Stein, Roger B. Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America, 1840-1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. [This review first appeared in the JOunral of English and Germanic Philology, 68 (1969): 305-10.]
his lucid discussion of the way nineteenth-century Americans received, used, or reacted against the aesthetic writings of John Ruskin will aid and interest all students of Victorian England, America, and the cultural relations of the two countries. When Roger B. Stein narrates how Ruskin’s aesthetic fared in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, he not only well uses the great critic of art and society as a figure about which to organize a survey of the American scene but, by examining in detail those whom Ruskin influenced, he helps us understand why the author of Modern Painters was important to his own age. Certainly, the ideas, style, and influence of any major author all furnish significant areas of inquiry for the literary scholar, but since what Ruskin said and how he said it demands our attention in large part because contemporaries found these statements valuable, any study such as Stein’s which documents and explains Ruskin’s influence becomes especially useful.
His first chapter, which sketches the American background against which Modern Painters appeared in 1848, explains that although Americans cared little about Turner they found that Ruskin’s defense of that great painter answered their own concern “with the more basic question of the meaning of art and the role it vras to play in American society” (p. 2). One reason in particular for the critic’s extraordinary American reputation came from the fact that his writings could serve an impulse to national self-justification. By 1840 a debate about the role of tradition in art “had divided Americans who were concerned with art roughly into two camps: those who felt that art in America should be stimulated only by our native resources, and those who felt that to cut ourselves off from the European tradition of art was a form of cultural suicide” (p. 14). Whereas the “traditionalists” (who frequently remind one of the conservative English critics who attacked Turner) insisted that art had to maintain intimate relations with the European artistic past, the “critical nationalists” defended originality by combining a Wordsworthian love of nature with a faith in the independent destiny of the United States: some, like the painter Asher Durand, believed that the unspoiled innocence of American landscape all but guaranteed an art far higher than any the painters and scenes of a tradition-bound, corrupted Europe could provide. Moreover, Modern Painters also entered a debate about the “meaning of nature and the way in which we perceive it” (p. 18) which served to focus discussion of romantic taste and critical theory in mid-century America.
Stein sketches the American background, presents the philosophical problems faced by American romanticism, and handles individual figures, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, clearly and in an interesting manner, but occasionally one expects and would like to see him draw obvious parallels between the English and American audience that might better characterize the uniqueness of the American situation. For example, from the evidence he presents one can further suggest that whereas in Great Britain Ruskin most influenced the brash, rising middle class—those newly respectable who wanted to be told what culture was and how to obtain it—in America he found the warmest audience among those who brashly desired to make the United States culturally self-reliant. In America, then, the matter of economic class combined with nationalism, but in both countries we encounter those who, for one reason or another, wished, like Ruskin, to look at nature with an innocent eye.
Succeeding chapters explain the effect which Ruskin had upon both art criticism and the American Gothic Revival. A particularly interesting section relates how the moral and religious aims of the English writer gained him warm reception in the United States, while the final third or so of this study narrates the story of the way Americans, both scientists and those interested in art, reacted against Ruskin and set out on a new path of their own. Stein’s chapter entitled “The Attack on Ruskin” points out the error of those twentieth-century writers who have held that Ruskin had negligible influence on American painters and architects. According to Stein, who assembles a valuable list of practicing artists and architects, “That Ruskin was read by artists in the eighteen fifties, sixties, and seventies is beyond question” (p. 193).
Unfortunately, when he examines the charges made by those writers who reacted against Ruskin, he makes one of the few mistakes in a generally capable discussion of Ruskinian art theory. His rather strange insistence that the author of Modern Painters held a “mimetic theory” (pp. 82, 188) of art that required a photographic transcription of nature results in three major errors: first of all, such characterization of Ruskin’s art theory neglects the situation in which he began Modern Painters; for, after all, if Ruskin truly had a “fanatic insistence that the true artist must perceive with absolute accuracy the details of the natural world and transfer them with perfect fidelity to canvas” (p. 194) how could he have defended the brilliantly colored swirling forms of Turner’s late period? And if he in fact held such a theory, why should he have wanted to defend an artist who violated it? No, as Ruskin continually informs us in the first volume of Modern Painters, he harps on the criterion of truth to nature precisely because the polemics of Blackwood's and The Times had charged Turner with being unlike nature. Ruskin’s first volume therefore strives to demonstrate that Turner knew more about nature than did the Old Masters, whom the modern painter’s detractors had cited as an example of excellence. Secondly, Ruskin has engaged himself to educate the neophyte and re-educate the critic, for he believes the artist must first carefully observe nature before he can create the imaginative, higher form of art. As Ruskin tells us in the last chapter of the first volume, the beginner should study nature with great care, and then, after he has filled his memory with the truths of nature, he can and should attempt the work of imagination.
Stein’s misconception leads him to make unfortunate assertions about Ruskin’s view of landscape. For example, in discussing James’s Roderick Random, he states that the novelist’s “conception of the artist creating out of the depths of his inmost soul is given dramatic force through the contrast with Singleton, the modest copyist of natural scenery. Singleton in the Alps is truly the disciple of Ruskin, being ‘true to nature’ in all its particularities” (p. 214). James has, in fact, exactly repeated Ruskin’s division of landscape painting into a lower “topographical” art, best suited to students and those with little imagination, and that higher art of the imaginative faculty which expresses a great soul. Ruskin’s assertion that the art of imaginative impression is far superior to the prior art of fact appears at length in the first, third, and fourth volumes of Modern Painters.
Finally, such a misconception fails to note one of Ruskin’s most brilliant advances in the theory of pictorial representation; for Modern Painters, unlike previous writings on art, not only denies that painting exists in a mimetic relationship to the natural world but it also proposes that art conveys the truths of nature in terms of visual schemata that convey proportionate relationships between forms, lines, and tones. In the first volume’s chapters on truth and imitation he carefully explains that the great artist, such as Turner, “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 every step of approach, not the exact difference it would have in nature, but the difference bearing the same proportion to that which his sum of possible shade bears to the sum of nature’s shade.” Ruskin’s theory that art presents statements rather than imitates—that it speaks with a “language” of proportionate relations—clearly anticipates the recent writings of Cassirer, Langer, and, to a lesser extent, Gombrich. It seems most unjust that one should not only fail to credit Ruskin’s contribution to art theory but also accuse him of that which he took particular pains to attack. If the American readers of Modern Painters failed to realize Ruskin’s true emphasis that fact would be worth recording, but we must not make such misinterpretations ourselves.
Perhaps the major methodological flaw in this treatment of Ruskin and aesthetic thought in America is that it includes too little of aesthetics. In his preface Stein states that he has “defined ‘aesthetic thought,’ ‘critical theory,’ or ‘taste’ as the intellectual territory which lies between popular culture or fashion on the one hand and aesthetics or aesthetic theory on the other” (p. x), but the subject as he has chosen to handle it will not bear such separation. Since Stein himself discusses Ruskin’s theories of beauty and sublimity as well as those of his followers, and since he attempts to place these views within their philosophical setting, his own discussions would seem to demand more inclusion of formal aesthetics; particularly since additional discussion within the context of aesthetic theory would support his valid observation that the major difficulty Ruskin and his followers faced was one of epistemology, of connecting the inside and the outside, the subjective and the objective. One may here add that this epistemological problem defines itself with particular clarity in Ruskin’s theory of the beautiful. First of all, his belief in a romantic version of ut pictura poesis and his consequent alliance of the arts produced a curiously divided aesthetic, of which the first part—which Ruskin called “typical beauty”—dealt primarily with visual beauty, while the other —which he termed “vital beauty”—concerned itself with emotional states and their expression.
As I have stated elsewhere, “Ruskin’s concern with painting (and his belief in a visual imagination) led him to formulate his theory of typical beauty, which draws its details, if not its ultimate explanations, from conceptions of the beautiful that emphasize qualities most suitable for painting, that is, the visual, the external, the element of form. Vital beauty, on the other hand, draws heavily on romantic theories of poetry, and on notions of moral emotion and sympathy which are associated with romantic philosophies of art. Vital beauty, which is the beauty of living things, depends on the internal made external, on expression.” In other words, when he attempts to join a theory of beauty-as-an-objective-quality, w'hich he found in eighteenth-century writings on painting, with a theory of beauty-as-feeling, which he based upon romantic critical theory and upon the moral philosophy of the Scottish school, Ruskin tried manfully, if unsuccessfully, to make romantic views of art and beauty “objective.”
By attempting to found his theory on the idea that beauty directly or indirectly symbolizes divine qualities we instinctively find pleasing, Ruskin tries to insure that although beauty is a matter of feeling, all men would necessarily feel in the same manner. Furthermore, if aesthetic emotion was a reaction to divine presence, any art which created that emotion served moral and religious purposes. However, as Ruskin lost or modified his religious belief he also lost the struggle to make the beauty of art and nature objective; and the seeds of this failure reveal themselves early in his treatment of both the sublime and the role of association in beauty. At first he denied either that association, a subjective, human factor, affected the beautiful or that the sublime was a distinct aesthetic category; but just as he came increasingly to allow for the role of association (which, incidentally, made him discount the possibility of beautiful landscape in America) he also came to perceive that his conception of beauty-as-ordcr did not permit him to include subjective pleasures he found pleasing and necessary to art. Thus, the final four volumes of Modern Painters like any tract of the eighteenth century, use the sublime to encompass delightful aesthetic effects that a too restrictive theory of beauty had excluded. Since this struggle plays such a significant part in Ruskin’s writings, it would be particularly interesting to determine if American readers understood or shared the Ruskinian problem and its attempted solutions.
The theological coloring of Ruskin’s writings on the beautiful brings to mind another subject one would like discussed in relation to the American reception of his work. Stein’s important chapter “Art, Nature, and Religion” shows that, although American clergymen allowed the critic to guide them through the ways of art, they consciously used him “for their own purposes: to make Ruskin’s views on the relationship of art to morality a means of keeping the growing American interest in art always subservient to the higher truths of religion; to use Ruskin’s ‘orthodoxy’ as a means of combating the latitudinarianism of the nature worshipers and sentimentalists; and finally, to use Ruskin’s ideas on the nature of Gothic as a means of harnessing the potential materialism of science and incipient industrialism” (p. 100). Now that Stein has described the reception of Ruskin’s moral and spiritual defences of art, one would also like to learn how Americans received his elaborate symbolical and allegorical readings of art, architecture, and poetry—readings which grew forth from his Evangelical Anglican practice of searching the scriptures for types and figures of Christ.
Ruskin’s use of methods of scriptural exegesis almost universal among the Evangelical sects for secular interpretation becomes increasingly important in the later volumes of Modern Painters. As Auerbach has explained, typology has peculiar effects on literature and art, for unlike hellenistic allegory, which casts away the literal “surface” once the meaning is “uncovered,” typology asserts the equal importance of both the symbol and the symbolized. Moses, for example, who is a type, a prefiguration of Christ, not only is as real as Christ but the literal narrative of his life gains importance precisely because he also symbolizes the Son of God. Ruskin’s background in typological—or as he calls it “typical”—readings of the Bible allows him simultaneously to emphasize both the aesthetic surface and the moral or religious meaning of art, myth, and beauty. Now, since Ruskin learned this method of scriptural reading from clergymen—men such as Henry Melvill, Dean of St. Paul’s, and Bishop J. C. Ryle, the most famous Evangelical writer of tracts—from men whose writings had a particularly wide audience in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, it would be most valuable to perceive to what degree his American readers found congenial and influential his transferences of Biblical exegesis to works of art. That some either learned from Ruskin, or, equally likely, originally shared his methods, appears in a passage which Stein quotes from the memoirs of the geologist Clarence King. During a geological trip King wondered why he should “study so hard into all the intricate mazes of fact, which will be swept away,” since they are but the shadows of “a new heaven and a new earth, beautiful in type” but soon to be replaced by a spiritual reality (p. 171). The American employs what Ruskin in The Stones of Venice called “the language of types” to decipher the spiritual meaning of rocks and mountains. The reception of Ruskin’s symbolical readings, which, once he lost the basis of his objective theory of beauty, became the most importance part of his defense of art, provides a particularly important subject for further investigation.
In his overemphasis upon the first two volumes of Modern Painters Stein too much negelects the equally important and equally interesting later volumes; indeed, it is this neglect of the later volumes that leads him to misinterpret Ruskin’s notion of representation. Despite these qualifications, Stein’s gracefully written, lucid study remains a valuable contribution to the understanding of Ruskin. It should be a point of praise that he answers many important questions and suggests new areas for investigation.
Last modified 6 May 2019