In Modern Painters, John Ruskin offers extensive criticism about artistic style and technique for contemporary painters, not only examining aesthetic problems he sees in the works of fellow painters but presenting possible answers to these problems as well. In one section entitled "Of Truth of Color," however, Ruskin presents a problem for modern artists with seemingly no answer:
Not in his most daring and dazzling efforts could Turner himself come near [the colors of this scene]; 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. Nor am I speaking of what is uncommon or unnatural; there is no climate, no place, and scarcely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit color which no mortal effect can imitate or approach. For all our artificial pigments are, even when seen under the same circumstances, dead and lightless next to her living color. 
As he goes on, Ruskin purports that the "aim and struggle of the artist must always be to do away with this discrepancy as far as the powers of art admit, not by lowering his color, but by increasing his light" (161). Yet, even Turner, who Ruskin claims has "alone followed nature in her highest efforts . . . follows her faithfully but far behind" (159). Rather, we are ultimately left only with "imitations" of nature through art (161).
If this is the case, what then is the value of art for Ruskin? And, more importantly, how do we mediate this problem of discrepancy if not solve it altogether?
1. Does Ruskin here chiefly criticize his contemporaries' shortcomings? Is he calling for better style, skill and technique from modern painters in portraying the world? Or rather, is he expounding upon the universal shortcomings of human art, impression and subjectivity? If the latter, he positions himself as enlightener, yet he provides no answers — only impossible questions. Why? What is the point then?
2. Ruskin acknowledges that Turner's "most daring and dazzling efforts . . . [do not] come near" a true portrayal of the colors found in the world, yet he seems to let him off easy as compared to the other painters he examines. Why does Ruskin hold up Turner as an example and defend him? Is this a matter of settling for the best he can find, or is Ruskin staking some higher claim in Turner for the future of art?
3. Ruskin claims that art doesn't need to have themes to convey religious/spiritual significance — rather, the pure beauty of the work itself is means enough to demonstrate God's presence — but is he over-romanticizing here (particularly when he writes that the colors are like "curtains of God's tabernacle" and the trees are truly "rejoicing")? Does he try too hard to create metaphorical connections between nature and religion? Doesn't this go against what he calls "aim and struggle of the artist" — to portray the world as closely as humanly possible?
4. If there is a romanticizing on the part of Ruskin, how can we reconcile this with his aesthetic "truths"? Does subjectivity, for Ruskin, have a place in art? What about a commitment to a realistic portrayal (that is, depicting a scene as it truly is)? Is this even possible? What does he mean when he says "Truth can only be measured by close comparison of actual facts" (156)? What are these facts and how do we come by them? Can we?
- "He paints in colour, but he thinks in light and shade"
- Ruskin on Truth
Last modified 11 September 2006