British Art Critic, Painter, Social Thinker and Philanthropist
Brunswick Square, London
Summary of John Ruskin
An incredibly influential figure, who inspired people as diverse as Mahatma Ghandi, Leo Tolstoy, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ruskin was a complex, intense, and incredibly articulate man. Although he is best known as an art critic and patron, he was a true polymath and was also a talented watercolorist, an engaging teacher, a respected geologist, and a campaigner for social and political change. The importance of nature, God, and society are reoccurring themes throughout his work and these driving forces formed the tenets of his forward-thinking beliefs. He was an advocate for new styles of painting, the protection of historic buildings, the conservation of natural landscapes, the education of women, and the improvement of conditions for the working classes. He also identified risks associated with the Industrial Revolution, such as pollution, many years before they were widely acknowledged. His writings and the ideas in them brought new artists to prominence, encouraged the formation of the National Trust, and helped to protect the architecture of Venice. His views also helped to shape welfare reforms in Britain such as the introduction of a minimum wage, free school meals, and universal healthcare.
- Ruskin was an incredibly prolific writer, publishing more than 50 books on a huge range of topics from art criticism to fiction and political treatises to travel guides. It was through these writings (which included lecture transcripts and letters as well as more conventional essays) that he communicated his innovative ideas and over the course of his career, he simplified his writing style to make them as accessible to as many people as possible.
- As art critic, Ruskin championed the idea of "truth to nature" which encouraged painters to closely observe the landscape and in doing so capture the natural world as truthfully as possible, not romanticizing what they saw. This idea was hugely influential on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of young artists who rejected contemporary notions of artistic beauty and instead sought to produce a pre-Renaissance style of painting. Ruskin's emphasis on the natural (along with his dislike of mass production) also had an impact on the development of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
- Ruskin was an avid promoter of Gothic architecture and his writing influenced a widespread return from Neoclassicism to the earlier Gothic style. His work inspired architects including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius and his ideas are said to have been influential in the foundation of the Garden City Movement.
- Ruskin's religious upbringing continued to have an impact on his ideas and he believed that nature and beauty were inextricably bound up with concepts of the divine. He consequently argued that the best way to portray faith, was not through epic religious scenes, but through the understanding and faithful depiction of nature and the human body. This was taken to heart by the Pre-Raphaelite who attempted to harmoniously incorporate religious devotion into their work. This led to censure when developing this idea, they depicted religious figures as normal members of the working classes, with dirty clothes and fingernails instead of idealizing them.
Biography of John Ruskin
An only child, Ruskin was born in 1819 in south London to affluent parents, John James Ruskin, a Scottish wine merchant, and Margaret Ruskin, the daughter of a pub proprietor. The young Ruskin spent his summers in the Scottish countryside and when he was four, the family moved to south London's Herne Hill, a rural area at the time. It was these early experiences that ignited his lifelong love of nature. He was educated at home, where he was influenced by his father's collection of watercolors and his mother's pious Protestantism. Ruskin recalled a rigorous daily practice of bible reading and interpretation, which was to provide an early foundation for his work in criticism. At the age of seven he began to write books and his father - ambitious for his son to find success - would pay him for his poems.
John Ruskin and Important Artists and Artworks
This was one of ten paintings produced by Turner depicting the subject of the Carthaginian empire. Inspired by Virgil's The Aeneid, the composition shows Dido on the far left in blue robes. She is visiting her husband Sychaeus' tomb. The figure in front of her is likely to be Aeneas, a future love interest. Turner modelled the composition and style closely on the work of the well-known 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain, notably his Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648). According to Ruskin, however, Turner surpassed the Frenchman, writing that "Claude possesses some species of sterling excellence, but it follows not that he may not be excelled by Turner."
Turner and Ruskin had a close, if complex relationship. The pair met when Ruskin's affluent father (John Ruskin senior) began to commission watercolors from the painter. Ruskin became fascinated with these works and penned his first defense of Turner when he was just 16 (although this was not published). As a result, he was invited to watch Turner paint, and the pair discussed art, with Turner asking the young critic's opinion, despite the fact that he was 30 years his junior. As a result and, in contrast to popular and critical opinion, Ruskin vehemently defended Turner in Modern Painters (1843), describing him as the "greatest of all landscape painters".
By Turner's death in 1851, however, the pair had fallen out with Ruskin describing Turner's 1846 painting Angel Standing in the Sun as being "indicative of mental disease". Nevertheless, Ruskin's writing had a profound effect on Turner's success. As art historian Daisy Dunn writes: "Had it not been for Ruskin it is questionable whether Turner's art would be so popular today...Although Ruskin feared that public opinion had been permanently tainted by the critics, his words found an appreciative public."
Ruskin's sketches and paintings of Venice were considered among his best, and although he never called himself an artist, an examination of this work gives a good understanding of his ideas. In this watercolor, he carefully studied the decorative columns of Venice's most famous Gothic loggia (a covered exterior gallery), as well as showing Saint Mark's Basilica in the distance. The watercolor demonstrates his talents as a draftsman and his skilled understanding of perspective and composition. Ruskin articulated his style and painterly processes in his 1857 work Elements of Drawing, in which he advocated close observation of nature. Its reach was such that Claude Monet said in 1900 that "ninety per cent of the theory of Impressionist painting is in...Elements of Drawing."
Ruskin called the Ducal Palace "the central building of the world" and for him, Venice represented spiritual purity. He believed that the intricacies and ornate designs of Gothic architecture were far superior to that of the subsequent Renaissance because they represented emotion and reverence for God. He said that Renaissance architects created for their own glory, while Gothic architects created for the glory of God, and that the Gothic style expressed man's humility in the face of the divine. He argued that the loss of Gothic architecture represented a loss of something deeply spiritual in Western society and the growth of a Pagan ethos.
Ruskin's writings were responsible for the eventual Gothic revival and his books and drawings of Venice in particular were integral to securing the city's conservation. As art historian Daisy Dunn records: "Ruskin's publications sparked fresh interest in Italian art and particularly Venetian Gothic architecture. He made numerous prints and drawings, fearing that, if he did not, Venice might vanish undocumented like 'a lump of sugar in hot tea'." Ruskin's writings also influenced later architects, including the young Le Corbusier, whose early work demonstrates many of Ruskin's key principles. Frank Lloyd Wright's belief in the natural can also be seen as a result of Ruskin's influence and his skyscraper designs are based on the structural forms of trees.
This brightly colored oil canvas shows a nun deep in thought standing in a walled garden. She holds in her left hand a book showing a religious illustration, but it has been dropped to her side as she contemplates a passion flower - symbolic of Christ's crucifixion. The painting is executed in the minutely-detailed style of the early Pre-Raphaelites and the frame, designed by Millais, is inscribed with the words Sicit Lilium ("As the lily among thorns"), a quote taken from the Song of Solomon. The painting was exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1851.
Charles Allston Collins is one of the lesser known of the Pre-Raphaelites (he was never a member of the brotherhood) but this work was nonetheless singled out by Ruskin in a letter to The Times. Ruskin commended the paintings of all the Pre-Raphaelites in the Academy exhibition, but noted particularly the botanical studies present in this image. Using this work as an example, Ruskin encouraged artists not to represent God with religious pictures, but with the natural world instead. The Pre-Raphaelites took these ideas to heart, producing a stream of art that depicted detailed and celebratory images of nature and the human body. These lessons were also taken up in America where artists at the frontier began to produce epic images of the great American West.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on John Ruskin
- John RuskinOur PickBy Tim Hilton
- John Ruskin: Artist and ObserverBy Christopher Baker
- Masters: John Ruskin and His Influence on American ArtBy John A. Parks
- Ruskin, Turner & the Storm CloudBy Suzanne Fagence Cooper
- The Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His WritingsBy John D. Rosenberg
- The Worlds of John RuskinBy Kevin Jackson
- Unto this last - 200 years of John RuskinBy Tara Contractor
- Modern Painters, Volume 1By John Ruskin
- Praeterita - A memoirBy John Ruskin
- The Stones of VeniceBy John Ruskin
- Unto This LastBy John Ruskin
- Artists v critics, round oneBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / June 26, 2003
- Beguiled then bewildered: Ruskin's love-hate relationship with TurnerOur PickBy Ben Luke / The Art Newspaper / February 6, 2019
- In praise of John RuskinOur PickBy Michael Crowley / Spiked / September 6, 2019
- John Ruskin's marriage: what really happenedBy Michael Prodger / The Guardian / March 29, 2013
- Morbid LoveBy Philip Hoare / The Guardian / February 12, 2005
- 'Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin' Review: Going to Nature in His Own FashionBy Edward Rothstein / The Wall Street Journal / November 2, 2019
- Was Ruskin the most important man of the last 200 years?Our PickBy Daisy Dunn / BBC / February 8, 2019
- What to say about... John RuskinThe Guardian / March 24, 2002
- What was John Ruskin thinking on his unhappy wedding night?By Vanessa Thorpe / The Guardian / March 14, 2010
- 5 Ways John Ruskin Shaped the Art World TodayBy Redmond Bacon / Sleek Magazine / February 8, 2017
- A brief history of John Ruskin and Brantwood Coniston
- BBC Audio Documentary In Our Time - Melvyn Bragg on John RuskinOur Pick
- John Ruskin & William Morris - An aesthetics documentary by Peter Fuller
- Ruskin at 200: The Art Critic as Word-Painter
- The First Ecologist: John Ruskin
- Written in Stone: Ruskin and Venice