John Ruskin and Important Artists and Artworks
Dido building Carthage, or The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire (1815)
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."
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London
Loggia of the Ducal Palace, Venice (1849-50)
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.
Watercolor over graphite - The Met, New York
Convent Thoughts (1850-51)
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.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK
Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875)
Just as Ruskin had the power to build artists up, he could destroy them too. His fierce criticism of JAM Whistler caused him to instigate a court case that ultimately bankrupted him. This is one of six Nocturnes that the American artist painted depicting Cremorne Gardens in London. Much of the canvas depicts the night sky illuminated by fireworks, with the foggy night sky mixing with the billowing smoke of the fireworks. The foreground shows the banks of the River Thames, on which stand ghostlike figures, their transparency adding to the mystery of the work.
Ruskin hated it. He accused Whistler of stealing Turner's style and decried the fact that he was painting the seedier side of London. Ruskin saw industrial pollution as symptomatic of moral degeneracy and this painting as an affront. When the painting was put up for sale in 1877, Ruskin wrote: "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. In the court room he was asked if he thought the two days' labour he spent on Nocturne was worth the 200 guinea price tag. To applause he replied: "No. I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." Whistler won, but was awarded just a farthing in damages. The costs of the case financially ruined him, but the injury was not limited to Whistler. Ruskin's own inability to adapt to new styles damaged his reputation as a critic and many dismissed him as out of date; an enemy of modern art.
Oil on panel - The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, USA
The Strawberry Thief (1883)
This textile design is one of William Morris' most famous and the pattern shows the thrushes that stole the fruit from the garden of his Oxfordshire home. The fabric was printed by the indigo discharge method, an ancient and complex technique used for many centuries in the East. The intricate and stylized design reflects the aesthetics of Medieval revivalism to which Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement were closely aligned.
Morris discovered Ruskin's writings at university and became a devoted follower of his work. The men had a lot in common; Morris revered nature and motifs of flowers, leaves and birds proliferated in his designs. They were also both appalled by the industrial revolution and its consequences - mass production, unimaginative architecture, and a decline in artisanship. They advocated a return to craftsmanship, leading to the advent of the Arts and Crafts movement which, in turn, influenced many of the principles of Art Nouveau. As art historian E. H. Gombrich wrote: "Men like Morris and Ruskin dreamt of a thorough reform of the arts and crafts, and the replacement of cheap mass-production by conscientious and meaningful handiwork. The influence of their criticism was very widespread even though the humble handicrafts which they advocated proved, under modern conditions, to be the greatest of luxuries." This is exemplified by this fabric, which due to its artisan production techniques would have been prohibitively expensive for most people.
Furniture fabric - The Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The Three Tetons (1881)
Ruskin's influence also stretched across the Atlantic to artists in the United States. The American Landscape Painter Thomas Moran was heavily influenced by Ruskinian thought and sought to reproduce the divine in his epic paintings. In this work, his subject was the distinctive Three Tetons, the principle summits of the Wyoming Range. Inspired by Ruskin's teachings, Moran sought to follow the concept of "truth to nature" which proposed that the artist had a fundamental role connecting nature and society, and to do so he went on dangerous and challenging journeys to produce epic canvases that depicted the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains. Moran learned from Turner's paintings and following Ruskin's advice, made it his mission to "study nature carefully and reproduce her wonders accurately". Moran had been inspired by Modern Painters, and believed God was to be found in American topography.
In turn Ruskin was a big fan, and he wrote many admiring letters to Moran and brought his work to add to his private collection. Ruskin wrote: "[n]or are there any descriptions of the Valley of Diamonds, or the Lake of the Black Islands, in the 'Arabian Nights,' anything like so wonderful as the scenes of California and the Rocky Mountains which you may ... see represented with most sincere and passionate enthusiasm by the American landscape painter, Mr Thomas Moran." By the 1850s, Ruskin had more readers in America than he did in England and his theories helped to unify artists as art historian Joni Louise Kinsey notes: "Indeed, it was Ruskin's conjunction of art with morality, religion and nature that for a time, at about mid-century, brought a number of disparate trends in American aesthetics together into something approaching a consensus, artistically and nationalistically."
Oil on board - The Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, USA