The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin

Ruskin on Variety: A Note to Chapter Two

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

Significantly, the one work in which Ruskin emphasizes the element of variety by itself is The Stones of Venice. Defining "The Nature of Gothic," he explains that one major characteristic of the style is "changefulness, or Variety" (10.204), and he finds "the perpetual variety of every feature" (10.204) of a Gothic structure admirable, since "change or variety is as much a necessity to the human heart and brain in buildings as in books" (10.207). Thus, although his theories of beauty derive from a love of order and repose, he here states that "It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness" (10.214). Yet, even while stressing the delights of variety, he admits both that too much change soon palls and that "order, in its highest sense, is one of the necessities of art" (10.205).

Order in its highest sense is unity, and the Gothic has many unifying factors, such as proportion, repetition, and harmony, which blend all this delightful variety into a beautiful whole. Nonetheless, although The Stones of Venice (which cites the theories of beauty presented in Modern Painters, Volume II) does not repudiate his earlier conceptions of the beautiful, it does shift his earlier emphases, praising the human element of variety at the expense of order. Ruskin's increasing concern for the individual worker apparently led him to grant more importance to human, as opposed to divine, elements in his aesthetic theories: for it was the need to stimulate the worker and delight the common man which evoked his praise of Gothic variety. If such an explanation for this new emphasis is correct, then both Ruskin's modified view of association and his praise of architectural variety anticipate the approaching change in his thought.

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