Decorative Initial A uskin's first task as a polemical critic was to defend and explain artists [135/136] who were unfairly attacked, little known, or underrated, and here his writings on Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the great buildings of Venice come to mind. Second, he created a critical theory upon which to base his individual judgments by transferring romantic notions of poetry, particularly those of Wordsworth's prefaces, to painting and architecture, thereby originating a romantic theory of the sister arts which emphasized sincerity, originality, intensity, truth to nature and experience and visionary imagination. He could thus discard traditional neoclassical conceptions of painting, which had as their center a theory of intellectualized imitation, by simply abandoning the idea of imitation. Ruskin makes one of his major contributions to art theory when he points out that art does not imitate the natural world but makes statements about it. According to him, painting uses structures of proportional relationships between colors and forms to convey man's phenomenological experience of the external world. Hostile to any crude didacticism, he can yet demonstrate the value of art as a means of important truths about the human environment. Characteristically, he offers a theory of instinctive beauty, which he derives from the fact that man is created in his Maker's image, to argue that the mere contemplation of beauty in nature and art is a spiritual, spiritualizing act.

In addition to setting forth his aesthetic and critical theories, which provide his audience with an entirely new way of looking at the arts, Ruskin is a superb practical critic whose analyses of composition, color, form, and tone serve to enable his readers to see painting more clearly and with new delight. Ruskin, who is one of the great defenders and explicators of realism, was also one of few Victorian critics who understood the iconography and symbolical modes of earlier art and architecture. Thus this great formalist critic is also one of the greatest interpretive critics as well. Similarly he is also one of the originators of modern myth criticism, such as we see in the works of Frye, and he is the first English art critic to place individual works, both ancient and modern, in their social, political, economic, and intellectual contexts. As Arnold Hauser reminds us:

He was indubitably the first to interpret the decline of art and taste as the sign of a general cultural crisis, and to express the basic, and even today not sufficiently appreciated, principle that conditions under which men live must first be changed, If their sense of beauty and their comprehension of art are to be awakened.... Ruskin was also the first person in England to emphasize the fact that art is a public concern and its cultivation one of the most important tasks of the state, in other words, that it represents a social necessity and that no nation [136/137] can neglect it without endangering its intellectual existence. He was, finally, the first to proclaim the gospel that art is not the privilege of artists, connoisseurs and the educated classes, but is part of every man's inheritance and estate.... His influence was extraordinary, almost beyond description.... The purposefulness and solidity of modern architecture and industrial art are very largely the result of Ruskin's endeavours and doctrines. [The Social History of Art, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1952), II, 820-22.]

At the heart of all these wonderfully diverse aspects of the Ruskinian enterprise was his central task of making his contemporaries see. To do so he relies upon his unique gifts as a man of many styles and many visions. He urgently wants us to open our eyes and see, perceive all those beauties of an infinitely various nature which we have never before even noticed. In other words, he wishes to vivify our sight, thus making us more alive and more able to delight in the life that surrounds us. Here he makes particularly effective use of his talent for close observation, send- ing us to nature and art with both new vision and new appetite. For example, when Ruskin is teaching his reader what shadows look like in water, in all kinds of water, he tells us:

It is always to be remembered that, strictly speaking, only light objects are reflected and that the darker ones are seen only in proportion to the number of rays of light that they can send; so that a dark object comparatively loses its power to affect the surface of water, and the water in the space of a dark reflection is seen partially with the image of the object, and partially transparent. It will be found on observation that under a bank, suppose with dark trees above showing spaces of bright sky, the bright sky is reflected distinctly, and the bottom of the water is in those places not seen, but in the dark spaces of reflection we see the bottom of the water, and the colour of that bottom and of the water itself mingles with and modifies that of the colour of the trees casting the dark reflection.

The loving observation in these passages, which places Ruskin among an honored group of nineteenth-century naturalists and nature writers, educates our eyes, enabling us to see without conventional schemata. Ruskin, who here anticipates the work of Gombrich, is always insistent that art provides the visual vocabularies with which people confront the external world:

I fully believe, little as people in general are concerned with art, more of their ideas of sky are derived from pictures than from reality; and that if we could examine the conception formed in the minds of most educated persons when we talk of clouds, it would frequently be found composed of fragments of blue and white reminiscences of the old masters [Works, 3.345-46].

These descriptive passages serve the additional rhetorical purpose of convincing us that Ruskin deserves our attention and forbearance, for by thus continually demonstrating his awesome knowledge of the visual world he wins us to his side. Even his apparently outlandish and paradoxical judgments begin to seem worthy of consideration when they come from a man who can see so much. The outraged writers in Blackwood's and other periodicals — see column at left for a discussion of Ruskin's relationship to these journals — can charge him with all kinds of inconsistencies, ignorance, and even charlatanism, yet such obvious knowledge and love of nature always serves to make us, as it made his Victorian audience, give him a hearing. As he begins to assemble example after example of visual truth, drawn [137/138] from both nature and art, we become increasingly willing to assume the position of scholars in vision, and his frequently schoolmasterish tone — "It is always to be remembered" and "It will be found on observation" — is accepted, because he is, after all, our teacher.

The critic puts his brush and colors where his pen is — Ruskin's Amalfi


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Last modified 8 December 2006