In Section V of Modern Painters, Ruskin discusses the depiction of water in painting. He argues that the ancients depicted water carelessly, relying on imagination and theory rather than observation. Consequently, they failed to accurately represent nature. Ruskin goes on to assert the importance of observation in water-painting:

And if painters would only go out to the nearest common, and take the nearest dirty pond among the furze, and draw that thoroughly; not considering that it is water that they are drawing, and that water must be done in a certain way, but drawing determinedly what they see . . . they could come home with such a notion of water-painting as might save me and every one else all the trouble of writing about the matter. [323]

Ruskin makes several claims about nature, water, light, and reflection, which he supports with his observations. His observations, in the form of word-painting, offer an alternative to the "vulgar" paintings which misrepresent nature that he criticizes. By advocating for the accurate depiction of nature, Ruskin creates an objective standard by which to judge art:

Of all contemptible criticism, that is most to be contemned which punishes great works of art when they fight without armour, and refuses to feel or acknowledge the great spiritual refracted sun of their truth, because it has risen at a false angle, and burst open them before its appointed time. And yet, on the other hand, let it be observed, that it is not feeling, nor fancy, nor imagination, so called, that I have put before science, but watchfulness, experience, affection, and trust in nature; and farther let it be observed that there is a difference between the license taken by one man and another, which makes one license admirable, and the other punishable; and that this difference is of a kind sufficiently discernible by every earnest person, though it is not so explicable as that we can beforehand say where and when, or even to whom, the license is to be forgiven. [333]

Ruskin characterizes observation as central to art. Although he admits the limits of scientific accuracy and recognizes that fallacy can often boast great artistic merit, he persists that science should be secondary only to watchfulness, experience, affection, and trust in nature rather than imagination. Thus, good art is that which is true to nature. If art should reflect nature and, if every earnest person can indeed discern the difference between art that is true to nature and art that is not, art criticism becomes a largely objective exercise.


1. Ruskin characterizes the water-painting of the elder landscape painters as bad beyond explanation:

The water-painting of all the elder landscape painters, except a few of the better passages of Claude and Ruysdael, is so execrable, so beyond all expression and explanation bad, and Claude's and Ruysdael's best so cold and valueless, that I do not know how to address those who like such painting; I do not know what their sensations are respecting the sea. [323]

Can Ruskin reasonably call painting bad if it is admired by others? Why does Ruskin effectively refuse to debate with those who do not share his basic beliefs about art (namely, those who value the water-painting of the elder landscape painters)?

2. Ruskin begins with a disclaimer:

It is necessary in the outset to state briefly one or two of the optical conditions by which the appearance of the surface of water is affected; to describe them all would require a separate essay, even if I possessed the requisite knowledge, which I do not. [321]

What does Ruskin gain by admitting the weakness of his writing?

3. Ruskin describes one instance in which a lack of scientific accuracy renders a painting more true to nature:

Now that a globe of light should cast a shadow is a license, as far as mere optical matters are concerned, of the most audacious kind. But how beautiful is the circumstance in its application here, showing that the angel, who is light to all else around him, is darkness to those whom he is commissioned to banish forever. [334]

Is this a type of subjectivity? Subjectivity of the painting's object? How is this different from and similar to imagination, which Ruskin criticizes as a basis for painting? How does this relate to Ruskin's concept of pathetic fallacy?

4. Ruskin argues that waves are difficult to represent on account of their transient existence: "I cannot catch a wave, nor daguerreotype it, and so there is no coming to pure demonstration" (323). Daguerreotypes were popularized in London after the Great Exhibition of 1851. What effect, if any, did this have on painting?

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Leading Questions

Last modified 14 April 2009