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John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) is best known for his work as an art critic and social critic, but is remembered as an author, poet and artist as well. Ruskin's essays on art and architecture were extremely influential in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
Additional recommended knowledge
Ruskin was born in London, and raised in south London, the son of a wine importer who was one of the founders of the company that became Allied Domecq. He was educated at home, and entered the University of Oxford without proper qualifications for a degree. Nevertheless he impressed the scholars of Christ Church after he won the Newdigate prize for poetry, his earliest interest. In consequence, and despite a protracted period of serious illness, he was awarded a double-third degree.
His first work, serialised in Loudon's Architecture Magazine in 1836-7, under the nom-de-plume "Kata Phusin" (Greek for "according to Nature") was The Poetry of Architecture, a study of cottages, villas, and other dwellings which centred around a Wordsworthian argument that buildings should be sympathetic to their local environments, and should use local materials. Soon afterwards, in 1839, he published, in Transactions of the Meteorological Society (pages 56-59), his "Remarks on the present state of meteorological science". He went on to publish the first volume of one of his major works, Modern Painters, in 1843, under the anonymous identity "An Oxford Graduate". This work argued that modern landscape painters — and in particular J.M.W. Turner — were superior to the so-called "Old Masters" of the post Renaissance period. Such a claim was controversial, especially as Turner's semi-abstract late works were being denounced by some critics as meaningless daubs. The degree to which Ruskin reversed an anti-Turnerian tide may have been overemphasised in the past, as Turner was a renowned and major figure in the early Victorian art world and a prominent member of the Royal Academy. Ruskin's criticisms of Old Masters like Gaspard Dughet (Gaspar Poussin), Claude Lorrain, and Salvator Rosa, was much more controversial, given the immense respect in which they were held at the time. The attack on the old masters centred on what Ruskin perceived as their lack of attention to natural truth. Rather than 'going to nature', as Turner did, the old masters, 'composed' or invented their landscapes in their studios. For Ruskin, modern painters like Turner and James Duffield Harding (Ruskin's art tutor) showed a much more profound understanding of nature, observing the 'truths' of water, air, clouds, stones, and vegetation.
Ruskin considered some Renaissance masters, notably Titian and Dürer, to have shown similar devotion to nature, but he attacked even Michelangelo as a corrupting influence on art. The second half of Modern Painters I consists of detailed observations by Ruskin of exactly how clouds move, how seas appear at different times of day, or how trees grow, followed by examples of error or truth from various artists.
Ruskin had already met and befriended Turner, and eventually became one of the executors of his will. It is often stated that as an executor, Ruskin took it upon himself in 1858 to destroy a large number of Turner's sketches because of their 'pornographic' subject matter, although this has now been cast into doubt (see below).
Ruskin followed this book with a second volume, developing his ideas about symbolism in art. He then turned to architecture, writing The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, both of which argued that architecture cannot be separated from morality, and that the "Decorated Gothic" style was the highest form of architecture yet achieved.
By this time Ruskin was writing in his own name, and had become the most famous cultural theorist of his day. In 1848, he married Effie Gray, for whom he wrote the early fantasy novel The King of the Golden River. Their marriage was notoriously unhappy, eventually being annulled in 1854 on grounds of his "incurable impotency," a charge Ruskin later disputed. Effie later married the artist John Everett Millais, who had been Ruskin's protegé.
Ruskin had come into contact with Millais following the controversy over his painting Christ in the House of his Parents, which was considered blasphemous at the time. Millais, with his colleagues William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The Pre-Raphaelites were influenced by Ruskin's theories. As a result, the critic wrote letters to The Times defending their work, later meeting them. Initially he favoured Millais, who travelled to Scotland with Ruskin and Effie to paint Ruskin's portrait. Effie's increasing attachment to Millais created a crisis in the marriage, leading Effie to leave Ruskin, causing a major public scandal. Millais abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite style after his marriage, and his later works were often savagely attacked by Ruskin. Ruskin continued to support Hunt and Rossetti. He also provided independent funds to encourage the art of Rossetti's wife Elizabeth Siddal. Other artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites also received both written and financial support from him, including John Brett, Burne-Jones and John William Inchbold. In 1858 he also opened the School of Art in Sidney Street, Cambridge, laying the foundation for what is now Anglia Ruskin University.
During this period Ruskin wrote regular reviews of the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy under the title Academy Notes. His reviews were so influential and so judgemental that he alienated many artists, leading to much comment. For example Punch published a comic poem about a victim of the critic containing the lines "I paints and paints, hears no complaints...then savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in and nobody will buy". Ruskin also sought to encourage the creation of architecture based on his theories. He was friendly with Sir Henry Acland, who supported his attempts to get the new Oxford University Museum of Natural History built as a model of modern Gothic. Ruskin also inspired other architects to adapt the Gothic style for modern culture. These buildings created what has been called a distinctive "Ruskinian Gothic" style.
Following a crisis of religious belief Ruskin abandoned art criticism at the end of the 1850s, moving towards commentary on politics, under the influence of his great friend Thomas Carlyle. In Unto This Last he expounded his theories about social justice, which influenced the development of the British Labour party and of Christian socialism. Upon the death of his father, Ruskin declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave away most of his inheritance. He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the 1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill to begin her practical campaign of housing reform. He attempted to reach a wide readership with his pamphlets Fors Clavigera, aimed at the "working men of England". He also taught at the Working Men's College, London and was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879, he also served a second term. Ruskin College, Oxford is named after him.
While at Oxford Ruskin became friendly with Lewis Carroll, another don, and was photographed by him. After the parting of Carroll and Alice Liddell, she and her sisters pursued a similar relationship with Ruskin, as detailed in Ruskin's autobiography Praeterita.
During this period Ruskin fell deeply in love with Rose la Touche, an intensely religious young woman. He met her in 1858, when she was only ten years old, proposed to her eight years later, and was finally rejected in 1872. She died shortly afterwards. These events plunged Ruskin into despair and led to bouts of mental illness. He suffered from a number of breakdowns as well as delirious visions.
In 1878, he published a scathing review of paintings by James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. He found particular fault with Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, and accused Whistler of "ask[ing] two hundred guineas for throwing a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler filed a libel suit against Ruskin. Whistler won the case, but the jury awarded him only one farthing for damages; it split court costs between Ruskin and Whistler. The episode tarnished Ruskin's reputation, and may have accelerated his mental decline.
The emergence of the Aesthetic movement and Impressionism alienated Ruskin from the art world, and his later writings were increasingly seen as irrelevant, especially as he seemed to be more interested in book illustrators such as Kate Greenaway than in modern art. He continued to support philanthropic movements such as the Home Arts and Industries Association
Much of his later life was spent at a house called Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water located in the Lake District of England. His assistant W. G. Collingwood, the author, artist and antiquarian lived nearby.
Ruskin's range was vast. He wrote over 250 works which started from art history, but expanded to cover topics ranging over science, geology, ornithology, literary criticism, the environmental effects of pollution, and mythology. After his death Ruskin's works were collected together in a massive "library edition", completed in 1912 by his friends Edward Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. Its index is famously elaborate, attempting to articulate the complex interconnectedness of his thought.
Art and design criticism
Ruskin's early work in defence of Turner was based on his belief that art was essentially concerned to communicate an understanding of nature, and that authentic artists should reject inherited conventions in order to appreciate and study effects of form and colour by direct observation. His most famous dictum was "go to nature in all singleness of heart, rejecting nothing and selecting nothing." He later believed that the Pre-Raphaelites formed "a new and noble school" of art that would provide the basis for a thoroughgoing reform of the art world. For Ruskin, art should communicate truth above all things. However, he believed that this was not revealed by mere display of skill, but the expression of the artist's whole moral outlook. Ruskin rejected the work of Whistler because he considered it to epitomise a reductive mechanisation of art.
Rejection of mechanisation and standardization also informed Ruskin's theories of architecture, informing his emphasis on the importance of the Medieval Gothic style: its reverence for nature and for natural forms; the supposedly free and unfettered expression of the artisans working on the construction and lavish decoration of buildings; and the organic relationship Ruskin posited between the worker and his guild, the worker and his community, between the worker and his natural environment, and between the worker and his God. Attempts in the nineteenth century to reproduce the form of gothic (its pointed arches etc) was not enough to make these buildings expressions of what Ruskin (however erroneously) saw as true gothic feeling, faith, and organicism.
For Ruskin the Gothic style embodied the same moral truths that he sought in great art. It expressed the meaning of architecture — as a combination of the values of strength, solidity and aspiration; all written, as it were, in stone. For Ruskin, true Gothic architecture involved the whole community in its creation, and expressed the full range of human emotions, from the sublime effects of soaring spires to the comically ridiculous carved grotesques and gargoyles. Even its crude and "savage" aspects were proof of "the liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure." Classical architecture, in contrast, expressed a morally vacuous repressive standardisation. Ruskin associated Classical values with modern developments, in particular with the demoralising consequences of the industrial revolution, resulting in buildings such as The Crystal Palace, which he despised as an oversized greenhouse. Although Ruskin wrote about architecture in many works over the course of his career, his much-anthologized essay "The Nature of Gothic" from the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853) is widely considered to be one of his most important and evocative discussions of his central argument.
Ruskin's arguments encouraged a revival of Gothic styles, but Ruskin himself was often dissatisfied with the results, objecting that forms of mass-produced faux-gothic did not exemplify his own principles, but showed a disregard for the true meaning of the style. Even the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a building designed with Ruskin's collaboration, met with his disapproval. The O'Shea brothers, freehand stone carvers chosen to revive the creative "freedom of thought" of Gothic craftsmen, disappointed him by their lack of reverence for the task.
Ruskin's distaste for oppressive standardisation led to his later works attacking laissez faire capitalism, which influenced many trade union leaders of the Victorian era. He was also the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement, the founding of the National Trust, the National Art Collections Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Ruskin's views on art, wrote Kenneth Clark, "cannot be made to form a logical system, and perhaps owe to this fact a part of their value." Ruskin's accounts of art are descriptions of a superior type that conjur images vividly in the mind's eye. Certain principles, however, remain consistent throughout his work and have been summarized in Clark's own words as the following:
Ruskin's beliefs in the preservation of ancient buildings had a significant influence on later thinking about the distinction between the conservation and the restoration of old buildings. Ruskin was a strong proponent of the former, while his contemporary, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, advocated for the latter. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin writes:
Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.
This abhorrence for restoration is in marked contrast to Viollet-le-Duc who wrote that restoration is a "means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time." 
Ruskin had a deep respect for Gothic architecture and old buildings in general. To him, the building's age was the most important aspect of its preservation: "For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, not in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.” 
Ruskin's pioneering of the ideas that led to the Arts and Crafts movement was related to the growth of Christian socialism, an ideology that he helped to formulate in his book Unto This Last, in which he attacked laissez faire economics because it failed to acknowledge the complexities of human desires and motivations. He argued that the State should intervene to regulate the economy in the service of such higher values. These ideas were closely related to those of Thomas Carlyle, but whereas Carlyle emphasised the need for strong leadership, Ruskin emphasised what later evolved into the concept of "social economy" - networks of charitable, co-operative and other non-governmental organisations.
In the Stones of Venice, the previously mentioned chapter The Nature of Gothic attacked the division of labour which Adam Smith advocated in the early books of The Wealth of Nations -- and like Smith states in book 5 of the Wealth of Nations -- Ruskin believed the division of labor as the main cause of the unhappiness of the poor. Ruskin believed that the rich had never been so generous in the past, but the poor's hatred of the rich was at its greatest point; this was because the poor now were unsatisfied by their monotonous work, which used them as a tool, instead of a man. These ideas would later influence William Morris.
Though he never exhibited his paintings, Ruskin's own work was very distinctive. He created many careful studies of natural forms, adapting the style of Turner to detailed botanical, geological and architectural observation. He also painted a decorative floral border in the central room of Wallington Hall in Northumberland, home of his friend Pauline Trevelyan. The stained glass window in the Little Church of St Francis Funtley, Fareham, Hampshire is reputed to have been designed by him. Originally placed in the St. Peter's Church Duntisbourne Abbots, near Cirencester, the window depicts the Ascension and the Nativity.
Ruskin's influence extends far beyond the field of art history. The author Leo Tolstoy described him as "one of those rare men who think with their heart." Marcel Proust was a Ruskin enthusiast and translated his works into French. Mahatma Gandhi quoted Ruskin's Unto this last frequently, and spoke often of the influence Ruskin had on his philosophy. Ruskin's views also attracted Oscar Wilde's imagination in the late 19th century.
A number of utopian socialist "Ruskin Colonies" were created in attempts to put his political ideals into practice. These included the founders of Ruskin, Nebraska; Ruskin, Florida; Ruskin, British Columbia; and the Ruskin Commonwealth Association, a colony which existed in Dickson County, Tennessee from 1894 to 1899. Ruskin's ideas also influenced the development of the British Labour Party. In Britain, many streets, places and colleges are named after Ruskin.
The defining work on Ruskin for the 20th century was "The Darkening Glass" (Columbia UP, 1960) by Columbia professor John D. Rosenberg, backed by his ubiquitous paperback anthology, "The Genius of John Ruskin"(1963). Neither book has ever been out of print. Rosenberg, who began teaching at Columbia in 1963, and is still teaching in 2006, produced countless Ruskinians who are now the Victorianists at various American universities. A definitive two-volume biography by Tim Hilton appeared as John Ruskin: The Early Years (Yale University Press, 1985) and John Ruskin: The Later Years (Yale University Press, 2000).
Turner erotic drawings
Until 2005, biographies of both J. M. W. Turner and Ruskin had claimed that in 1858 Ruskin burned bundles of erotic paintings and drawings by Turner, in order to protect Turner's posthumous reputation. In 2005, these same works by Turner were discovered in a neglected British archive, proving that Ruskin did not destroy them.
Ruskin's sexuality has led to much speculation and critical comment. His one marriage, to Effie Gray, was annulled after six years because of non-consummation. His wife, in a letter to her parents, claimed that he found her "person" (meaning her body) repugnant. "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April." Ruskin confirmed this in his statement to his lawyer during the annulment proceedings. "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."
The cause of this mysterious "disgust" has led to much speculation. Ruskin's biographer, Mary Lutyens, suggested that he rejected Effie because he was horrified by the sight of her pubic hair. Lutyens argued that Ruskin must have known the female form only through Greek statues and paintings of the nude lacking pubic hair and found the reality shocking. This speculation has been repeated by later biographers and essayists and it is now something that "everyone knows" about Ruskin. However, there is no proof for this, and some disagree. Peter Fuller in his book Theoria: Art and the Absence of Grace writes, "It has been said that he was frightened on the wedding night by the sight of his wife's pubic hair; more probably, he was perturbed by her menstrual blood." Ruskin's biographers Tim Hilton and John Batchelor also take the view that menstruation is the more likely explanation, though Batchelor also suggests that body-odour may have been the problem.
Ruskin's later relationship with Rose la Touche has also led to claims that he had paedophilic inclinations, on the grounds that he stated that he fell in love with her when he met her at the age of nine. In fact he did not approach her as a suitor until she was seventeen, and he repeatedly proposed to her for as long as she lived. Ruskin is not known to have had any other romantic liaisons or sexual intimacies. However, during an episode of mental derangement after Rose died he wrote a letter in which he insisted that Rose's spirit had instructed him to marry a girl who was visiting him at the time. Letters from Ruskin to Kate Greenaway also exist, in which he repeatedly asks her to draw her "girlies" (as he called her child figures) without clothing:
Ruskin's biographers disagree about the allegation of paedophilia. Hilton, in his two-volume biography, baldly asserts that "he was a paedophile", while Batchelor argues that the term is inappropriate because his behaviour does not "fit the profile".
Ruskin coined quite a few distinctive terms, some of which were collected by the Nuttall Encyclopedia. Some include:
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
Fictional portrayals of Ruskin
Aspects of Ruskin's life have been dramatised or incorporated into works of fiction on several occasions. Most of these concentrate on his marriage. Examples include:
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_Ruskin". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|