One of the most beautiful and important characters of nature, according to Ruskin, is its inexhaustible and infinite variety. The beauty of a painting is its ability to convey impressions of nature's infinite change. In " Of truth of color," Ruskin attacks two kinds of painters who fail to represent nature's true colors: old masters who settled with "transparent, agreeable, but monotonous" colors, or modern artists who used " false," "absurd," and "equally monotonous" colors. Meanwhile, he gives supreme appreciation to Turner's works, which represented the truth of nature's perpetually varying colors. In the following paragraph, Ruskin criticizes the lack of variety of color in Salvotor's painting, "Mercury and the Dishonest Woodman:"
Salvator has painted [the mountain] throughout without one instant of variation; but this, I suppose, is simplicity and generalization; — let it pass: but what is the color? Pure sky blue, without one grain of grey or any modifying hue whatsoever; the same brush which had just given the bluest parts of the sky has been more loaded at the same part of the pallet, and the whole mountain thrown in with unmitigated ultramarine. Now mountains only can become pure blue when there is so much air between us and them that they become mere flat dark shades, every detail being totally lost: they become blue when they become air, and not till then. Consequently this part of Salvator's painting, being of hills perfectly clear and near, with all their details visible, is, as far as color is concerned, broad bold falsehood, the direct assertion of direct impossibility." [p. 154]
Immediately after criticizing Salvotor's false representation of nature by misusing blue, Ruskin, shows us how Turner's hues of blue matches nature's own blue:
In the whole range of Turner's works, recent or of old date, you will not find any instance of anything near enough to have details visible, painted in sky blue. Wherever Turner gives blue, there he gives atmosphere; it is air, not object. Blue he gives to his sea; so does nature; — blue he gives, sapphire-deep, to his extreme distance; so does nature; — blue he gives to the misty shadows and hollows of his hills; so does nature; but blue he gives not, where detail and illumined surface are visible; as he comes into light and character, so he breaks into warmth and varied hue: nor is there in one of his works Ð and I speak of the Academy pictures especially Ð one touch of cold color which is not to be accounted for, and proved right and full of meaning." [p. 155]
Ruskin's style becomes lively and proverbial, as he conveys Turner's interesting use of colors. It seems that Turner was the only star that succeeds in capturing the truth of colors, as his paintings reflect the variations of nature. Other widely established and recognized painters, such as Claude Gellee, Gasper Dughet and Rosa Salvator, can just retreat into the National Gallery's corners and die.
As an art critic, Ruskin's role is to criticize and praise. However, when the critic consistently and invariably favors a particular artist over the rest of the lot, how much do readers listen? To what extent is an art critic entitled to his opinions?
Ruskin does not call his readers "blockhead," unlike Carlyle. Is Ruskin, in this way, more polite? Or are his readers offended anyways because Ruskin attacks the conventional aesthetics, just as Carlyle's readers would?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings. John D. Rosenberg, ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. 1998.
Last modified 15 March 2005