In "Truth of Water", Ruskin criticizes modern painters and explains the various properties of water that he feels should be portrayed in paintings. Ruskin often uses his own diary entries to describe the reflections and colours of the water. This literary depiction of water indicates differences between written and visual art.
After explaining the phenomenon of light and dark reflections in water, Ruskin asks the reader to
Take, by way of example, an extract from my own diary at Venice. "May 17th, 4 p.m. Looking east the water is calm, and reflects the sky and vessels with this peculiarity; the sky, which is pale blue, is in its reflection of the same kind of blue, only a little deeper; but the vessels’ hulls, which are black, are reflected in pale sea green, i.e., the natural colour of the water under sunlight; while the orange masts of the vessels, wet with a recent shower, are reflected without change of colour, only not quite so bright as above. One ship has a white, another a red stripe . . . of these the water takes no notice."
By using this diary entry as proof of the existence of certain properties of water, Ruskin seems to be suggesting that literary art is superior to visual art when it comes to describing truth. He uses his own writing as fact even though his description of the water is another form of art, just like the work of the "elder painters," whom Ruskin describes as having "little success and intelligence". Written description is, admittedly, more reliable than painting, since the writer always knows that his pen will write "pale blue" whereas the painter cannot know for certain what colour the sky and water will be once the paint dries on his canvas. However, while a vague picture of the "orange masts" and "pale sea green" that Ruskin describes can be formed in the mind of the reader, it pales in comparison to the detail and concreteness that can be achieved by painting.
1. What other differences between painting and writing does Ruskin suggest by choosing this passage from his diary?
2. According to A Ruskin Chronology, Ruskin first published Modern Painters Volume I anonymously. Why might he have done this?
3. Ruskin personifies the water in the last sentence of the passage quoted above: "of these the water takes no notice." How does this affect the essay? For example, does it affect the tone or the importance of the subject matter?
4. Edward Burne-Jones painted Laus Veneris after Swinburne wrote the poem of the same name and "Burne-Jones incorporated some of the details from Swinburne’s poem into his painting" (). Ruskin, however, wrote Modern Painters after the paintings by Turner he discusses were completed. Keeping this fact in mind, compare the relationship between visual art and literary art in the two situations.
Last modified 14 April 2009