John Ruskin’s early art criticism, much of which focused on defending the painter J.M.W. Turner, continuously praises nature as the source of authentic art. Rather than rely on what they had been taught, artists, Ruskin argued, should go to the purest forms of their subjects and paint with an intensity and liveliness than only nature can inspire. In the passage below, Ruskin describes the sources of art as dead and without illumination, while nature always contains truer colors and forms. Thus, the modern landscape painters, who drew inspriation directly from nature, could claim more genius than masters of centuries past.
Tell me who is likest this? Not in his most daring and dazzling efforts could Turner himself come near it; but work of any other man as having the remotest hue or resemblence of what you saw. Nor am I speaking of what is uncommon and unatural; there is no climate, no place, and scarely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit colour which no mortal effort can imitate our approach. For all our artificial pigments are, even when seen under the same circumstances, dead and lightless beside her living colour; the green of a growing leaf, the scarlet of a fresh flower, no art nor expedient can reach; but in addition to this, nature exhibits her hues under an intensity of sunlight which trebles their brilliancy; which the painter, deprived of this splendid side, works still with what is actually a grey shadow compared to the force of nature’s colour. Take a blade of grass and a scarlet flower, and place them so as to recieve sunlight beside the brightest canvass that ever left Turner’s easel, and the picture will be extinguished. So far from out-facing nature, he does not, as far as mere vividness of color goes, one-half reach her; --but does he use this brilliancy of colour on objects to which it does not belong? (page 154, “Of Truth of Color”)
In style, Ruskin’s work has parallels to Carlyle. Both state an opinion and reiterate it with increasing strength until the end of a paragraph. Additionally, the write of their subjects with a tone of importance, is if the future of civilization depends on people and institutions paying heed to their opinions.
1. What would Ruskin have to say about abstract expressionsism? Would he reject art that does not seek to capture an image from the real world?
2. Considering Question 1, how would Ruskin feel about nature photography?
3. Would Ruskin entirely shun the digital arts, even if the subject of a work is nature-based?
4. “Nor am I speaking of what is uncommon and unnatural.” What about the changing media of the late 19th century (i.e. the advent of photography) would cause Ruskin to value the common to such a high degree? Does the widespead dissemination of exceptional images make Ruskin conservative for valuing the common, and in tern, a time in which people only knew that?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Charlottesville: U of Virginia Pres, 1998.
Last modified 16 October 2006