To the best of my recollection, the first I ever heard of Ruskin was from George Landow when we were both doing graduate work at Princeton in the early sixties. Ruskin was obviously the author George planned to pursue, just as Dickens was obviously the man on whom our classmate Bob Patten would be working for the rest of his life. (Bob had already read all of Dickens before starting graduate school.)

Though I am not by any stretch a Ruskin specialist, I soon enough found him impossible to avoid when writing about Turner. So for what it’s worth, I’ll quote a couple of lightly retouched passages from my own work that show how I put them together. On the verses Turner wrote to accompany his exhibited paintings:

Turner’s verses have generally provoked reactions ranging from condescension to contempt. “Not particularly brilliant,” which is what Ruskin called one piece of Turner’s verse, is about the most generous assessment that any piece of Turner’s verse has ever received. So far from being great poetry, Turner’s verses are not even--in any obvious way--distinctively ekphrastic. He could powerfully describe the work of other painters, as when he salutes in a lecture the “veil of matchless colour” that Rembrandt displays in The Mill: “that lucid interval of Morning dawn and dewy light on which the Eye dwells so completely enthrall’d” that it dares not “pierce the mystic shell of colour in search of form.” But Turner never wrote this way about his own art. The verses he linked to Slavers throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, for instance, are not nearly so vivid and evocative as Ruskin’s prose account of “its thin masts written upon the sky, in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror” (quoted B&J text, p. 236). Yet Ruskin’s declamatory prose threatens to displace the painting itself, which may partly explain why he sold it after owning it for 28 years. With language as fiery and tumid as Ruskin’s, who needs pigment? By contrast, Turner’s verses must be read beside the paintings to which he linked them. They serve us only insofar as they help us to understand the discourse of his art. [“Painting Against Poetry: Reynolds’ Discourses and the Discourse of Turner’s Art,” in Cultivating Picturacy (Baylor UP: Waco, TX, 2006): 125-26].

On Ruskin’s claim that Turner shared Byron’s pessimism:

The works Turner explicitly linked to Childe Harold serve not as an end in themselves but as a goad to further investigation because they leave so many questions unanswered. In catalogues for annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Turner quoted lines from Byron’s poem under the titles of five pictures including Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage—Italy (1832). He also made a total of twenty-six drawings that were engraved for the two editions of Byron’s Works published in 1825 and 1832-34. All this evidence of Turner’s interest in Byron, the only major romantic poet in whom he showed any interest at all, raises questions about influence, or at the very least about affinities. Did Turner become in any sense Byronic? Did the poet and the painter share a vision? Ruskin thought that they did, that each of them regarded the world with an idiosyncratically pessimistic eye. “In his extreme sadness,” wrote Ruskin, “and in the morbid tones of mind out of which it arose, [Turner] is one with Byron and Goethe.” Ruskin is surely right about the strain of pessimism that permeates the work of Byron and Turner as well as that of Goethe. But when we attempt to move beyond that large abstraction into specific correspondences between Byron and Turner, Turner’s nominally Byronic pictures actually furnish very little help. [“Self-Representation in Bryon’s Poetry and Turner’s Art,” Cultivating Picturacy 160.]

Elsewhere on this site, I should add, can be found a recent piece of mine on a Peter Milton’s Tsunami, a recent American engraving featuring Ruskin, Turner, and Constable in the midst of a storm.

I will end on a personal note. Some years ago, after I wrote a piece on the rhetoric of art criticism (“Speaking for Pictures,” Cultivating Picturacy 39-68) and sent to Leo Steinberg, he invited me to visit him in New York. At the end of our visit, he read aloud to me what was clearly one of his own favorite specimens of art-critical rhetoric: John Ruskin’s description of St. Marks in Venice. Barring Ruskin himself, I think, no one could have read it better.

Last modified 22 February 2019