverses this landscape. Ruskin's writing in this passage is famous for its use of color. Indeed, the passing rain storm goes beyond color: "I cannot call it color, it was conflagration" (70). What interests me about this passage is what Ruskin says after he finishes his description:
Tell me who is likest this, Poussin or Turner? Not in his most daring and dazzling efforts could Turner himself come near it; but you could not at the time have thought of or remembered the work of any other man as having the remotest hue or resemblance of what you saw. (70).
What is striking about this passage is that Ruskin claims to surpass his highest exemplar, Turner. Turner's genius comes no where close to approximating Ruskin's experience. Indeed, Turner's shortcoming is endemic. No one in the entire history of painting that Ruskin can think of or remember has ever attained "the remotest hue or resemblance of what" he saw.
First of all, this passage makes me rethink the marginal place that Ruskin assigns color. Second, Ruskin's grandiose claims make me reconsider the relationship between his critical writing and the paintings he describes. If Ruskin's experience surpasses Turner's paintings, it would seem to follow that word-painting performs a higher function than painting alone. Third and finally, I want to think more about Ruskin's theory of language and the primacy he gives to the act of writing.
1. Given Ruskin's declaration that "color is indeed the most unimportant characteristic of objects" (32), why do colors play such a vital role in Ruskin's word-painting as well as his defense of Turner (74)?
2. Why is Ruskin so adamant and dogged about his advocacy for Turner?
3. "It is possible for all men, by care and attention, to form a just judgment of the fidelity of artists to nature. To do this no peculiar powers of mind are required, no sympathy with particular feeling, nothing which every man of ordinary intellect does not in some degree possess, — powers, namely, of observations and intelligence, which by cultivation may be brought to a high degree of perfection and acuteness" (28)? How does Ruskin cultivate a taste for which his critical writing should be judged?
4. What is the force of Ruskin's insistence on the experiential "truth" and verity of Turner's paintings and his own observations of the natural world?
- "He paints in colour, but he thinks in light and shade"
- Ruskin on Truth
Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Ed. David Barrie. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
Last modified 28 November 2006