In 1853, Ruskin persuaded Millais to travel with him and his wife to Scotland. This was very much an interesting trip; Millais was a founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who were very much inspired by Ruskin. Moreover, it was during this trip that Millais and Ruskin's wife, Effie fell in love.

In this portrait, Millais depicts Ruskin in the Scottish highlands beside a stream. although dressed in a black frock coat, with carefully brushed hair and all the other accoutrements of a civilized Victorian gentleman, Ruskin stands balanced on a log, very much at ease and a part of this natural setting. The boulders, lush vegetation and the roaring water are very much a part of the scene, but there is nothing uncomfortable in the fact that although Ruskin seems dressed for a stroll in a London street. The colors of his clothing blend with the wild background and neither the figure nor the setting seem to vie with each other. Instead, it seems perfectly natural that Ruskin would be in such a setting. And both complement and in a way, become a part of each other.

The viewer is invited to enter the mood of the painting, to be thoughtful, yet at the same time, we are not privy to what Ruskin is actually thinking about — his gaze reaches beyond us.

Questions

Ruskin very much influenced Hunt and the other members of the PRB, and indeed, Millais would not be painting in such a style without the influence of Ruskin. How does Millais convey his feelings about Ruskin? (Does he?)

In a portrait there does not seem to be much space for typological symbolism. Is there any form of symbolism in this painting? How does this painting reflect the ideas of the PRB?

Ruskin was amongst other things, an art critic, writer, artist and poet. Why then would he be depicted in this wild Scottish setting without any indication of his passions — of writing or even art? Indeed, Ruskin appears almost as a country gentleman out for a stroll. Was this his choice or the artist's?

Much like Millais's earlier painting, Ophelia, the setting of John Ruskin is (surprisingly) somewhat closed — there is running water and Ruskin is gazing beyond his immediate space — however, it is not quite possible to shake off a feeling that everything in the painting is pushed to the immediate foreground and also the awareness of the stones pushing into the water. Why is the space so closed up? Is this merely due to the PRB ideas of placing figures in the foreground and their attention to detail or is Millais conveying something more with his choice of closed spaces? (Both here and in Ophelia)


Victorian Web Homepage Visual Arts Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96) Millais's paintings Discussion Questions

Last modified 26 September 2006