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Ruskin: The Great Artist Emerges

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer

an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, February 14–May 11, 2014, and the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, July 4–September 28, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition by Christopher Newall, with contributions by Christopher Baker, Ian Jeffrey, and Conal Shields
National Gallery of Canada/ Paul Holberton, 376 pp., $60.00 (paper)
Morgan Library and Museum, New York
John Ruskin: Self-portrait, in Blue Neckcloth, 1873

Though John Ruskin is generally thought of as a great prose stylist, social reformer, and art critic, few consider him a great painter. But Conal Shields does.

In the catalog to a stunning exhibition now in Ottawa and headed for Edinburgh—“John Ruskin: Artist and Observer”—Shields places him “among the greatest of English painters and draftsmen,” and wonders at “the relative neglect of his achievement.” Going through the 140 artworks collected here—some from private collections, and some never before exhibited in public—one is tempted to agree with him. The precision and detail of Ruskin’s prose descriptions are given sharp vindication in the pen, graphite, and chalk drawings—and especially in the brilliant watercolors. Ruskin was a fascinated student of geology, crystallography, botany, dendrology, ornithology, and meteorology, and his drawings in all these fields express his love (the only proper word) for each item his brush fondles onto the paper.

One of his most-used books, over the years, has been The Elements of Drawing, in which he mainly teaches his students how to see. Most people, he says, see what they expect—for instance, this is a tree—and look no deeper. They never actually realize what a complex, living thing any particular tree is. His drawings give a virtual biography of every tree he draws:

How troublesome trees have come in its way, and pushed it aside, and tried to strangle or starve it; where and when kind trees have sheltered it, and grown up lovingly together with it, bending as it bent; what winds torment it most; what boughs of it behave best, and bear most fruit; and so on.

So, in the exhibition, Ruskin gives us the tremendous drama of a whole tree, in graphite, pen, and pencil, with wash and white bodycolor; but also, with finest lines of pen and ink, he records the particularities in a foot or so of lightning-gashed trunk, with sprays of leaves growing from its wounds.

One of the main things he wanted people to see, in his Elements of Drawing, was color. Again, most look at a thing and think it is just red, or green, or whatever. He said there is no such thing in nature as a solid color, but colors are “continually passing one into the other.” Thus, in this show’s wondrous watercolor Study of a Velvet Crab, one cannot name as one color any particular spot on the crab, or say how it is constantly changing into equally unnamable tints. Though the catalog gives generally good images from the show, its reproduction cannot approach the delicacy and subtlety of this painting. Conal Shields, in one of the four scholarly essays in the catalog, writes of the crab:

The brush dances over some sections of the image and elsewhere drags its heavy loaded paint mixes into the nooks and crannies of the carapace. Luminosity and light resisting sculptural solidity tease the eye. It is iridescent with refracted and reflected light. A compound of gorgeous hues and intricately detailed but never costive draftsmanship, prompting the spectator to slip and slide over certain parts, to linger upon others, and to chase down detail that comes close to vanishing on the closest inspection, this is genuine visual wit.

At other places in his treatment of color in the Elements, Ruskin says that the only way to suggest the richness of some colors is “breaking one colour in small points through or over another.” In a sparkling picture of a bird (a kingfisher), we accordingly see a muted purple of the wing sown with dashes of a brilliant blue. Ruskin said that he painted what he could not put in words, even with the extraordinary range of words he commanded. He also meditated on, and grieved for, the impermanence of all things, even the rocks that built up mountains. He saw that even the Matterhorn was the product of and in the process of change, created by heat and upheaval and compression. He could write the biography of a boulder as well as a tree, since everything is in flux.

When a student said that he was describing natural processes, what Virgil called “the living rock,” not a made thing like a brick, Ruskin painted a broken piece of brick, with all the scars of its passage through time—its mutilations after its manufacture, its many-striated discolorations, and green moss growing on it. With the help of brilliant foreshortening and bodycolor for the moss, he gives the object a 3-D immediacy, as if it had dropped glowing out of the sky, not baked mud but a meteorite.

The range of these paintings made one journal’s art editor ask, at the press tour before the show opened, how Ruskin’s stature as an artist can have been so neglected. Shields, as we saw, makes the same remark in the catalog. The reason for the lack of attention to this side of him is simple: he did not paint to get any attention but his own. His father, who tried to shepherd his career, complained that he was doing things with no expectation of recompense or recognition. Ruskin ruefully remembered, in his memoir Praeterita, how his father

entirely, and with acute sense of loss to himself, doubted and deplored my now constant habit of making little patches and scratches of the sections and fractions of things in a notebook which used to live in my waistcoat pocket, instead of the former Proutesque or Robertsian outline of grand buildings and sublime scenes. And I was the more viciously stubborn in taking my own way, just because everybody was with him in these opinions.

Ruskin spent hours on most days making elaborate or simple records of things—a particular tint of dawn light, the state of a flower’s opening bud, a detail from a building or a painting—to keep a memory of what he saw, renewable when he lectured or taught or wrote. He was especially anxious to record details threatened by the nineteenth century’s crude ways of “restoring” artworks. But even aside from practical purposes, he did not feel he had truly seen a thing until he tried to copy just the right contours of it, its colors in and out of shade, its “individuating.” This made him see that what he had admired when looking superficially was “about five times as beautiful as I used to do, and as I can’t draw much better, I am reduced to knocking my fists together and moaning.”

We might ask, today, why he could not have kept his visual records with a camera. And he asked himself that. He was an early and enthusiastic user of the daguerreotype. Christopher Newall, a principal curator of the show and editor of the catalog, told me that this is the first Ruskin exhibition to show his uses of the camera, placing his original daguerreotypes next to drawings of the same scenes. Ruskin bought the photos, or took them himself, or trained his servants to take and develop them. He used them as a supplement rather than a substitute for making his own images.

He liked photos of a building’s whole façade, to “place” his own study of a detail. In the case of one church façade (San Michele in Lucca), the daguerreotype gave a fine record of the structure, but the camera could not read the confusion of stains and shadow in the reliefs running above the topmost arcade. And that is precisely what Ruskin picked out more clearly (indeed, more delicately than the catalog print can show) in his own watercolor. Ruskin was constantly verifying, correcting, or supplementing his work of eye and hand, words and paintbrush and camera.

To follow him in this daily quest does exactly what his Elements of Drawing was meant to do—make us see. We have a record of one man’s continual effort to perfect his seeing ability. We get samples of his records of dawns, all so similar and so very different. Ruskin studies not only cloud configurations, light playing through clouds, but the effect of that light on things below. He knew that Homer’s “rosy fingered dawn” was not radiating separate “fingers” as in the old Japanese flag, but was touching parts of the land and sea with its rosy glow—the daytime equivalent of Shakespeare’s moon “that tips with silver all these fruit-tree tops.”

So one reason for his neglect as an artist is that he rarely completed pictures of a conventional sort. Christopher Newall put only three of Ruskin’s works in his fine book, Victorian Watercolours,1 and we see why. Though Victorian watercolorists were highly skilled, their works were generally of vignettes, sentimental or preachy. (The exception was Ruskin’s own idol, Turner.) They were doing just the thing his father wanted John to do. The elder Ruskin wrote to a friend about his son’s squandered energies:

He is drawing perpetually, but no drawing such as in former days you or I might compliment in the usual way by saying it deserved a frame; but fragments of everything from a Cupola to a Cart-wheel, but in such bits that it is to the common eye a mass of Hieroglyphics—all true—truth itself, but Truth in mosaic.

There is an important parallel for this father–son clash that is missing in the show and its catalog. The elder Ruskin, himself a prosperous businessman, mourned his son’s fierce attacks on the laissez-faire economics of the Manchester School. This reaction shook the almost dictatorial authority Ruskin had established over art history in the middle of the nineteenth century. Many other people joined his father in telling John that he should stick to what he knew and not meddle in other parts of life. But Ruskin saw his social criticism, especially in the scorching prose of Unto This Last, as a natural part of his art criticism. He had always been interested in workmanship. How could he not be concerned about workmen? His concern for them made him campaign for their better working conditions, wages, housing, insurance, and education. He set up his own school for them, established a workmen’s Guild of Saint George, and gave away much of the wealth he inherited from his father to causes that consumed, gradually, as much of his time and energies as the study of art.

This important side of Ruskin is ignored in the exhibition. Is that because he did not put this concern in his drawings? Perhaps. But it would be odd if there were no connection between such vital aspects of his life. In fact, the justification offered by the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland for hosting this show is that it is a kind of autobiographical portrait of the man. That should send up caution signals. Biographies of Ruskin have done their own part in deflecting attention from Ruskin the social prophet—hailed as such by Tolstoy, Gandhi, and others—to Ruskin the sexually wounded bipolar man who succumbed to lunacy in his final years. Ruskin, on the night of his wedding to Euphemia Gray, could not consummate the marriage, then or ever, because something about Effie’s naked body repelled him. Instead, he had an intense spiritual yearning for a girl, Rose La Touche, who died young and visited him in visions (like Dante’s Beatrice). This is the sexually crippled Ruskin who figures now in plays, novels, movies—and even in an opera.2

  1. 1

    Phaidon, 1987. 

  2. 2

    There was a silent film, The Love of John Ruskin (1912), a short film, The Passion of John Ruskin (1994), and I hear there is a feature being made. 

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