In Praise of Turner

In 1845, two years after John Ruskin published the first volume of Modern Painters, the established watercolorist James Duffield Harding (1798-1863) praised Turner's imagination with an exuberant rhetoric that reminds one of Ruskin's own defense of the artist:

To what can I point as stronger evidence of what the imagination can effect, than many of the ideal landscapes of Turner? Dido building Carthage, The Fall of Carthage, Dido and Eneas, Tivoli, The Fountain of Fallacy, and many others, in which he has, with the greatest skill, concentrated the richest gems; having exchanged the fetters of the local for the freedom of the ideal, he has wandered at will amongst the beauties of Nature, and having gathered and arranged the choicest, with the purest taste, he has often produced a whole, which Nature herself might envy.

Similarly, Harding, who was Ruskin's drawing master and sketching companion, again reminds us of the younger man's work when he compared Turner to Claude; for after criticizing the old master's faulty composition, Harding's Principles and Practice of Art commends Turner — a modern master and not an ancient — as the true example of excellence: "Let the reader who may think these strictures severe, unmerited, or partial, quietly turn over the Liber Veritatis, plate by plate, with Turner's Liber Studiorum, and having contrasted and compared them one by one, in variety and beauty of composition, in light and shade, in space, graceful form, grandeur, and in every quality of refined art, decide which bears the palm" (PP, 65). When Harding makes the comparison Turner intended and grants the victory to him, he, like Ruskin , consciously chose the great modern at the expense of the ancient whom many critics and connoisseurs proclaimed the model of truth and beauty in landscape (See, for example, VI, 373; V, 157, 160). Ruskin himself frequently compares his favorite artist's series of engravings, the Liber Studiorum, to Claude's Liber Veritatis, and in Modern Painters, for example, he uses such comparison to demonstrate Turner's superior drawing and imaginative treatment of rocks and trees.1

Four examples of land- and seascapes by Harding from the 1833 Landscape Annual.

Since Harding both knew and praised Modern Painters, the problem of influences — Ruskin's upon Harding, and Harding's upon Ruskin — immediately presents itself. The author of The Principles and Practice of Art informs his reader that he had restricted his criticism of the "old landscape painters" to their composition and chiaroscuro, since "the Graduate of Oxford, in his work entitled 'Modern Painters...' has already anticipated me in a most able manner" (PP, 65n). He continues that although Modern Painters gave "Turner the pre-eminent commendation so justly due to his talent, it is to be regretted that the writer's admiration should partake so much of the nature of adoration; nevertheless, no work of modern times has made its appearance better calculated to be of use to students and amateurs of Art, or effectually to counterpoise, or clear away, the rubbish of antiquated prejudice, and make a fair field for the exercise and appreciation of talent" (PP, 65n). Such just criticism and praise of Modern Painters, and such a grasp of its aims, may suggest that the older man had been converted by the anonymously published defense of Turner, that, on the contrary, he himself had affected Ruskin's views, or that he simply agreed with the expression by another of ideas he held himself.

Despite the fact that Harding's published judgments on Turner followed Ruskin's by two years, it seems unlikely that Modern Painters did much more than encourage him to support Turner publicly: since Turner had been the leading force in British painting and had been widely imitated for two decades before Ruskin published Modern Painters, he had probably won Harding to his side long before. On the other hand, Harding's lessons and conversations contributed importantly to Ruskin's valuations of art, theories of painting, and particular methods of proceeding in his defense of Turner. In particular, as W. G. Collingwood informs us, Harding "had religious views in sympathy with his pupil, and he soon inoculated Ruskin with his contempt for the minor Dutch school"2 Furthermore, when we look at Harding's Elementary Art (1834), a treatise which Ruskin knew and praised, we shall observe other points which clearly anticipate Modern Painters. But whether one wishes to consider their points of correspondence as influence or confluence, comparing Ruskin and Harding serves to demonstrated, primarily, not where Ruskin found current ideas but, more importantly, how he used these ideas and how he advanced beyond them.

The first page of The Principles and Practice of Art, for example, provides an instance of an idea stated by both writers which Ruskin adopts for his own ends. When Harding asserts that "truth, whether in Art or Science, must be the standard to which all opinions and judgments must ultimately be referred" (PP, 1), he agrees with the principle, so central to the first volume of Modern Painters, that "truth is a bar of comparison at which they [painters, both ancient and modern] may all be examined" (3.138). Unlike Ruskin's statement of belief, Harding's does not form the basis of a polemical defense of one artist. For whereas Harding merely states a traditional view about the relation of the work of art to nature, Ruskin, as is well known, made truth both the criterion of art and the polemical center of his first volume precisely because the critics of Blackwood and The Times had accused Turner of being unlike nature.3 Taking his point of attack from the attackers themselves, Ruskin announced that he would "endeavour. . . to enter with care and impartiality into the investigation of the claims of the schools of ancient and modern landscape to faithfulness in representing nature" (3.138). He compares contemporary and earlier painting of landscape because those who treated Turner so harshly persistently compared the painter of Mercury and Argus and Napoleon to Claude, the Poussins, and the Dutch. In other words, whereas Harding's Principles and Practice of Art is a theory of art which uses one artist as an example of excellence, Modern Painters, in its first version, began as a polemic vindication of Turner which summoned a theory of art to the side of truth — however much Ruskin changed his aim in later volumes and in later versions of this first volume4

Cottage

James Duffield Harding, Hospital of St Mary's Abbey, York. Watercolor.

On the other hand, exactly this difference of intention made Ruskin agree completely with Harding's assertion, so much in contrast to the precepts of Reynolds and other neoclassical theorists, that "it has been too much the practice of those who have written on Art to refer perpetually to the productions of the Old Masters, instead of referring to Nature as their only sure guide" (PP, 1). The conclusion to the first volume of Modern Painters similarly warned that "nothing can be more perilous to the cause of art, than the constant ringing in our painters' ears of the names of great predecessors, as their examples or masters" (3.618). At the heart of both men's works one soon perceives the intention to bypass ancient models and return to nature herself, to forego studying the Claudean tree and discover the oak, the pine, and the elm. Ruskin and Harding, of course, did not so much scorn the ancients as the overblown reputation that conservative critics had used to prevent men from seeing nature differently and with fresh eyes. Since Ruskin and Harding hold essentially romantic theories of art which emphasize the creator's empirical, experiential bond to nature, they believed older, neoclassical notions, that one should learn nature from studying the old masters, merely served to prevent the artist from seeing naturally and spontaneously. Ruskin's 1844 preface to the first volume of Modern Painters therefore warns the young artist to beware those "who would give him the power and the knowledge of past time, and then fetter his strength from all advance, and bend his eyes on a beaten path; who would thrust canvas between him and the sky, and tradition between him and God" (3.12). Having seen the evil that ignorant or ill-intentioned critics could wreak with the notion of ancient models, both writers strove to convince their readers that the moderns have already surpassed the old masters. Having seen the poor results when one perceives nature through the eyes of another, both writers strive to convince their readers to look at nature, once again, through their own eyes.

That Ruskin was, if anything, more generous than Harding to the ancients first appears in the Introductory to Modern Painters, which points out that whenever the anonymous author speaks "deprecatingly of the old masters," he does not include either Nicholas Poussin or "the historical painters," for whom he entertains "a veneration . . . almost superstitious in degree" (3.85). Rather when he attacks the "elder masters" he includes only "Claude, Gaspar Poussin, Salvator Rosa, Cuyp, Berghem, Both, Ruysdael, Hobbima, Teniers (in his landscapes), P. Potter, Canaletto, and the various Van somethings and Back somethings, more especially and malignantly those who have libelled the sea" (3.85). Even here Ruskin earnestly endeavors to grant just praise to these favorites of those who had unfavorably reviewed Turner. For example, Ruskin notes that "in effects of tone, the old masters have never yet been equalled" (3.259), and of Cuyp, whom he elsewhere takes harshly to task, he willingly admits: "For expression of effects of yellow sunlight, parts might be chosen out of the good pictures of Cuyp, which have never been equalled in art" (3.271). Even Claude, whose brush was so often the target of Ruskin's pen, receives generous, if balanced, praise; for according to Ruskin, "a gift was given to the world by Claude, for which we are perhaps hardly enough grateful, owing to the very frequency of our after enjoyment of it. He set the sun in the heavens, and was, I suppose, the first who attempted anything like the realization of actual sunshine in misty air. He gives the first example of the study of nature for her own sake" (3.184-85). And elsewhere he remarks that a "perfectly genuine and untouched sky of Claude is indeed most perfect, and beyond praise, in all qualities of air" (3.348). Certainly a few remarks such as these do not much temper the contentious, often aggressive tone of the first edition of Modern Painters, volume I, but even as he attempted to shatter what he believed to be the clay feet of the reviewers' idols, the young Ruskin tried occasionally to state his case with Johnsonian impartiality and balance. Nonetheless, although he may have exempted the historical painters from attack, and although he may have tried to grant Claude his due, Ruskin's particularly harsh treatment of the Dutch surely matches Harding's numerous attacks on this school in The Principles and Practice of Art. Like Ruskin, Harding attacks the painters of the Netherlands for their ignorant egotism which caused them to imitate things ugly and often revolting merely for the sake of proud display. Purely to demonstrate skill, writes Harding, the Dutch painters "have brought before us repulsive defects, and deformities in conjunction with beauties, and have even gained admirers for a gross facsimile of men and things, not only destitute of every characteristic of beauty, but often revolting" (PP, 11-12). Harding, again sounding much like Ruskin, similarly invites his reader: "for a moment suppose we could visit the studios of the Dutch painters, and witness them toiling from day to day, — aye, from week to week, — often over a cabbage or a broom, a carrot or a kettle, the slow process requiring many wearisome days, and the object of all this labour, limited, mean, and uninteresting" (PP, 22-23). Ruskin, Collingwood tells us, learned from Harding his contempt for "those bituminous landscapes, so unlike the sparkling freshness of Harding's own water-color illustrations, and [for] those vulgar tavern scenes, painted, he declared, by sots who disgraced art alike in their works and their lives"[Life of John Ruskin, p. 81; quoted in Works (3. xxi).]. True to his elder's teaching, Ruskin too criticized the Dutch for a naive yet corrupting egotism, lack of feeling, and manneristic love of virtuosity that rendered their art empty: "Most pictures of the Dutch school," he wrote, " . . . excepting always those of Rubens, Vandyke, and Rembrandt, are ostentatious exhibitions of useless and senseless words" (3.90). Harding may have taught Ruskin to dislike the Dutch old masters, and he may have made many of the charges against them that appear throughout Modern Painters, but, characteristically, Ruskin used these views within his own theoretical framework and for his own purpose.

Harding and Ruskin on the Higher Form of Landscape Painting

A second point important to Ruskin on which Harding clearly anticipated his younger friend appears when his Elementary Art sets forth a theory to which Ruskin returns throughout his works: that the highest form of landscape art should enable the spectator to feel what it had been like to be at the scene depicted. Harding comments that "produce as near a likeness to Nature, in every respect, as the instrument, or material employed, will admit of; not so much by bona fide imitation, as by reviving in the mind those ideas which are awakened by a contemplation of Nature.... The renewal of those feelings constitutes the true purpose of Art" (EA, 13-14). Nine years later, when Ruskin emphasizes the superiority of the moderns, he echoes both Harding's very phrasing and his change in the notion of "likeness." According to the younger man, the Modern Painters of landscape attain superiority because "rejecting at once all idea of bona fide imitation, they think only of conveying the impression of nature into the mind of the spectator" (3.168). Earlier in this first volume he emphasized the creator's impression when he discussed the representation of landscape in terms of the painter's aims: "The landscape painter must always have two great and distinct ends: the first to induce in the spectator's mind the faithful conception of any natural objects whatsoever; the second, to guide the spectator's mind to those objects most worthy of contemplation, and to inform him of the thoughts and feelings with which these were regarded by the artist himself" (3.132). Although Ruskin begins by speaking as though the painter must always work toward two ends — to present the facts and the emotion caused by the facts — he quickly makes it apparent that all art follows, primarily, one end or the other:

In attaining the first end the painter only places the spectator where he stands himself; he sets him before the landscape and leaves him.... But in attaining the second end, the artist not only places the spectator, but talks to him; makes him a sharer in his own strong feelings and quick thoughts. . . and leaves him more than delighted, — ennobled and instructed, under the sense of having held communion with a new mind, and having been endowed for a time with the keen perception and the impetuous emotions of a nobler and more penetrating.

Ruskin draws upon this theory of landscape, interestingly enough, when he compares his own drawings to those of his sketching companion. According to Ruskin's notebook entry for 26 August 1845, which the Library edition includes as a note to Modern Painters, he considered Harding capable of the higher art of impression, while he thought his own drawing suited only to depicting fact. "There is one essential difference between us: his sketches are always pretty because he balances their parts together, and considers them as pictures; mine are always ugly, for I consider my sketch only as a written note of certain facts.... Harding's are all for impression; mine all for information" (3.200-201n). The diary entry, like his theoretical statements, shows that he obviously agrees with Harding's 1845 statement that "in viewing a beautiful work of art, we are not so much affected by the faithful imitation of nature which it may display, as we are touched by the sentiment which impelled the artist to produce it: what we thus see is less felt as a copy of nature, than as embodiment of feelings which nature has inspired" (PP, 150). Harding and Ruskin see the greatest art presenting visual fact and the emotion which such fact awakened in the artist; and, furthermore, both emphasize that this form of painting must have as its center an expressive rather than a mimetic aim — that is, they believe that art primarily attempts to reproduce the artist's "emotional" impression of landscape rather than to duplicate that landscape itself.

Romantic Theories of Art

Furthermore, they realize that such a theory of art which emphasizes the artist's emotional reactions creates peculiar difficulties for artist and audience alike. Therefore, according to Harding, "it is evident that the spectator is, or ought to be, excited by some sympathy existing between himself and the painter, and thus impelled to trace such impressions and images as are in unison with his own feelings and ideas.... The spectator must be mentally an active participant in the work which he views" (PP, 14). A bond of sympathy, an attitude which encourages the audience to project itself into the deeper, perhaps foreign feelings of the artist, is requisite for an emotionally centered art to succeed. The initial difficulty arises in the fact that since a subjective factor — the artist's emotion — creates painting, that painting must to some extent always risk becoming too personal, too subjective, and too far beyond the grasp — the emotional experience — of its audience. Furthermore, as Harding (paralleling Wordsworth's preface of 1815) explains, "every original Painter has found it necessary to invent the characters in which he has communicated his thoughts" (EA, 3); since the audience requires time to learn these new and strange characters, the artist will forge alone into new territory, inevitably losing some of those he intended to guide. Ruskin himself points out both the source and solution to the difficulty: although anyone can appreciate simple, topographical painting,

the highest art, being based on sensations of peculiar minds, sensations occurring to them only at particular times, and to a plurality of mankind perhaps never . . . can only be met and understood by persons having some sort of sympathy with the high and solitary minds which produced it — sympathy only to be felt by minds in some degree high and solitary themselves. He alone can appreciate the art, who could comprehend the conversation of the painter, and share his emotion, in moments of his most fiery passion and most original thought. (3.135-36)

And one of the reasons that "high art" has not had the influence that it should, Ruskin points out, "proceeds from no want of truth in the art itself, but from a want of sympathy in the spectator" (3.136). Such, after all, was the problem that Turner faced, and such was the occasion of Modern Painters in 1843.

Nature's Infinite Variety and the Finite Variety of Art

We can once more observe Ruskin characteristically adopting and then reshaping the ideas of others if we compare the numerous passages in which he and Harding discuss the importance of variety to nature and art. Harding, who fervently believed that nature's beauties are unendingly abundant and infinitely various, communicated both this belief and the enthusiasm with which he held it to the young Ruskin. In tone and terms familiar to any reader of Modern Painters, Harding marvels at that "endless, inexhaustible variety" which he takes to be "a primary characteristic of Nature": "Is there not infinite variety in every kind of object? — are two leaves, or two blades of grass, or two flowers, or any two things, animate or inanimate, exactly alike?" (PP, 39) Similarly, Ruskin, who points out that "nature contrives never to repeat herself" (3.542), perceives that "there is indeed in nature variety in all things" (3.368) and wonderingly declares: "The truths of nature are one eternal change — one infinite variety" (3.145). According to him, "there is not one of her [Nature's] shadows, tints, or lines that is not in a state of perpetual variation: I do not mean in time, but in space. There is not a leaf in the world which has the same color visible over its whole surface" (3.294).

Since in order( to demonstrate Turner's accuracy Ruskin devoted the first volume of Modern Painters to examining the truths of nature, he, far more than Harding, traces the principle of "perpetual variation" throughout nature's particular beauties. Stressing "how marvellously nature varies the most general and simple of her tones" (3.294), he makes the painter's ability to recognize and represent this variety a major criterion of visual art: "Hence, whenever in a painting we have unvaried color extended even over a small space, there is falsehood. Nothing can be natural which is monotonous; nothing true which tells only one story" (3.295). Salvator, for one, perpetrated the falsehood of monotony when his Mercury and the Woodsman (National Gallery, London, No. 84) depicted a mountain, because he "painted it throughout without one instant of variation" (3.281). And, similarly, "the brown foreground and rocks of Claude's Sinon before Priam [N. G., No. 6] are as false as color can be . . . because no rock that ever nature stained is without its countless breaking tints of varied vegetation" (3.295). He believes this fact of nature's infinite variety so important, so central to painting, that he holds that one can judge how accurately an artist has presented the world of visual appearance simply by observing the presence or absence of such variety: "If we wish. . . to form a judgment of the truth of painting, perhaps the first thing we should look for . . . should be the expression of infinity" (3.386-87). He explains that infinity, unending variety, must be true, "because man could not have originated it" (3.388). Man is not only incapable of creating the beauties of infinite variety but the moment he trusts to himself, whether from laziness, ignorance, or vanity, he repeats himself. Salvator, Claude, and the Dutch, whom the periodical critics used as standards by which to measure Turner's failings, were generally guilty of turning away from nature and producing monotonous self-quotation. Even when they attempted to study nature, says Ruskin, "they copied her like children, drawing what they knew to be there, but not what they saw there" (3.309). Turner, on the other hand, had an "inimitable power" of varying and blending colors, "so as never to give a quarter of an inch of canvas without a change in it, a melody as well as a harmony of one kind or another" (3.293-94). According to Ruskin, he had this power because, unlike the old masters, he did not draw what he knew intellectually to be present but what he felt and saw before him; that is, he advanced beyond the perceptual schemata, the conventional ideas, for example, of rocks and sky — he saw for himself. As Ruskin points out, one sees not what is before one, but what one has been taught to see, and therefore his writings frequently concern themselves first to educate the reader's eye and then to encourage him to look for himself at the beauties of nature.

The following statement which Harding's Lessons on Trees a addressed to the beginning student well explains Ruskin's own purpose in examining the detailed truths of the natural world. According to Harding, "the object in this work, and that of all I have presented . . . is not so much to supply him [the student] with examples for imitation, as through their instrumentality, to make him capable of observing nature truly for himself" (LT, 1). Such visual education became necessary in large part, Ruskin felt, because art has taught people conventional notions of natural phenomena which prevent them from seeing these phenomena accurately:

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

Turner, in contrast, was able to see differently from others and hence he could advance other men's conceptions of visible things. Ruskin firmly believed that artists see before the scientist discovers. Since the great artist paints what he sees himself and not what the current standard of knowledge asserts to be true, he will frequently observe facts of nature that the scientist has not yet explained and the ordinary man not yet noticed. Thus the first volume describes Turner as a geologist (3.429), because, as the fourth volume explains, "he traces the order of mountain crests to their last stone, not because he knows anything of geology, but because he instinctively seizes the last and final traces of any visible law" (6.266-67). Finally, because his power of sight so far surpassed most painters, he realized with particular intensity that past conventionalisms created not a higher form of nature in art but a lower, debased image of its beauties. He realized, for example, "that the real color of nature had never been attempted by any school," and so "for the conventional color [of other schools] he substituted a pure straightforward rendering of fact, as far as was in his power" (3.245-46). Similarly, he perceived that just as earlier conventions of color suppressed nature's variety of hues, so earlier conventions of drawing also obscured her wondrous variation of forms and shadows. Because Turner could see better than most he saw more; and because he saw more, he realized the fact of nature's infinite variety.

Harding on Imitation

According to Harding, "it is this infinite variety which constitutes the perfection of nature, and the want of it which occasions every work of art to be imperfect" (PP, 39). His argument from plenitude, his belief that "we are surrounded by abundance beyond all human skill to imitate" (PP, 113), form the major premise when he argues for a higher, more artistic form of imitation; for although he, like Reynolds, believes the higher imitation more intellectual, more "philosophical," and hence more prestigious than copying mechanically, he places little emphasis upon the argument from prestige, so dear to Reynolds and other writers on the sister arts.5 Whereas Reynolds in a passage quoted by Ruskin (3.21) asserts that detailed imitation, copying, is too simple to create fine art, since "this imitation being merely mechanical . . . the slowest intellect is always sure to succeed best" (Idler 79), Harding believes, on the contrary, that such counterfeiting of nature is impossible. since nature's infinite variety makes such imitation impossible, art, therefore, must have another center. He explains: "Direct imitation is not only unnecessary, but every effort to obtain it is positively offensive; for how can Art, in its mimic imitation, successfully vie with Nature? Could anything be more futile than the attempt?" (PP, 17) Glorying in anaphora and the rhetorical question, Harding continues:

It is not within the reach of Art to given identical imitation of any one object, and still less of all which constitute landscape. Can the leaves of trees, and all the branches, in form and variety, be given? Impossible. — All the leaves of grass and all the herbage? Impossible. — All the endless forms Or water in motion? Impossible. — All the buildings constituting a city, and all the windows and doors in them? Impossible. — Is there any one thing, a constituent, properly so called, of a landscape, which can be imitated tale quale? There is not: — "Impossible" is written in distinct characters over all. (PP, 17)

After asking what art can properly imitate, he replies that although art cannot imitate "individuality," "it can imitate mountains, rocks, trees, water, by generalities, and by indications of peculiar qualities of which the mind is cognisant; definite forms of all kinds exactly. It can suggest the general character, flexibility, and rotundity of foliage; the quantity, variety, and flexibility of the herbage; the fluidity and transparency of water" (PP, 17). By "generalities" and "peculiar qualities," Harding apparently means both visual qualities, such as transparency, and abstract qualities conveyable by signs, such as flexibility and fluidity. Unlike older mimetic theory, his does not stop with these dualities themselves but emphasizes that they can "recall[l] the impressions either received from the objects themselves, or from others of the same class" (PP, 17). Harding's statement that art suggests "feelings which would naturally be excited by a contemplation of the reality"(PP, 18) clarifies his belief that these "impressions" are emotional reactions and not intellectual recognitions.

Placing such importance upon impression, upon feeling, Harding shifts the emphases of mimetic theory radically: first of all, although he still uses the terminology of a mimetic art theory which emphasizes conscious intellectual processes, he concerns himself primarily with emotional reactions. In contrast, Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom Harding several times refers, considers the higher mode of imitation purely a matter of intellect — though when he writes of other aspects of painting he mentions emotions and imagination.6 Reynold's contrast of mechanical and fine arts, which he makes the premise of his argument for intellectual imitation, arises in a psychology unable to conceive the theories of unconscious creative processes and aesthetic moral emotion so important to nineteenth century conceptions of art and poetry. Harding, on the other hand, tries to accommodate the theory of intellectual imitation to what is basically a romantic theory of art. Thus, although he purports to set forth a mimetic theory, he is less interested in the imitative relationship of the picture to reality than in the picture's relation to the feelings that caused it and that it in turn causes. We further see how much Harding has changed the usual meanings of terms central to mimetic theory when he admits that "much of what is called a knowledge of Nature is to be found in the study of the impressions she makes on the mind, and the causes to which they may be ascribed" (PP, 70). If a "knowledge of Nature" turns out, in fact, to be a knowledge of how the human mind reacts to that Nature, then the painter, who supposedly concerns himself with the world of visual reality — with the world outside the mind — must, like the romantic poet, turn inward for his art. We may take Harding, then, as an example of a theorist working with an outmoded critical vocabulary, whereas Ruskin, as we shall see, abandoned the old terminology and was thus able to answer problems which his teacher's theory could not solve.

Ruskin rejects Imitation as the Basis of Art

To begin with, Ruskin rejects the traditional term, denying completely that the work of art exists in a mimetic relationship to the natural world. Fuseli and Coleridge, whom he cites, and Reynolds, whom he elsewhere quotes at length, had pronounced that there were two forms of imitation, of which the higher alone creates great art. In contrast, Ruskin, who also believes in two forms of art, restricts "imitation" to a basic sense of copying, duplicating, and counterfeiting, and denies that either form of art imitates. According to him, "the limits of imitation" are that "it extends only to the sensation of trickery and deception occasioned by a thing's seeming different from what it is" (3.101). There are few things simple enough to imitate deceptively — flies on a canvas and false doorways, perhaps, but nothing of importance to a painter of landscape. As he points out, "we can imitate fruit, but not a tree; flowers, but not a pasture; cut-glass, but not the rainbow. All pictures in which deceptive powers of imitation are displayed are therefore of contemptible subjects, or have the imitation shown in contemptible parts of them, bits of dress, jewels, furniture, etc." (3.102). Thus, unlike his predecessors, Ruskin does not believe that any form of art depends upon imitation. Furthermore, whereas Harding allows that painting could imitate "definite forms of all kinds exactly" (PP, 17), he argues that portrayal of form is not a matter of imitation: "The chalk outline of a tree on paper is not an imitation; it looks like chalk and paper — not like wood, and that which it suggests to the mind is not properly said to be like the form of a bough, it is the form of a bough" (3.101). The first volume's chapter on "Ideas of Truth" reveals that Ruskin can thus reject the idea of imitation because he has replaced the theory of artistic imitation by one of artistic statement:

The word Truth, as applied to art, signifies the faithful statement, either to the mind or senses, of any fact of nature.... A pencil outline of a bough of a tree on white paper is a statement of a certain number of facts of form.... If, instead of two lines, we give a dark form with the brush, we convey information of a certain relation between the bough and the sky, recognizable for another idea of truth. [3.104-05]

Art, then, does not imitate objects or phenomena; it states facts about them. Art can make such statements precisely because art — whether painting, drawing, or sculpture — is a language developed to convey visual fact.

Ruskin's Semiotic Theory of Representation

Ruskin, we see, takes quite literally his remark in the second chapter of Modern Painters that "painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language" (3.87). He had encountered the equation of painting and language, a point long traditional to writings on the sister arts, in Reynolds's remark that "the power of drawing, modelling, and using colours, is very properly called the Language of the art." Harding similarly believed that art is a language, and several times states that one must devote as much effort to learning the language of painting as of Latin and Greek — a point which Ruskin apparently echoes in The Elements of Drawing (1856) — the beginning student is not to believe he "can learn drawing, any more than a new language, without some hard and disagreeable labour" (15.26).

Although he may have come across this notion of a language of painting in other writers on art, he changed this commonplace analogy to a theory by providing the all important explanation of how art functions to convey information; and in so doing he made one of his most brilliant — and possibly least appreciated — contributions to the theory of painting. In the first and fourth volumes of Modern Painters Ruskin explains that painting relates structures of relationships — between colors, between tones, and between forms — which have the same proportions, though not the same scale or intensity, as the visual structures of the natural world. For example, his chapter on truth of tone explains that Turner, unlike other artists, devised a visual language which uses proportionate relationships as its basic element of vocabulary:

He boldly takes pure white... for his highest light, and lampblack for his deepest shade; and in between these he makes every degree of shade indicative of a separate degree of distance, giving each step of approach, not the exact difference in pitch which it would have in nature, but a difference bearing the same proportion to that which his sum of possible shade bears to the sum of nature's shade. [3.262-63]

Drawing similarly conveys "information of a certain relation between bough and sky" (3.105) when it depicts truths of tone; just as it conveys relationships of line when it makes two-dimensional statements of or about form. This ability of art to create systems of proportionate relationships parallel to those of nature allows the artist to make statements of visual fact [Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (San Marino, Calif., 1959), p. 26].

Thirteen years after the beginning of Modern Painters, the fourth volume returned to this theory of representation, amplifying Ruskin's original remarks for the sake of those, he said, who had not understood his first explanation. To clarify his point, he represents the range of nature's darks and lights with a one-hundred degree scale. Since we can parallel nature only to about the first forty degrees, therefore "with our power of contrast between zero and 40 degrees, we have to imitate her contrasts between zero and 100" (6.56). In other words, the painter must find some way to manipulate his limited means if he is to convey an idea of nature's far greater variety of contrast. Describing the practices of Rembrandt, Veronese, and Turner, Ruskin explains how each one tried to solve the problem.

We can first set our 40 to represent her 100, our 20 for her 80, and our zero for her 60; everything below her 60 being lost in blackness. This is, with certain modifications, Rembrandt's system. Or, secondly, we can put zero for her zero, 20 for her 20. and 40 for her 40; everything above 40 being lost in whiteness. This is, with certain modifications, Paul Veronese's system, Or, finally, we can put our zero for her zero, and our 40 for her 100; our 20 for her 50, our 30 for her 75, and our 10 for her 25. proportioning the intermediate contrasts accordingly. This is, with certain modifications, Turner's system. [6 56-57]

The flaw with Rembrandt's method according to Ruskin, is that it not only darkens nature's light, giving a falsely somber account of the earth and its beauties, but that it makes false statements of both color and contrast. On the other hand, both Veronese and Turner manage to convey a truer picture of color. Since we must always come short of nature, we must devise that system which has most breadth. Nature's infinite variety requires that "all forms of right art consist in certain choice made between various classes of truth, a few only being represented, and others necessarily excluded" (3.62). Each choice creates a particular style, and "the excellence of each style depends first on the consistency with itself, — the perfect fidelity, as far as possible, to the truths it has chosen; and secondly, on the breadth of its harmony" (3.63). Turner's particular greatness, then, comes from the fact that because he could see for himself, and not with the eyes of the old masters, he developed a more sophisticated language of relationships that captured the breadth of nature's light and dark. Ruskin's implicit point, of course, is that Turner was great enough both to comprehend and then advance instinctively this language of relationships — which his critic must then consciously explain.

We may take Ruskin's contributions to the theory of pictorial representation as characteristic of his relation to ideas which he and Harding shared and which he most probably learned from the older man. To begin with, this notion of a pictorial language of proportionate relationships, which was Ruskin's own advance, arose within the context of a belief in nature's infinite variety. Second, it developed from the traditional notion, found in Harding and other writers with whom Ruskin was acquainted, that painting is language. Third — and perhaps most important — it was consciously a reaction against another idea found in Harding, that painting created imitations of the natural world.

The same mixture of use and reaction against Harding's ideas appears once again in the theories of beauty which Ruskin presents in the first two volumes of Modern Painters. Whereas both the painter and the critic of painting found it necessary to formulate fairly complete theories of art, Ruskin alone elucidated a theory of the beautiful. Harding's discussions of beauty, in contrast, do not pretend to be more than casual observations; and therefore their aesthetic formulations, unlike their theories of art, meet at but one small, if significant, point — the beauty of variety. Harding, as one by now might expect, elevated variety to the most important quality of painting: "Sir J. Reynolds, in his eighth Discourse, says, 'that variety can never be the groundwork of a performance.' Though owing all respectful deference to such high authority, yet, seeing that the unmistakable attribute of Nature is variety, — infinite variety, — I am compelled to assert that it is therefore most important to art" (PP, 79). Sounding strangely like the sixteenth-century theorists of mannerism, Harding omits the element of unity from the traditional aesthetic equation that beauty is a mixture of unity and variety or unified variety. As he explains in The Principles and Practice of Art, "Variety is so essential to beauty, and is in no way separable from it, that there can be no beauty where there is no variety.... As variety is indispensable to beauty, so perfect beauty requires that variety to be infinite" (PP, 39). Therefore, according to Harding, the visible manifestation of this principle of variety is the curved line, which thus must be the basis of all beautiful forms in art (PP, 44-46). In the second volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin begins by accepting the main points which The Principles and Practice of Art makes about the beauty of variety. Thus, in his section on the typical beauty of infinity he states "that all forms of acknowledged beauty are composed exclusively of curves" (4.88) and further explains: "What curvature is to lines, gradation is to shades and colours. It is their infinity, and divides them into an infinite number of degrees" (4.89). At least this far, Ruskin completely agrees with Harding.

But in contrast to the writings of his sketching companion, the author of Modern Painters believes that variety is not itself beautiful, and that "it is a mistake which has led to many unfortunate results, in matters respecting art, to insist on any inherent agreeableness of variety, without reference to a farther end" (4.96). After his praise of variety in the chapter on infinity, he adds as a qualification in the chapter on unity that it is only a unified, ordered variety which is beautiful: "It is therefore only harmonious and chordal variety, that variety which is so necessary to secure and extend unity . . . which is rightly agreeable; and so I name not Variety as essential to beauty, because it is only so in a secondary and casual sense" (4.96-97). The final emphasis for Ruskin must be upon the divine element of unity, one of the most important laws of the universe. A beautiful object, a work of art, a healthy man, a functioning society, physical nature, and, ultimately, God are all perfected by the necessary presence of unity.

Now of all that which is thus necessary to the perfection of all things, all appearance, sign, type, or suggestion must be beautiful, in whatever matter it may appear; and the appearance of some species of unity is, in the most determined sense of the word essential to the perfection of beauty in lines, colours, or forms. [4.94]

In fact, it is from the need for this perfecting unity that Ruskin deduces the need for variety; for, according to him, if different things are to create a unity, "there must be difference Or variety.... Hence out of the necessity of Unity arises that of Variety" (4.95-96). Thus unity, the order that is the symbol and manifestation of eternal, divine order, is the major term in Ruskin's aesthetic schema, and his theory of typical beauty, that aspect of the beautiful which shadows forth divine qualities, is essentially a theory of order.

Of the six aspects or modes which typical beauty presents, three — infinity, unity, and symmetry — draw upon classical theories that define the beautiful as proportion, symmetry, and a mixture of unity and variety. This same emphasis on order, appropriate and perhaps expectable in an aesthetic theory presented as part of a metaphysic, appears in the three remaining branches of typical beauty: repose, moderation, and purity. Whereas unity amid variety, proportion, and symmetry are themselves forms of order, repose and moderation are qualities produced by order or associated with it. Purity, the last form of typical beauty, less obviously partakes of Ruskin's emphasis upon order, but his remark that "tranquil, not startling or variable" (4.128) light offers its best example suggests that, like the other forms of typical beauty, this one primarily reflects divine order. The surprisingly classical emphasis of Ruskin's elaborate aesthetic theories derives from his reading of previous writings (most of which were classical or neoclassical), from his desire to make his aesthetic part of his religious belief, and from his need to solve the problems of a romantic theory of art with definitions of beauty which would be unchanging, objective, and sure.

Yet one cannot infer that Ruskin only saw the need to qualify variety when he came to write the second volume of Modern Painters, for, in fact, already in the first volume, one can distinguish differences between the emphases of Ruskin and Harding. For example, whereas Harding always stresses nature's infinite variety, from the beginning Ruskin mentions nature's "eternal change and unbroken unity" (3.491). Similarly, when Ruskin praises Turner's ability to convey the amazingly variegated color of natural landscape, he points out that only Turner "would give the uncertainty; the palpitating, perpetual change; . . . the unity of action with infinity of agent" (3.294). Ruskin's theory of beauty, like his theory of art, thus reveals that although he drew upon the ideas of Harding and others, he rarely left them unchanged since he always made them fit his own system and his own emphases. In fact, it was apparently by reacting against Harding that Ruskin developed the ideas which this essay has examined; and we may thus conclude this brief examination of the critic's relation to the writings of one artist with the recognition that when the eclectic Ruskin borrowed the ideas of others, he always returned them with his own imprint upon them.


Victorian Overview John Ruskin Critical Theory

Last modified 26 November 2004