'more as picturesque than as real'
uskin began his adult life sensitive, neurotic, dogmatic and inexperienced. He had had an enclosed childhood, and would continue to lead a protected adulthood, sheltered by his parents' wealth, free of any obligation to earn a living. His intelligence had flourished in the hot-house atmosphere of his parents' encouragement, and he had cultivated a sensitive appreciation of natural scenery which found its expression both in words and pictures. But his parents' praise made him uncritical of himself, and his indoctrination with Evangelical religion gave his opinions a dogmatic certainty that made their unlearning in later life all the more painful. His parents' protection meant that he had little experience of mankind, and directed his emotional energies away from people and into the natural world. His adult life virtually began with a nervous breakdown.
The catalyst for this not very promising material was an attack on his hero Turner. The result was a fusion of the three strands of his appreciation of nature — Romanticism, natural science and religion — into a theory of art. If any one moment should be chosen (and of course all such moments are the product of long developments), then it is July 1842. Some weeks before, while staying at Geneva, he had read a hostile review of Turner's exhibits at the Royal Academy show that year (3.666). Sitting in church, 'a fit of self-reproach . . . for my idling style of occupation at present' (Dl.199) made him decide to write a reply. He continued his tour to Chamonix while meditating on what he should say, all the while noting in his diary the rocks, flowers and effects of weather in Alpine scenery. He later described how he watched the sunset on a stormy evening while lying by the natural fountain where the Brevent has its source. In a spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling, his inspiration wells up like the stream itself. The passage reaches its climax as the sun breaks through the storm cloud and lights up the mountain peaks (4.364-5): [30/31]
The ponderous storm writhed and moaned beneath them, the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly — in the very heart of the heaven — a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold — filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned — what till then I had not known — the real meaning of the word Beautiful. With all that I had ever seen before — there had come mingled the associations of humanity — the exertion of human power — the action of the human mind. The image of self had not been effaced in that of God. It was then only beneath those glorious hills that I learned how thought itself may become ignoble and energy itself base — when compared with the absorption of soul and spirit — the prostration of all power — and the cessation of all will — before, and in the Presence of, the manifested Deity. It was then only that I understood that to become nothing might be to become more than Man. . . . It was then that I understood that all which is the type of God's attributes — which in any way or in any degree — can turn the human soul from gazing upon itself — can quench in it pride — and fear — and annihilate — be it in ever so small a degree, the thoughts and feelings which have to do with this present world, and fix the spirit — in all humility — on the types of that which is to be its food for eternity; — this and this only is the pure and right sense of'the word BEAUTIFUL.
John Rosenberg calls this a 'Christian rendering of the Romantics' vision of nature'.1 It is the direct, personal experience of God necessary to inspire an Evangelical sermon or a Romantic poem. But Ruskin's self-distrust, one could almost say self-disgust, takes the moment of identification between poet and nature much further, so that he does not experience, as Coleridge might, an 'Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature',2 but a total annihilation of self. He is deaf to Wordsworth's 'still, sad music of humanity',3 and seems to rejoice in the fact. Loss of self in the greater whole of nature is indeed a vital experience to a Romantic poet; but there must also be a return to self, to describe the experience, and account for its significance to the poet. Ruskin however resists such egoistical self-speculation; perhaps that is why he failed as a poet, but succeeded as a critic, that is, as an observer. Ruskin is transfigured by the moral and aesthetic beauty of this manifestation of God; on it he tries to build not a Romantic but an Evangelical theory of beauty.
Beauty, however, cannot be independent of the means used to convey it. Ruskin's own direct experience of nature proved to him that Turner recreated that beauty more truthfully than any other artist that [31/32] he knew, yet Turner was attacked by the critics because they considered his vision to be false. The purpose of Modern Painters was therefore twofold: to demonstrate the significance of the beauty that existed in the natural world; and to prove that Turner conveyed that significance. Ruskin's first problem, then, was to show that Turner did indeed communicate the beauty that they both perceived.
But it would be wrong to imagine that Ruskin's recognition of Turner's genius had been instantaneous; before appreciating the truth of Turner's vision he had had first to break through the pictorial conventions in which he had been educated.
In the third volume of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin takes the reader on an imaginary visit to the annual exhibition of the Old Water-Colour Society. There, he says, the reader will be struck by the number of landscapes on display, and he might well remark: "There is something strange in the mind of these modern people! Nobody ever cared about blue mountains before, or tried to paint the broken stones of old walls.' The Greeks painted heroes, the medieval artists saints, but 'here are human beings spending the whole of their lives in making pictures of bits of stone and runlets of water, withered sticks and flying fogs' (5.193-5). True, landscapes had often provided the background for a battle or a martyrdom, but the reader might well think that in the nineteenth century humanity had completely disappeared from landscape, and that 'all the living interest which was still supposed necessary to the scene, might be supplied by a traveller in a slouched hat, a beggar in a scarlet cloak, or, in default of these, even by a heron or a wild duck' (5.194). The characteristics of these paintings on the walls of the Old Water-Colour Society are those of the Picturesque, and it was this view of nature that Ruskin was brought up with, and then attacked.
The word 'picturesque' lacks a precise meaning. It can refer to anything between a narrowly definable set of visual qualities in a painting, and a broad attitude towards subject matter. It derives from the Italian pittoresco, 'in the manner of painters', but English usage makes the significant change from 'the manner of painters' (referring to their social habits) to 'the manner of paintings'. The term was in popular use throughout the eighteenth century, but its genealogy as an aesthetic theory can be traced back to Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke divided objects into two main categories according to our response to them. Objects which appealed to our reason by their regularity, smoothness, order and proportion, and thus gave pleasure, were beautiful. Objects which excited [32/33] the emotions of awe or terror through their vastness, irregularity, grandeur or wild disorder were sublime. The terminological distinction between the sublime and the beautiful became standard practice, but Burke's opposing categories did not satisfy those who could see with their own eyes that there were many objects in nature, and even more so in painting, which were irregular, wild and unproportioned, but which aroused no fear in the spectator, and certainly none of the pain which Burke claimed was at the root of the emotions of the sublime. The antiquarian, the tourist and the sketcher (the three activities often combined in one man) knew that such objects abounded in the English countryside, a countryside that was neither a classic Arcadia nor a savage forest. Such a person was the Reverend William Gilpin, who popularized 'picturesque beauty' with guide books, essays, and advice on how the scenery might be drawn. The theory was placed on a more philosophical basis by Uvedale Price, who in 1794, in an Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful, formally suggested that the picturesque was a third category of aesthetic pleasure, somewhere between the beautiful and the sublime; precisely where, became a matter of controversy.
The theory represents the first step towards the modern idea that paintings can be appreciated solely for their objective qualities; certain features, such as roughness, broken lines, intricacy and variety of light and shade, were identified as characteristics of the picturesque, and were treated as qualities which could be appreciated for their stimulus to the eye alone. At the same time, however, there was an alternative view, derived from the theory of association. Archibald Alison, in his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), argued that our pleasure in pictures was caused by the train of thoughts the pictures suggested, and the imagination, working by association, helped to heighten the sense of sublimity or beauty. The same effect
is produced also, either in nature, or in description, by what are generally termed Picturesque Objects. . . . An old tower in the middle of a deep wood, a bridge flung across a chasm between rocks, a cottage on a precipice, are common examples. If I am not mistaken, the effect which such objects have on everyone's mind, is to suggest an additional train of conceptions, besides what the scene or description itself would have suggested.4
Theorists of the picturesque could not agree on the relative importance of the picture's formal qualities, and the ideas it conveyed. Richard Payne Knight, in the face of arguments from Uvedale Price, held that the pleasure of the eye consisted wholly in broken and gradated light [33/34] and colour, and that therefore the picturesque and the beautiful could be the same thing; but at the same time he drew on the theory of association to show that knowledge improved our perception. Thus the close study of pictures was required in order to appreciate their formal qualities, while the actual subjects aroused associated pleasant thoughts.
The literary and theoretical background however is less important than the practical effect the popularization of the picturesque had on people's way of seeing. As the word implies, it is essentially a visual theory. Whereas Burke's categories were concerned with reason and emotion, that is with internal operations of the mind, the followers of the picturesque were concerned with a way of looking, and the significant influences were paintings rather than books. What became at heart an essentially English appreciation of the English countryside has its roots in the two seventeenth-century Continental traditions of landscape painting, the Italian and the Dutch.
The Italian represents the 'high art' tradition, which made its appeal to aristocratic connoisseurship through allegory and classical reference. Three painters in particular who had worked in Italy contributed to English ideas of landscape, Gaspard Poussin (or Dughet, his real name), Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain. Though they had a combined influence, each is very different from the others. Salvator Rosa's craggy rocks and broken trees have a romantic violence that makes him closer to ideas of the sublime than the picturesque; Gaspard Poussin retains some of the classic regularity of design of his brother-in-law, Nicolas Poussin. It was Claude Lorrain who appealed especially to the landscape tastes of rich English collectors: he presented a classical subject (though often incongruously set among already ruined classical buildings), and a regularity of composition softened by water and trees in a warm landscape that fades into a blue distance. English collectors brought nearly all the best examples of Claude's work to England, and the richest among them set about turning real landscape into Claude-like compositions.
The 'low' aspects of the picturesque came from the Dutch, who had no mountains or classical ruins, but plenty of boats, carts, wooden houses, taverns and rutted roads supplying an entertaining irregularity and intricacy of texture, and their artists showed a frank appreciation of country life. The costumes and activities of the peasants, travellers and beggars who people the paintings of Cuyp, Ruisdael, Both and Hobbema stimulated the eye with their wrinkled faces and tattered clothes, while the effects of sky and weather in Dutch sea-painting had their appeal on the other side of the Channel. [34/35]
These two traditions combined with a third, that of topographical painting. Artists had found work since the beginning of the sixteenth century in making records of gentlemen's parks and country houses, bur these stiff delineations became more expressive as painters became interested in the landscape for its own sake. The Italian and Dutch idioms were translated into English forms, classical ruins became the Gothic churches and ruined abbeys which already decorated the English countryside, Italian forests and mountains became English woods and hills. The peasants of the Dutch became English cottagers and labourers whose existence — to the picturesque-buying public at least — seemed to relate so harmoniously with their natural surroundings.
The result of the fashion for the picturesque was a way of looking at landscape that involved, according to one's attitude to the genre, either an active and creative sense of the inter-relationship between man and nature, or the sentimental appreciation of small ideas. Because it was an essentially visual theory and encouraged the contemplation of natural scenery, it made a significant contribution to the development of Romantic art, but it still kept an eighteenth-century balance between reason and emotion, the beautiful and the sublime. The crucial point is that although it was a stimulus to the visual sense, it was a way of looking at nature indirectly, via pictures. The full title of Uvedale Price's work is An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful; and on the Use of Studying Pictures, for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape.
Even when the tourist went to look at natural scenery he might if he chose turn reality into composition on the spot, by looking at it in a pocket mirror of slightly curved black glass, called appropriately a Claude Glass. The reflected image compressed the real view and reduced the brilliance of its colours so that it looked more like a painting. This was deliberately seeing nature at second hand, for one had to turn one's back on the view to use the mirror. Ruskin called the black mirror 'one of the most pestilent inventions for falsifying Nature and degrading art which ever was put into an artist's hand' (15.201-2).
Yet the first work by Ruskin ever to be published, a poem in the Spiritual Times for February 1830, uses Derwent Water almost like a Claude Glass to pictorialize a Lake view:
Now Derwent Water come! — a looking-glass Wherein reflected are the mountain's heights; For thou'rt a mirror, framed in rocks and woods. Upon thee, seeming mounts arise, and trees [35/36] And seeming rivulets, that charm the eye; All on thee painted by a master hand, Which not a critic can well criticise. (2.266)
Ruskin came under the influence of picturesque artists in the most direct way possible, through being taught by them. He was a talented draughtsman, and might have developed further; but as Paul Walton points out in his study of Ruskin's drawings, his parents were concerned that he should exercise his skill only in so far as it was a suitable minor activity for a gentleman.5 The potential which he showed — and the limitations he was under — can be seen in the vignettes he drew in 1833 to illustrate a long poem describing the Continental tour made that year.
Left: J. W. M. Turner, Vignette to Roger’s “Italy”. 1830. Right: John Ruskin. Vignette to “A Tour of the Continent”. 1834. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
They are imitations of the vignettes Turner drew to illustrate Samuel Rogers's poem Italy (1830). They show technical skill, and it is not every fourteen-year-old who could attempt to write and illustrate to adult standards, but both verses and drawings are imitations; he has even tried to reproduce the type-face for the title.
Ruskin claimed in his autobiography that his passion for Turner began when he was given Rogers's Italy when he was thirteen, but in reality Turner was only one of a group of artists who made their influence felt during his adolescence. The vignettes to Italy are unlikely examples of Turner's work on which to base an appreciation of his later landscape, for Rogers, who commissioned them, insisted on an eighteenth-century formality of design.6
His first teacher, apart from his father whom he used to watch sketching as a little boy, was Charles Runciman, who gave him model drawings to copy and taught him to patch up compositions out of appropriate bits and pieces. In 1832 Runciman was sufficiently impressed to promote him to water-colour, as the first step towards oil. Ruskin told his father that 'there is a power in painting, whether oil or water that drawing is not possesed of, drawing does well for near scenes, analyses of foliage, or large trees, but not for distance, or bare & wild scenery, how much superior painting would be, if I wanted to carry off Derwent Water, & Skiddaw in my pocket, or Ulles Water, & Helvellyn, or Windermere, & Low-wood' (RFL 268). In his autobiography Ruskin recalls that by 1832 he 'had constructed a style of pen-drawing with shade stippled out of doubled lines, and outline broken for picturesqueness' (35.622). The pen and water-colour of trees around a pond (ill. 6) shows the first results of this training in the picturesque.7
John Ruskin (attributed). Trees and Pond. 1831 or 1832. An imaginary compsoition in the eighteenth-century drawing-master style of Ruskin's first instructor, Charles Runciman. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
In 1834 and 1835 Ruskin also had lessons from none other than the President of the Old Water-Colour Society, Anthony Vandyke [36/37] Copley Fielding, the most fashionable drawing master of the day. From him Ruskin learnt the full range of techniques that the water-colourists had developed in their rivalry with oils: the laying of washes, spongeing out, scratching out, how to get a broken effect by using a dry brush. But he was discouraged by the elaborate nature of the technique — he later called it mere tyro's work (15.140) — and went back to drawing.
Since his chief interest was architecture, he modelled his work on the lithographs of Samuel Prout (whose Picturesque Sketches in Flanders and on the Rhine had inspired the Ruskins' first long tour abroad), although he acknowledged later that the 'rude and confused lines' (35.623) imitated from Prout meant that the results were stylish compositions rather than accurate architectural drawings. Gradually he modified his Proutish dots and dashes into a gentler curving line, and tried to get more accuracy. The work of David Roberts, whose drawings of Spain started appearing in 1837, encouraged him to soften his hard outlines. From Roberts Ruskin took over the use of 'flat grey washes, giving the forms of shade with precision and its gradations with delicacy, and finally touched, for light, with whitish yellow' (35.625). A drawing of St. Mary's Church, Bristol, shows a mixture of Prout and Roberts, the church done with Prout's broken lines, the boat in the manner of Roberts.
John Ruskin. St. Mary Redcliffe. 1839?. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The extent to which Ruskin was committed to the picturesque point of view can be gauged from the long visit he made to the Continent in 1840 and 1841. The circumstances of this tour are important, for he was convalescing after the collapse of his hopes of gaining distinction at University; a success that would probably have led to a clerical career.
In later life Ruskin became somewhat bitter about his undergraduate life at Oxford. In 1853 he told his former tutor, the Reverend W. L. Brown, that he regarded his education there as a complete failure. As far as literature was concerned, 'I am conscious of no result from the University in this respect, except the dead waste of three or four months in writing poems for the Newdigate, a prize I would unhesitatingly do away with' (36.154). In fact he had an enjoyable time at Oxford, and had won the Newdigate poetry prize (meeting Wordsworth as a result). The aristocratic gentlemen commoners in no way looked down on the promising intellectual in their midst, and his talent for drawing made him popular with both students and teachers. True, it was found a little odd that when he came up to Oxford his mother came to live there as well (RFL 373n); but the bitterness Ruskin later expressed was the result of his own and not the University's circumstances. [37/38]
The Spanish side of his father's sherry business was run by Pedro Domecq, who had four daughters. In 1856, at the age of seventeen, Ruskin conceived a passion for one of them, Adèle. His parents have been accused of trying to frustrate a marriage with a Roman Catholic, but it seems more likely that it was as Ruskin himself presents it, an adolescent passion for a girl who felt no interest in him at all. The experience was none the less traumatic for that, and his mother's decision to be near him in Oxford in case of sickness was justified. At the end of his second year at Oxford he undertook a heavy programme of reading in order to prepare for an honours degree. In April 1840, shortly after Adèle had married another, he coughed blood, and was forced to leave Oxford, for the time being without a degree. The doctors banned reading and sent him abroad to recover.
Two works by Samuel Prout. Left: The Forum of Nerva: Right: View in Ghent. 1833 [Not in print edition] Click on these images for larger pictures.
Ruskin said later that he had been travelling with 'sealed eyes' (D1.113n), a curious phrase for a tour which, since he was forbidden to read, involved a great deal of drawing. Curious, that is, until one realizes how much ideas of the picturesque masked his vision. The word appears time and time again in his diary. He sees subjects in terms of Copley Fielding, Frederick Taylor, William Hunt, Frederick Hurlestone, Prout, Claude, Poussin, and — in comparisons of atmospheric effects — Turner. Whereas there was nothing in Florence 'thoroughly picturesque' (D1.111), Rome was completely 'picturesque, down to its doorknockers'. Discussing this quality he produces the verbal equivalent of Samuel Prout's water-colour of the Forum of Nerva (see above). It depends
not on any important lines or real beauty of object, but upon little bits of contrasted feeling — the old clothes hanging out of a marble architrave, that architrave smashed at one side and built into a piece of Roman frieze, which moulders away the next instant into a patch of broken brickwork — projecting over a mouldering wooden window, supported in its turn on a bit of grey entablature, with a vestige of inscription; but all to be studied closely before it can be felt or even seen. (D1.118)
Ruskin's drawing of the Piazza Santa Maria del Pianto contains precisely these elements.
Two versions of Piazza Santa Maria del Pianto, Rome : (a) Ruskin's first version based on his drawing on the spot in 1840 (Dl.i 18), and (b) the version redrawn and lithographed for inclusion in The Amateur's Portfolio of Sketches (1844). Compare both versions with Prout's Forum of Nerva. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
It is interesting to compare the original drawing with the lithographed version done for a collection called The Amateur's Portfolio of Sketches published in 1844 (see immediately above). The composition has been improved, and the picturesque elements already present in the original drawing have been heightened. The disposition of the figures has been altered, including the substitution of a cart for a group by the fountain, and they are arranged precisely in the manner advocated in [38/39] Prout's Microcosm, the Artist's Sketch-book of Groups of Figures, Shipping, And other Picturesque Objects. Prout provided a series of model groups from which the amateur might copy, with the advice that 'there should always be one principal group and smaller groups, with here and there detached figures, to express distances, and render the composition and effect more picturesque.'8 The distant street scene that has been added on the right has in miniature the tall buildings and short figures one finds in the plates of David Roberts's Picturesque Sketches in Spain and 'The Tourist in Spain'.
Victoria. David Roberts. 1837. Engraving for 'The Tourist in Spain', in Jennings' Landscape Annual for 1837. John James Ruskin bought the original drawing in that year. Source: Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye.
It is clear that in 1842, one year before the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin was still fixed in a conventional way of seeing, producing pleasing drawings, but unoriginal and in a style that was already beginning to be thought a bit passé. How was it that he was able to discover a new view of nature, how indeed was it that the listless and depressed young Ruskin should hit upon the idea of writing Modern Painters at all? The answer lies in his own practice of drawing, a fresh perception of Turner, and what he presented in later life as an almost mystical experience of the forces of nature.
When he returned from his convalescence abroad, sufficiently recovered to take a pass degree, Ruskin began lessons under a new drawing master, J. D. Harding. Harding represented a new generation of water-colour artists, who had learnt from the water-colours by Turner which heralded his later style in oil. Harding sought a greater freedom of handling and a more naturalistic approach than the earlier picturesque artists. He himself was not a member of the Old Water-Colour Society at this time, for he had resigned, hoping, unsuccessfully, to be elected to the Royal Academy. He was critical of the Italian and Dutch artists who had contributed so much to English ideas of the picturesque. In his books on drawing he 'corrected' the compositions of Claude to give them more interest, and his stern religious attitude made him object to the 'low' subjects of the Dutch. His speciality was trees and foliage, concentrating on effects of light and shade to give a roundness that contrasts with the hard outlines of Prout. As part of his teaching method he got his pupils to copy the plates of Turner's Liber Studiorum, and Ruskin adopted a modified form of Turner's Liber style for his own treatment of leaves. Harding told the student to achieve his effects by a close study of nature, rather than by tricks of style; but he was not 'called upon to substitute botanical delineation for pictorial effect', he was not a painter of leaves in detail, but was concerned with 'the masses, the common forms, and their great distinguishing features: [39/40] and would but waste his time in prosecuting a study more within the province of the Botanist or the Gardener'.9
Harding's advice to study Turner's Liber Studiorum had special appeal to Ruskin, who by now had met Turner and owned some of his works. It is traditionally supposed that his passion for Turner began with Rogers's Italy, and was confirmed by the attacks made on Turner's pictures at the Royal Academy in 1836, but his real appreciation developed more slowly. True, Ruskin did write a juvenile essay in Turner's defence in 1836, but when he argued that Turner was 'not so stark mad as to profess to paint nature. He paints from nature, and pretty far from it, too' (3.637), he showed that his appreciation was still in terms of a Neoclassical idealization of nature rather than a Romantic celebration of her power.10 Much more significant is his first published reference to the artist in 1840, in an article on the proper shapes for engravings and pictures (1.235-45). He concludes from an analysis of visual perception that the area of attention within a frame is oval, using as evidence the oval of Turner's vignettes. John James Ruskin's acquisition of works by Turner clearly denotes interest, but he already owned works by Prout and Copley Fielding, and bought a Roberts in the same year as his first Turner, Richmond Bridge, in 1837, whose trees echo those of Claude.
Left: Claude Lorrain The Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. The classical landscape, a model for picturesque artists — and for Turner. Ruskin's violent attack on the painting in 1843 is quoted on pp. 43-44. Right: J.M.W. Turner. Richmond Bridge. [Click on these images for larger pictures.]
As collectors of Turner, however, the Ruskins were bound to be approached when new works were available. One such approach, in 1842, gave Ruskin a new insight.
Turner had asked his agent Griffiths to secure commissions for a set of finished water-colours based on sketches he had made on the Rhine and in Switzerland. Four had been completed as samples, and buyers were invited to select a further six subjects from amongst the working sketches. The Ruskins were approached, and John was immediately enthusiastic, although there was a painful disagreement with his father over the price and the choice of subject. He was particularly excited by the rough sketches, which he came to call Turner's 'delight- drawings' (13.237)
J. M. W. Turner. Evening on Mount Rigi, Seen from Zug. c. 1841. A “delight-drawing” from the series which revealed to Ruskin the secret of Turner‘s art. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
He was familiar with the engravings and finished water-colours, but he had not seen a Turner sketch before (13.507). These direct studies seemed to show a very different conception of nature from that in Turner's academic works (35.310):
I saw that these sketches were straight impressions from nature, not artificial designs, like the Carthages and Romes. And it began to occur to me thar perhaps even in the artifice of Turner there might be more truth than I had understood. I was by this time very learned in his principles of composition: but it seemed to me that in these later subjects Nature was composing with him. [40/41]
The idea that the artist, instead of imposing a predetermined shape on nature, cooperates with it, or even allows nature to impose its vision on him, marks the shift from a classic to a Romantic point of view.
The story of the 'delight-drawings' just quoted comes from Ruskin's autobiography, and it is quickly followed there by the account of two personal experiences which also happened in that year, and which also centre on the word 'composition'. Both are the result of drawing foliage, the exercise encouraged by Harding. The first concerns a piece of ivy, seen on the road to Norwood, near his home in London, which struck him as 'not ill "composed" '; having drawn it, he began to realize that 'no one had ever told me to draw what was really there !' (35.311). This break through conventional perception to a new sense of reality was repeated much more elaborately later that summer, while he was in France at the start of another Continental tour. He describes how, near Fontainebleau, ill and depressed, he drew an aspen tree.
Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced, — without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they 'composed' themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere (35.314)
In this mystical moment of identification between self and nature the poet's imagination, the geologist's observation and the preacher's vision seemed to come together.
The woods, which I had only looked on as wilderness, fulfilled I then saw, in their beauty, the same laws which guided the clouds, divided the light, and balanced the wave. 'He hath made everything beautiful, in his time,' became for me thenceforward the interpretation of the bond between the human mind and all visible things; and I returned along the wood-road feeling that it had led me far; — Farther than ever fancy had reached, or theodolite measured. (35.315)
This is a persuasive account of how Ruskin's eyes might have been unsealed — but unfortunately it seems that in fact the old mode of vision was not sloughed off so quickly or in so startling a fashion. In his diary, unavailable to him when he reconstructed the experience forty years later, Ruskin describes his time at Fontainebleau in 1842 as 'an unprofitable a week as I ever spent in my life' and the only hint of a change of attitude is 'But I got some new ideas in my evening walk at [41/42] Fontainebleau (D1.223).11 Neither the drawing at Norwood nor that at Fontainebleau has been positively identified, and we may question how it was that a sketching exercise in the manner of Harding could have wrought such a change. What is stranger, Harding himself is said to have had a similar experience. In an article on Harding which appeared in 1880 there is a description of him in some confusion at the beginning of his career as to what he should do. (Ruskin was in similar circumstances in 1842.) 'In this state of mind, whilst sketching some trees near Greenwich, the thought at once occurred to him that the trees obeyed laws in their growth, and if he could ascertain these laws, and put them on his paper, he would get at the truth he so desired.'12 There is a remarkable similarity between these accounts, which makes one wonder whether Ruskin either saw this version or had heard it from Harding himself.
Ruskin's version in Praeterita emphasizes the Romantic-religious experience of nature at the cost of the chronology of his actual development, and even at the cost of the chronology of Modern Painters, as we shall see; but none the less it is imaginatively true. There was a change of attitude, and he did begin to see things differently. For confirmation we need go no further than the fact that later in 1842, after reading further attacks on Turner, he decided to begin Modern Painters, and in the first volume, which appeared in 1843, he began to criticize the picturesque.
The great theme of the first volume of Modern Painters is not beauty, but truth: 'The word Truth, as applied to art signifies the faithful statement, either to the mind or senses, of any fact of nature' (3.104). Ruskin is primarily concerned with these 'facts' of nature, although he acknowledges from the start that truth is not limited to the accurate delineation of external form: 'there is a moral as well as material truth, — a truth of impression as well as of form, — of thought as well as of matter' (3.104). His case is that if we cannot see external form clearly and accurately, it will be impossible for us to perceive the inner truth that the facts of nature convey. In order to see clearly we must abandon conventional perception, and study nature with our own eyes. But again, there is more than just the need to use an innocent eye, for the development of our visual sense will help the development of our moral sense:
with. . . bodily sensibility to colour and form is intimately connected that higher sensibility which we revere as one of the chief attributes of all noble [42/43] minds, and as the chief spring of real poetry. I believe this kind of sensibility may be entirely resolved into the acuteness of bodily sense of which I have been speaking, associated with love, love I mean in its infinite and holy functions, as it embraces divine and brutal intelligences, and hallows the physical perception of external objects by association, gratitude, veneration, and other pure feelings of our moral nature. (3.142-3)
Seeing is loving, seeing is a form of worship, and Ruskin devotes much of the book to the description of the external forms of mountains, trees, and clouds, as he saw and worshipped them.
The 'truths' of nature are contrasted with the conventionalized second-hand perceptions of landscape painters before Turner. The system of the old masters 'may be sublime, and affecting, and ideal, and intellectual, and a great deal more; but all I am concerned with at present is, that it is not true; while Turner's is the closest and most studied approach to truth of which the materials of art admit' (3.265). By old masters he did not mean the great names like Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo or Titian, but those seventeenth-century Italian and Dutch artists who had contributed to contemporary ideas of the picturesque. (It is important to remember how much this narrows the field, for Ruskin's polemical writing sometimes seems to condemn every painter except Turner.) The artists he did attack were roughly handled. It is worth quoting at length his treatment of Claude's Marriage of Isaac ana Rebecca (ill. 14) in his section entitled 'Of Truth of Earth'. We can see the power of his prose to convey the conclusions to which his geological observations and practice of drawing had led him.
In the distance . . . is something white, which I believe must be intended for a snowy mountain, because I do not see that it can well be intended for anything else. Now no mountain of elevation sufficient to be so sheeted with perpetual snow can, by any possibility, sink so low on the horizon as this something of Claude's, unless it be at a distance of from fifty to seventy miles. At such distances, though the outline is invariably sharp and edgy to an excess, yet all the circumstances of aërial perspective, faintness of shadow, and isolation of light, which I have described as characteristic of the Alps fifteen miles off, take place, of course, in a three-fold degree; the mountains rise from the horizon like transparent films, only distinguishable from mist by their excessively keen edges, and their brilliant flashes of sudden light; they are as unsubstantial as the air itself, and impress their enormous size by means of this aërialness, in a far greater degree at these vast distances, than even when towering above the spectator's head. Now, I ask of the candid observer, if there be the smallest vestige of an effort to obtain, if there be the most miserable, the most contemptible [43/44], shadow of attainment of such an effect by Claude. Does that white thing on the horizon look seventy miles off? Is it faint, or fading, or to be looked for by the eye before it can be found out? Does it look high? does it look large? does it look impressive? You cannot but feel that there is not a vestige of any kind of truth in that horizon. (3.437)
This failure in aerial perspective, supposedly a particular feature of Claude, is compounded by worse errors of geology.
No mountain was ever raised to the level of perpetual snow, without an infinite multiplicity of form. Its foundation is built of a hundred minor mountains, and, from these, great buttresses run in converging ridges to the central peak. There is no exception to this rule; no mountain 15,000 feet high is ever raised without such preparation and variety of outwork. Consequently, in distant effect, when chains of such peaks are visible at once, the multiplicity of form is absolutely oceanic, [whereas Claude's simple shapes are] destitute of energy, of height, of distance, of splendour, and of variety, and are the work of a man . . . who had neither feeling for nature, nor knowledge of art. (3.48)
By contrast, Turner is shown to demonstrate precisely the qualities of energy and light, the dynamic balance between multiplicity of form and unity of conception, which Ruskin believed were the sources of beauty and the symbols of God's will. But these inner qualities were revealed by the most careful study of outward form. One recalls Jameson's comment in his Manual of Mineralogy on painters' ignorance of mountain structure, when Ruskin writes that Turner 'is the only painter who has ever drawn a mountain, or a stone; no other man ever having learned their organization, or possessed himself of their spirit, except in part and obscurely' (3.252).
J. M. W. Turner. Vignette to Rogers's 'Italy. 1830. In Modern Painters I, Ruskin calls this plate of Napoleon at the Battle of Marenpo (despite the derivative central figure) 'one of the noblest illustrations of mountain character and magnitude existing'” (3.444). [Click on image to enlarge it.]
He goes so far as to assert that the tiny vignette of the battle of Marengo in Rogers's Italy shows that Turner 'is as much of a geologist as he is of a painter'(3.429). (He makes no comment on the figure of Napoleon copied from David.) He does not mean that Turner actually studied geology, but his 'intense observation of, and strict adherence to, truth' (3.465) meant that the science of aspects matched the science of geology.
Since Ruskin is so critical of the old masters of landscape, what was his attitude to the landscape painters of his own day? In the light of what has been said about the picturesque, we should expect him to be equally critical, if not more so. But he is not, for reasons that require some explanation. According to his own account, his original idea had been to write a work entitled Turner and the Ancients, and he did not [44/45] intend to refer to any modern painter other than Turner. But, 'in deference to the advice of friends' (which may be taken to mean his father), his title became Modern Painters, Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to the Ancient Masters (7.441n). The use of the plural committed him to writing not just about Turner, but his contemporaries as well, and he praises Copley Fielding, J. D. Harding, John Varley, Peter De Wint, James Pyne, Augustus Callcott, and other minor artists, who are used to show that Turner is part of a whole new school of landscape painting. Ruskin was right to say this, for the other artists were influenced by Turner, but they fall well below his standards.
Ruskin had another motive for not attacking the picturesque artists in the first edition of Modern Painters. Many of the artists were his acquaintances, and it would not look well if he attacked people his father liked to have to dinner. He was only twenty-four when the first edition appeared, and he tried to avoid being accused of youthful presumption by sheltering under the anonymous by-line 'A graduate of Oxford'. Two letters to Prout, who always retained Ruskin's favour, show what his real feelings were. The first, written not long after the book had come out, still playfully pretends that Ruskin is not the author, but a friend of his. Ruskin says he has been assured that the book would have had 'a very different tone from that which it has, had it not been for the interference of his friends, who feared the result of attacks on living men. [For 'friends' we may again read John James Ruskin.] Had it not been for them, I am pretty sure that. . . faults, instead of beauties, would have been pointed out in Stanfield and Harding' (38.335). The second letter, written the following February, is more frank: 'The fact was, I had for a year or two been looking at M. Angelo and Turner, and had quite lost sight of Messrs. Stanfield, etc., so that I wrote the opinions of past time, and was horrorstruck in the Academy and the Water-colour, by the deeds of some whom I had praised' (38.337).
This change of heart shows in his later revisions of Modern Painters 1. By 1846, the date of the third edition, his actual knowledge of art had increased dramatically. It is fair to say that when he began he had known very little about art at all; his visit to Italy in 1845 changed all that, and in consequence he made important alterations to his first volume and changed the direction of the second. This change of emphasis is disguised by the fact that we normally see only the 1846 edition. Many of the references to modern painters other than Turner are dropped in the 1846 text, and blame is substituted for praise. On the other hand he discusses an additional forty-five painters in expansions to his text.13 [45/46]
The Aspen, under Idealization. John Ruskin. 1856-57. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The extent to which his attitude towards the picturesque had hardened by 1845 can be seen in his comments on his last drawing master. Harding joined Ruskin in Italy, and they sat side by side in Venice, sketching the canals. John's comment on his former teacher was: 'His sketches are always pretty because he balances their parts together & considers them as pictures — mine are always ugly, for I consider my sketch only as a written note of certain facts' (L45.189). It appears that he had taken his own lessons in Modern Painters 1 to heart, and in his revisions of the text in 1846 Harding's tree drawing, formerly 'an illustration of every truth we have been pointing out in foliage',14 becomes 'comparatively imperfect, leaning this way and that, and unequal in the lateral arrangements of foliage. Such forms are often graceful, always picturesque, but rarely grand, and, when systematically adopted, untrue' (3.601). Harding was not totally condemned however, for when Ruskin returned to the problem in Modern Painters 4 he distinguished Harding's trees from the 'modern Blottesque'. Is it significant that the tree he chooses to illustrate is an aspen?
Ruskin's first line of attack on the picturesque, then, was that it was a false vision of nature, the product of an approach which made only a superficial study of the outward forms of natural scenery, and then only to select certain aspects to compose into an idealized picture which bore no resemblance to the 'facts'. His own 'science of aspects' involved a much deeper study of nature which uncovered the true laws of natural organization to which everything, including the painter, must submit. The source of these laws, expressed throughout the whole of creation, was God. The picturesque artist, with his superficial tricks of style and his preconceptions of what was and what was not suitable for painting, had little hope of approaching the inner truth of external form, except in so far as his subject matter managed to impose itself on him. But there was another direction from which Ruskin also began to attack the picturesque, a direction very significant in the light of his future development. It is well known that he evolved from a critic of art to a critic of society, but it is remarkable how early this evolution began.
The important event is, again, the tour of 1845. This was the very first time he had travelled abroad without his parents, and their absence had a liberating effect on his mind and spirit. He none the less wrote home daily, and we have a first-hand account of his developing sense of confidence and sureness of his powers. His widening horizons [46/47] even led him to question the social and economic basis on which his privileged position depended, and in a letter from Parma in July we find the first signs of a new attitude to the purpose of art. His comments arise from his difficulty with poetry, which he was still trying to write, although Modern Painters 1 should have convinced him that his true talent was for prose:
I don't see how it is possible for a person who gets up at four, goes to bed at 10, eats ices when he is hot, beef when he is hungry, gets rid of all claims of charity by giving money which he hasn't earned — and those of compassion by treating all distress more as picturesque than as real — I don't see how it is at all possible for such a person to write good poetry. Yesterday, I came on a poor little child lying flat on the pavement in Bologna — sleeping like a corpse — possibly from too little food. I pulled up immediately not in pity, but in delight at the folds of its poor little ragged chemise over the thin bosom and gave the mother money not in charity, but to keep the flies off it while I made a sketch. I don't see how this is to be avoided, but it is very hardening. (L45-142)
Ruskin came to see very clearly how the starvation of children could be avoided, but for the moment he leaves the painful story as it is, perhaps as an indirect reproof of his father's businesslike attitude. The phrase 'treating all distress more as picturesque than as real' puts the theory in question in a very different light. The ragged clothes of beggars were standard subjects of the picturesque because their rough and tattered quality appealed to the eye; the reasons for dressing in rags were not gone into. Theorists of the picturesque seem oblivious of the social significance of what they write. Take Uvedale Price: 'In our own species, objects merely picturesque are to be found among the wandering tribes of gypsies and beggars; who in all the qualities which give them that character, bear a close analogy to the wild forester and the worn out cart-horse, and again old mills, hovels, and other inanimate objects of the same kind.'15 The Dukes of Devonshire, who possessed some of the finest Claudes in the country, were quite happy to remove an entire village that interfered with the view from Chatsworth, and then with unconscious irony rebuild it elsewhere with each building selected from a pattern book of picturesque cottages. In Modern Painters 5 Ruskin tersely exposes the difference between the picturesque image of a Highland scene and the reality: 'At the turn of the brook I see a man fishing, with a boy and a dog — a picturesque and pretty group enough certainly, if they had not been there all day starving.' (7.269) [47/48]
It would be wrong to think that Ruskin rejected the formal qualities of the picturesque, the 'catching lights, the deep shadows, the rich mellow tints' which produced such raptures in Price and Payne Knight, although it worried him that its subject matter should be gypsies, worn-out cart-horses, or starving men: The 'merely outward delightfulness [of picturesque subjects] — that which makes them pleasant in painting, or, in the literal sense picturesque — is their actual variety of colour and form' (6.15). He uses the word in this sense without any implied criticism, and his definition is not far from William Gilpin's: that which is expressive of 'that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture'.16 We even have a picturesque photograph by Ruskin (ill. 41), which he included in an exhibition on Samuel Prout, and Prout always remained a favourite artist. He wrote in 1879 that Prout 'taught me generally to like ruggedness. . . . This predilection — passion, I might more truly call it — holds me yet so strongly' (14.385). He did, however, consider Prout to be a special case, because his architectural subjects 'elevated' the picturesque. 'That character had been sought, before his time, either in solitude or in rusticity; it was supposed to belong only to the savageness of the desert or the simplicity of the hamlet; it lurked beneath the brows of rocks and the eaves of cottages'; Prout however turned his picturesque eye on the city and the cathedral: 'He thus became the interpreter of a great period of the world's history, of that in which age and neglect had cast the interest of ruin over the noblest ecclesiastical structures of Europe' (12.313-14). The picturesque 'interest of ruin', the broken stones and flourishing weeds, became historical records of the effects of time, and symbolic of a decay in which Ruskin read the signs of national ruin. The formal picturesque qualities are genuinely expressive; Prout 'never attempts to make anything picturesque that naturally isn't' (14.419).
It was not the formal qualities of the picturesque to which Ruskin objected, but the use to which they were put. Modern Painters 1 represents the first stage of his argument, that thinking in terms of 'composition' led to a false view of landscape. The distinction between the visual aspects of the picturesque and the irresponsible use to which they might be put is developed throughout the following volumes of Modern Painters and his parallel architectural studies. To make his distinction clear he evolves a new terminology. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) he explains that he does not reject 'angular and broken lines, vigorous oppositions of light and shadow, and grave, deep, or boldly contrasted colour' (8.237) in architecture, because they were a part of nature, and in so far as these qualities in a building remind us of nature [48/49] they heighten our awareness of its power or, as Ruskin expresses it, following Burke's categories, of its sublimity. If painting or architecture remind us of 'objects on which a true and essential sublimity exists, as of rocks or mountains, or stormy clouds or waves' (8.237), then the works of art are sublime rather than picturesque. But if they merely reflect the outward picturesque qualities of nature — as a tiny cottage roof can mimic a craggy mountain slope — then the picturesqueness is no more than 'parasitical or engrafted sublimity' (8.238), and its pursuit is degrading to art, for it is superficial, not real.
The proper use to which the formal qualities of the picturesque may be put comes in the first chapter of Modern Painters 4, 'Of the Turnerian Picturesque'. It is a criticism of Ruskin that he pays little attention to Turner's work before 1800, when he too went through a picturesque phase. He tends in general to dismiss the early work as a period when 'Turner was still working in a very childish way' (6.43); an embarrassing example of this blind spot is his mistaken attribution to Turner (in his selection of art examples for Oxford University) of two plates after William Gilpin.
In 'Of the Turnerian Picturesque' Ruskin distinguishes between the 'noble' and the 'surface' picturesque. Modern appreciation of the genre 'so far as it consists in a delight in ruin, is perhaps the most suspicious and questionable of all the characters distinctively belonging to our temper, and art' (6.9). It is this which 'fills ordinary drawing-books and scrap-books, and employs, perhaps, the most popular living landscape painters of France, England, and Germany' (6.16). We can see the extent to which the pricking of his social conscience in 1845 had changed him.
The lower picturesque is eminently a heartless one; the lover of it seems to go forth into the world in a temper as merciless as its rocks. All other men feel some regret at the sight of disorder and ruin. He alone delights in both; it matters not of what. Fallen cottage — desolate villa — deserted village — blasted heath — mouldering castle — to him, so that they do but show jagged angles of stone and timber, all sights are equally joyful. Poverty, and darkness, and guilt, bring in their several contributions to his treasury of pleasant thoughts. (6.19)
The shameful list continues, and lest there should be any doubt, he deliberately adds a documentary touch by quoting from his diary of 1854, describing the conditions of the slum dwellers of Amiens:
all exquisitely picturesque, and no less miserable. We delight in seeing the figures in these boats pushing them about the bits of blue water, in Prout's [49/50] drawings; but as I looked today at the unhealthy face and melancholy mien of the man in the boat pushing his load of peats along the ditch, and of the people, men as well as women, who sat spinning gloomily at the cottage doors, I could not help feeling how many suffering persons must pay for my picturesque subject and happy walk. (6.20n)
Although Prout is mentioned here, he and Turner are exceptions to the heartlessness of contemporary artists. They understand 'the opposite element of the noble picturesque: its expression, namely, of suffering, of poverty, or decay, nobly endured by unpretending strength of heart' (6.14). The battered hulk of Calais church is picturesque in its decay, but its endurance of time and weather give it an inner nobility. Both Clarkson Stanfield and Turner may depict a windmill, but whereas Stanfield's pleases the eye, Turner's actually functions. What makes the work of Prout and Turner noble is 'sympathy', the ability to feel with the subject, not just view its externals abstractly with an eye to its conformity to artificial ideas of composition. In his own manual on draughtsmanship, The Elements of Drawing (1857), Ruskin demands sensitivity to abstract relations of shape and texture that have nothing to do with the representation of actual objects, but there must be a connection between the outer forms and their inner truth. Pictures 'meant to display the skill of the artist, and his powers of composition; or to give agreeable forms and colours, irrespective of sentiment' produce a 'spurious form' of landscape (7.255). The only saving grace of the picturesque artist is that he is a bit sentimental: he takes pleasure in humble things, and his seemingly irresponsible interest in the poor is at least worth cultivating 'not with any special view to artistic, but merely to humane, education' (6.22).
In spite of the foregoing criticisms of the genre, there is one aspect of the picturesque with which Ruskin was sympathetic from first to last: architecture. The shaggy textures and rough outlines of ancient buildings were acceptable to him because they were genuine qualities in the buildings themselves and testified to the nobility of their endurance of time. Buildings, however, had a greater significance than that, for Ruskin always considered architecture to be 'an essential part of landscape' (5.130). He did not mean the sentimental admiration of people for 'a ruined abbey by moonlight, or any building with which interesting associations are connected, at any time when they can hardly see it' (8.8), but architecture as an expression of man's inter-relationship with his natural surroundings. [50/51]
This relationship had been the theme of Ruskin's most ambitious early work, a series of articles for J. C. London's Architectural Magazine called The Poetry of Architecture, published in 1857 and 1838. There he follows Wordsworth's concern in his Guide through the District of the Lakes that architecture should be appropriate to the scenery in which it is set. The same interconnection of buildings and natural surroundings is the subject of Ruskin's drawings of Swiss towns, made in the l850s and 1860s for a projected history of the Swiss that would demonstrate the effect of their mountainous surroundings on their character.17 On the purely visual level, such a concern leads quite logically to a preference for the shapes and tones of Gothic architecture over the straight lines and harsh stucco of the Neoclassical; on the deeper level it points to the need for the same inner laws which govern nature to govern architecture.
'The Lamp of Beauty' in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) analyses this influence of natural form. The Gothic shapes 'are not beautiful because they are copied from Nature; only it is out of the power of man to conceive beauty without her aid' (8.141). The Gothic mason did not evolve his decoration from foliage, but to foliage, showing that true ornament can only legitimately follow the abstract lines of nature. He dismisses the idea that the spires and crockets of northern Gothic symbolize man's aspiration to heaven; rather they echo the serrated skyline of the pine forest, while the 'dark green depth of sunshine' (9.167) on the Italian stone pine may have its echoes in the domes and darkness of southern churches.
John Ruskin. Design For a Capital for the Oxford Museum. 1856 or 1857. On the right, a study of the natural forms of a plant, possibly a strawberry; on the left, the forms stylised as a design. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
We see Ruskin working out the problem of foliage in capitals, in his designs for the decoration of the Oxford Natural History Museum in 1856, where real leaves are shown side by side with their stone counterparts; Gothic expressed the same naturalism that he sought in a painter, the sculptor who found 'his models amongst the forest leaves' expressed 'profound sympathy with the fulness and wealth of the material universe' (10.244). Architects should not live in cities. Above all, architecture must express the great theme of Life, which runs through all things: 'good architecture, which has life, and truth, and joy in it, is better than the bad architecture, which has death, dishonesty, and vexation of heart in it, from the beginning to the end of time' (9.412).
Ruskin is speaking here of genuine, pre-Renaissance Gothic. In the eighteenth century, the picturesque with its castles and ruined abbeys had promoted a taste for mock Gothic — or Gothick, as it is usually called. In the l830s, under the stimulus of Augustus Welby Pugin, the antiquarian approach which had been content with mere poetic bits and [51/52] pieces was gradually supplanted by a more seriou sand archaeological one. Ruskin poured scorn on those who 'crown a turret six feet high with chopped battlements three inches wide' (9.199), or support a tiny chapel with a bunch of flying buttresses at every corner. In architecture, just as much as in painting, the building must speak the truth.
The connection between architecture and nature in The Stones of Venice (1851-3) is so close that the one comes to be considered as a substitute for the other, an argument that leads to an explanation of the reasons for the existence of the picturesque:
We are forced, for the sake of accumulating our power and knowledge, to live in cities. . . . We cannot all have our gardens now, nor our pleasant fields to meditate in at eventide. Then the function of our architecture is, as far as may be, to replace these; to tell us about Nature; to possess us with memories of her quietness; to be solemn and full of tenderness, like her, and rich in portraitures of her. (9.411)
In Venice the Gothic supplied this need, but when the Renaissance abandoned religion for luxury it broke the link, and destroyed architecture and art, leaving nothing but 'the Alsatian sublimities of Salvator, the confectionary idealities of Claude, the dull manufacture of Gaspar and Canaletto, south of the Alps, and on the north the patient devotion of besotted lives to delineation of bricks and fogs, fat cattle and ditchwater' (9.45). Ruskin tries to argue that the English picturesque artists were independent of the seventeenth-century painters.
The picturesque school of art rose up to address those capacities of enjoyment for which, in sculpture, architecture, or the higher walks of painting, there was employment no more . . . the English school of landscape, culminating in Turner, is in reality nothing else than a healthy effort to fill the void which the destruction of Gothic architecture has left. (11.225-6)
Ruskin may have a point, in that the picturesque taste began to flourish just as Britain's Industrial Revolution was getting under way, but he is wrong to deny the link between Italian and Dutch landscape and the painters of his own day. He contradicts his own detailed criticisms of the English picturesque when he writes that the new school 'differed inherently from that ancienter one [the Italian and Dutch], in that its motive was love. However feeble its efforts might be, they were for the sake of the nature, not of the picture, and therefore, having this germ of true life, it grew and throve' (5.409).
Ruskin risks the contradiction because he is thinking of Turner. The purpose of his argument against the English picturesque as a [52/53] 'spurious' form of landscape was to show that its vision of nature was false, and that Turner's was true. Having shown that, and excoriated the Italian and Dutch schools which were its antecedents, he could then turn to the one positive virtue of the English picturesque: that it was concerned with the relationship between man and nature, however inaccurately that relationship was conveyed. Turner, indeed the 'Turnerian picturesque', communicated it accurately. And that brought Ruskin to the next stage of his argument. Having shown that Turner had a true vision of the world, he could then proceed to demonstrate the significance of that vision, for 'the truth of nature is a part of the truth of God; to him who does not search it out, darkness, as it is to him who does, infinity' (3.141).
The truth of nature that Ruskin had found out beside the fountain of the Brevent was 'the pure and the right sense of the word — BEAUTIFUL' (4.365). His next problem was to show that the beauty he perceived was both aesthetic and moral.
Last modified 9 February 2013