Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day/John Ruskin
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Mr. John Ruskin was born in London in 1819. He gained the Newdigate Prize for English verse at Oxford in 1839. Four years afterwards, in 1843, the first volume of his great work, 'Modern Painters,' appeared. The object with which the book was begun was a very noble one. It was to defend an old man and very great artist from the attacks of critics, who neither understood Turner's pictures nor his art. On its first appearance the book was rather scoffed at; but as it contained great truths about art, expressed in language of unsurpassed purity and eloquence, it soon made its way into circles beyond the reach of the critics. Three years afterwards, the second volume of 'Modern Painters' was published. Ten years after that, the third volume appeared; and it was not until 1860 that the book was completed.
Altogether, seventeen years elapsed between the first appearance of 'Modern Painters' and the completion of this great work.
It would be impossible in a small space to give a clear analysis of the contents of the five volumes of which it is composed. The motive for the publication of the first volume we have stated. This was the vindication of the greatest genius the English school of painters has produced from the calumnies of the then existing writers on art.
Turner was the butt of their ignorance. The only element necessary to the composition of a critic they seem to have possessed was an acquaintance with the art of penmanship. That generation has passed away; and we may thank Mr. Ruskin for having left the race of art-critics who have taken the place of the writers of 1843 no excuse for being ignorant of the elements or sources of pleasure in art—ideas of truth, of beauty, and of relation.'In these books of mine,' says their author, 'their distinctive character as essays on art is their bringing everything to a root in a human passion or hope;' and he adds that they arose first, 'not in any desire to explain
the principles of art, but in the endeavour to defend an individual painter from injustice.'
In that endeavour, it is now almost superfluous to say, the book was entirely successful. The high prices that Turner's latest and less generally admired pictures brought in his own lifetime, and the magnificent sums that even drawings of a few inches square from his hand have been sold for since his death, prove the efficiency of Ruskin's advocacy.
He did 'defend an individual painter from injustice'—that painter the greatest of his age with a penetration into the hidden truths of art; a critical insight invaluable and perhaps unique; a clearness of argument, a splendour of imaginative illustration, and an eloquence and purity of diction, which have hardly been surpassed by any English writer. No inconsiderable part of the estimation in which the works of the miserly and eccentric genius—a barber's son, who saw scarlet in the sky—are held to-day among the dilettanti is the result of Ruskin's criticism upon them.
The author of 'Modern Painters' is not only the first among English art-critics, but he is the first of them. Before his time, no writer on art of our country had a European reputation. The name of Reynolds was well known, it is true, in connection not only with his works as a painter, but with his 'Discourses' delivered when he was President of the Academy; but although these lectures contained much information gathered during a long and laborious study of art, they are, after all, but a text-book for students, and owe their modern reputation to the simple and chaste style in which they are written, and the excellent advice they give to young artists, rather than to any pretensions either to elevated criticism or masterly acquaintance with the whole of the wide subject on which they treat.
We once heard a bishop recommend their perusal to a number of young men whom he had ordained, as models for their sermons, on the ground that Sir Joshua's celebrated 'Discourses' contained 'very fine moral precepts, besides being written in very elegant English.'
This was true. Though the President's lectures had neither the fire of Burke, nor the wit and power of Johnson, they possessed great literary merit, and were as much above the art-writers of their day as Ruskin's 'Modern Painters' was above the criticism of 1843.
At the present day there are many competent writers on art topics who furnish the critiques on recent exhibitions to the papers and magazines; but a quarter of a century ago ignorance of the principles and practice of art seems to have been a passport to the post of art-critic.
On a most influential North-of-England paper, furnished for many years with independent reports on all matters of importance, this post of art-critic—being, as it was thought, easy and desirable—went by seniority: the oldest reporter got it. And we well remember hearing an anecdote of a respectable parliamentary reporter of the paper to whom the post of art and theatrical critic was offered. He accepted it as a matter of course. Being conscientious, he thought a little knowledge necessary, and asked a friend a few days after, 'What does' (naming a great musician) 'charge a lesson, do you know?' 'Good dear me, F—, why, at your time of life, you are never going to learn the fiddle!' 'No,' was the reply; 'but I've got to do the music and so on for the "—— Guardian," and I mean to take two or three lessons, for I know no more of music than a cow.'
We believe that the London papers of thirty or forty years ago were dealt with in much the same way; and a number of intelligent and honest gentlemen, who knew no more of painting than a cow, 'did' the criticisms. And nothing is easier than to parade the jargon of art language—to talk of light, shade, and effect, chiaroscuro, distance, colour, hardness, softness, tint, and so on through the critic's vocabulary.
How differently Ruskin went to work! He studied hard: learned to paint under J. D. Harding and Copley Fielding, and then, when he was familiar with the methods by which effects are produced—in a word, an artist himself—he wrote about art.
How carefully he laboured to acquire knowledge in his favourite pursuit may be illustrated by this simple confession. The winter,' he says, 'was spent mainly in trying to get at the mind of Titian—not a light winter's task; of which the issue, being in many ways very unexpected to me, necessitated my going in the spring to Berlin to see Titian's portrait of Lavinia there, and to Dresden to see "The Tribute Money," the elder Lavinia, and Girl in White with the flag fan. Another portrait at Dresden of a lady in a dress of rose and gold—by me unheard of before—and one of an admiral at Munich, had like to have kept me in Germany all the summer.'
How different such work as this from that of the critic who learnt harmony and thorough bass in three lessons, and then thought fit to
Assume the god—
on the merits of every new composition! But those times have probably gone by for ever, as far as the better class of London journals is concerned, though the artistic and literary criticism of country papers is at this day funny in the extreme.
We have said that the first volume of Ruskin's great work met with an indifferent reception at the hands of the literary critics of the year 1843. But the book made its way—indeed, it was impossible that it should be otherwise—and its author became famous. One axiom forms the basis of the work: 'The art is greatest which conveys the greatest number of great ideas.' The first volume shows what painters have best imitated Nature. The second treats of Beauty, typical and vital. Perhaps this volume contains the finest of Ruskin's writing. The subject, almost illimitable, is treated with a master's hand. The author of 'Modern Painters' has produced a book which has no parallel in any European language. It is impossible here to do any justice even to an outline of its contents, and we do not attempt it, but refer our readers to the book itself.
So far, we have spoken chiefly of his magnum opus. Mr. Ruskin's other works are, 'Seven Lamps of Architecture,' 1849; 'The Stones of Venice,' 1851-53; 'Construction of Sheepfolds;' 'Two Paths;' 'Harbours of England;' ' Political Economy of Art;' 'Unto this Last;' 'Sesame and Lilies;' 'Ethics of Dust;' 'Kings' Treasuries and Queens' Gardens;' 'War, Commerce, and Work;' 'Letters to a Working Man;' 'A Wreath of Wild Olives.'
There is no more honoured name in contemporary English literature than that of John Ruskin. In his books he has discharged the noblest functions of a writer; but it were enough to make him famous in his generation had he done no more than teach our Philistine art-critics what is the true standard to which art criticism should be raised.