In Volume 1 of Modern Painters, during the chapter entitled “On the Truth of Colour” John Ruskin argues that the colors of nature can never be truly be portrayed in painted landscapes. For a color to be truly portrayed it must be realistic, or as “closely as possible resembling objects in the physical and observable world”. In the physical and observable world, sunlight "trebles the brilliancy" (157) of colors, and shorn as anyone or anything but the sun itself is of emanating light; the painter cannot paint true color into his landscape. Because light serves as a necessary function to realize color, an impenetrable “discrepancy” (157) exists for landscape artists translating color from nature to canvas. Analyzing famous landscapes of Claude, Titian, Poussin, and Salvator, or “the old masters” (158), of the centuries before his nineteenth-century England, Ruskin pits the “dull opaque brown” of their canvases against color in its natural state: “purple, crimson, and scarlet, like the color of God’s tabernacle . . the green vistas arched like the hollows of mighty waves of some crystalline sea,” (155), to show the “direct impossibility” of capturing the color’s essence in art. However, Ruskin does singles out one painter who best conceals the gap between color in nature and color in art better than all the others: Turner, who "translates the unattainable intensity of one tone of color, into the attainable pitch of a higher one,” (157), thereby most skillfully imitating color in its true state. Not one of the great artists, but rather a contemporary of Ruskin’s period, Turner was painting landscapes even as Ruskin wrote “The Truth of Color”. To exemplify Turner’s skill, Ruskin compares his works to those of the great artists.

I do not say that Salvator’s distance is not artist-like; both in that, and in the yet more glaringly false distances of Titan above alluded to, and in hundreds of others of equal boldness of exaggeration, I can take delight, and perhaps should be sorry to see them other than they are; but it is somewhat singular to hear people talking of Turner’s exquisite care and watchfulness in colour as false, while they receive such cases of preposterous and audacious fiction with the most generous and simple credulity. [155]

Ruskin juxtaposes the technical faults of the great artists of the older generation to the “exquisite care and watchfulness” [p. 155] of the comparatively young Turner, condemning the work of those who lay the groundwork in painting before Turner, and lauding him for his corrections to the skill. Furthermore, Ruskin does shames not just the “great masters” (158) for their lack of skill in attempting to put nature onto a canvass, but also berates his reader for revering these foundation-laying artists as great, while dismissing Turner. In Ruskin’s eyes, the contemporary painter of his time trumps his predecessors in truly conveying color. Ruskin continues to disparage the reader as, even going so far as to address his audience directly when condemning their faulty judgment.

You will be puzzled to show me such a thing in the recent works of Turner. Again, take any important group of trees, I do not care whose — Claude, Salvator’s, or Poussin’s — with lateral light (that in the Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, or Gaspar’s Sacrifice of Isaac, for instance): Can it be seriously supposed that those murky browns and melancholy greens are representative of the tings of leaves under full non-day sun? I know you cannot help looking upon all these pictures as pieces of dark relief against a light wholly proceeding from the distance; but they are nothing of the kind — they are noon and morning effects with full later light. Be so kind as to match the colour of a leaf in the sun (the darkest you like) as nearly as you can, and bring your matched colour and set it beside one of these groups of trees, and take a blade of common grass, and set it beside any part of the fullest light of their foregrounds, and then talk about the truth of color of the old masters! [158]


1. In Seven Lamps of Architecture (text), Ruskin reveres the architecture of the past as a vehicle for teaching the current generation about the foundations of their society. He is angry at society for literally deconstructing the sacred architecture, because in doing so they are dismissing with it the foundations of their very society. Here, Ruskin himself deconstructs the art of the past, and reveres the art of the present. How do we reconcile these two arguments? Is it merely the difference in art form, architecture versus painting, that reverses what we as a society should be focusing on (past or present), or is the defining difference that the groundwork architecture succeeds in promoting feeling, and quite explicitly, the groundwork art fails in showing a technique?

2. Johnson is so deeply respected that there is now an entire age in his name. He wrote direct life guidance: forgive a man when he comes into fortune, a young man is self-centered and grows up to understand his youth, whereas, Ruskin, in “The Truth of Colour” especially, writes life-lessons in a less direct form, through the lens of a cultural, societal statement about art. What can we make of the direct and indirect approaches to sage wisdom, given the fact that Ruskin’s word became more influential in same cases than that of that of Marx?

3. Why does Ruskin write this defense of Turner at this period? Is it in response to a specific revolt against Turner or a sudden uprising in reverence for the great artists, or something less direct to these artists that occurs in society in England in the 1840s, prompting Ruskin to berate his culture?

4. How would Ruskin and his argument about the truth of color fall into Carlyle’s argument that without an authoritative figure, society aimlessly worships unworthy people, and thus forges cracks in the credibility and greatness of their culture? Is Ruskin, in this essay, acting as the authoritative figure that Carlyle longs for, telling people who to exalt, honor, and revere, or not? Would Carlyle find Ruskin a suitable teller of whom to worship?

5. Both Ruskin and Wolfe address the reader in a tone that intimidates them, or excludes them. Does Ruskin use this technique more or less effectively than Wolfe, how or why?

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Political History

Last modified 1 March 2011