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…

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