The unifying factor in Ruskin's writings, as we have seen, appears in his career-long drive to interpret matters for his contemporaries. The interpretations of painting and architecture with which he began his career met with early and lasting success. Drawing upon the rhetoric and techniques of the Victorian preacher, Wordsworthian conceptions of the poet, and Neoclassical theories of painting and the beautiful, Ruskin offered his Victorian audience convincing arguments for the essential earnestness, the relevance and moral importance, of the visual arts. Arguments of this kind couched in this kind of language were what his contemporaries wanted to hear. As early as 1851, which was only nine years after the publication of Modeen Painters I, Ruskin began to emphasize the political dimensions of art, and although The Stones of Venice was well received, a large part of his audience was disturbed by his touching upon such matters. This was not the kind of argument many wished to hear stated in any kind of language, and the objections to his ideas increased with Unto This Last (1862) as reviewers found his eminently sane views of society "mad" and dangerous.

Although the sense of isolation that Ruskin seems to have felt in varying degrees throughout his life certainly increased after 1860 (which was also the period during which he abandoned his childhood religion), he still retained an audience for his political lectures and publications. Indeed, having disbursed much of the fortune he inherited after his father died in 1864, he earned enough money from his books, including those on political economy, to remain a wealthy man. One of the reasons that Ruskin thus continued to be a popular, if controversial, author lies in the fact that he gradually gained a new audience, one composed of members of the working classes, to supplement and in some cases replace his earlier one.[87/88]

Ruskin did not, however, concentrate entirely upon political economy in his mid and late career, for he continued his Oxford lectures and published on subjects ranging from ornithology and botany to painting and air pollution. Beginning in 1878, bouts of mental illness intermittently incapacitated him, but during his calm periods he wrote some of his finest work, including The Art of England and Praeterita. Ruskin's last acts of interpretation centre upon his own life in Praeterita, a quiet, beautiful, lyrical work written during periods when his mind and spirit were calm. After 1888, such moments of peace became ever rarer, and Ruskin remained isolated at Brantwood. Ironically, just at the time when thousands of readers in England and abroad received the words of Ruskin the prophet with adulation, he himself could take no solace from that fact.

As recent histories of literature, art, architecture, design, and political theory make clear, we are just beginning to perceive the degree to which John Ruskin, Interpreter, influenced his own age and continues to affect ours. Ruskin, however, possesses more than historical importance.. He remains England's great art critic, and his magnificent prose still teaches us to see and to see better. His social criticism, with its constant emphasis that we can understand our lives, remains immediate and relevant, as does his insistence that the chief test of theories of art, society, and politics is the question, Do they enhance life and spirit, do they make us more fully, more richly, alive?


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Last modified 9 December 2006