13. Unity

Good folks,

I’ve recently been re-reading Modern Painters II. Ruskin published it in 1846 when he was 27. His first volume in the Modern Painters series had been printed three years before (there would be five volumes by the time the set completed in 1860). In that initial book, he had argued that the British landscapist, J. M. W. Turner–then in something of a trough in critics’ minds because they couldn’t understand and, hence, didn’t like, his recent paintings–was not only a great painter but one of the greatest painters who had ever lived. As would become his hallmark, Ruskin embedded his arguments in prose pictures which mesmerized readers (recall, in our last post, Virginia Woolf’s remark that reading Modern Painters was like having all the fountains of the English language set bubbling at once). The intent of Modern Painters II was to make Turner’s greatness all the more visible and indubitable. To accomplish this, he, Ruskin, would create, in the first half of his book, a theory of The Beautiful which would provide any viewer of paintings with a cognitive tool which would allow them to know when they were in Beauty’s greater or lesser presence. The second half of the book generates a Theory of Imagination, Ruskin’s purpose being to show how that quality always infuses the greatest art, is, in fact, the criterion that elevates any given painting into that applause worthy pantheon. Then, after having worked out these ideas in tightly reasoned chapters into what, a century and half and more later still seem (at least to this reader), to be unassailable arguments, he would prove Turner’s superiority by demonstrating (by comparing one painting with another) that his compatriot’s works were, by far, the most beautiful and most imaginative in history. (Ruskin championed the work of other artists–Tintoretto, for instance–in this work as well.)–All of which reminds me that I must post an instance of “Ruskin on Turner” soon!

But, all that, interesting as I hope it is, is not really what I wanted to show in this post! I wanted to show how, as a simple matter of course, Ruskin’s genius shimmers on every page he ever wrote, even, as in this instance, in paragraphs which aren’t “central” to the general argument he is developing. It was this quality of surprising your mind and firing your imagination at any moment that readers loved. No one, as Mary Russell Mitford pointed out a few posts ago, had ever written in such a way before. The present bit, about how, in essence, we are all united with one another in love is one of these “random” examples. (Again, I underscore–see first post–that there are hundreds of such passages nestling in Ruskin’s pages, just waiting to jump out and delight us!). The sentences appear in Chapter VI of Modern Painters, “Of Typical Beauty”:

  And so there is not in any matter, nor any spirit, nor any creature, but it is capable of a unity of some kind with other creatures. And in that unity is its perfection and theirs, and a pleasure for the beholding of all others. And so the unity of spirits is partly in their sympathy and partly in their giving and taking; and always in their love. And these are their delight and their strength. For their strength is in their co-working and…fellowship; and their delight is in the giving and receiving of alternate and perpetual good, their inseparable dependency on each other’s being… And so the unity of earthly creatures is [in] their power and their peace. Not the dead and cold peace of undisturbed stone and solitary mountains, but the living peace of trust, and the living power of support–of hands that hold each other and are still.

Until next time. Spring is coming, slowly!



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