21: Ruskin’s Art

Fine Folks,

Thus far, I’ve shared quite a few of Ruskin’s thoughts about life, society, and nature. But so far we haven’t looked at any of his wonderful and considerable body of art, art which he created throughout his long life. This post is a first attempt at rectifying that unconscionable omission. (Future posts will hopefully ameliorate the omission further.) As I hope what’s below will suggest and, to some degree, show, Ruskin (I am hardly the first to say so!) was an artist of significant stature, a creator of images of great beauty and sensitivity.

It is in this context that I want to note that there is, at present, a chance, particularly if you are or will be soon on the eastern side of the Atlantic waters, to see a remarkable display of his art, arguably the best collection of our subject’s drawings and paintings ever assembled. The show has been curated by Christopher Newall, not just a world-expert on Ruskin’s art, but the much applauded curator of past shows focusing on the work of the group of 19th century painters (whom Ruskin much applauded) known as The Pre-Raphaelites (if you are interested, the catalogs for two of his Pre-Raphaelite shows, Victorian Watercolors and Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature are easily available on the web).

“John Ruskin: Artist and Observer” is currently on view at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and will remain there until September 28. (For more details, click on the Page, “A Ruskin Calendar” listed just beneath the pictures at the top of this page. Once you arrive on the Page, left click on the event and those details will appear.) Here is a review (one of many in the same positive vein) of the show designed to whet your appetite. Written while the show was in The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, it is by Victorian scholar George Landow. Replete with images of some of the marvelous pictures in the show (different from those below), the review was first (and still is) posted on “The Victorian Web” (one of the websites, by the way, which I highly recommend for more information on Ruskin; see the link to it above on my Page–also underneath this site’s banner pictures–“Ruskin Resources”):

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer: George Landow

At this point, it would be silly to say much more. What’s needed are some visuals which will give you some idea how splendid Ruskin’s art was. So: following are six images, all of which (save one, the last) are on “real world” view, along with 135 others (!) in Edinburgh. I have chosen these few because, together, they give a good sense of the range of subjects Ruskin, always working in pen and ink or watercolor, was capable of capturing.

The first is a watercolor of the north side of the Cathedral of St. Wulfran’s in Abbeville, France, a small city near Amiens, about fifty miles due north of Paris. What makes the 1845 painting particularly notable, beyond its striking use of color and unique choice of perspective, is its ability to serve as a record of life as it was lived in the middle of the 19th century in provincial France. Note especially the then more-than-half-a-millennium-old medieval street scene in the lower right. If you go to Abbeville today (as I have), you will unfortunately find that all of these wonderful street buildings have disappeared in “favor” of a lackluster modern complex, and that virtually all of the cathedral’s north wall which Ruskin shows us here is in ruins, both tragedies products of another, much larger one: the Allied bombing campaign of World War II.


Ruskin’s love of the colors of nature was unparalleled. As a result, it is hardly surprising that he adored sunrises and sunsets. Glowing descriptions of them appear throughout his works, often “intruding” in essays on subjects as diverse as the right way to educate, the origin of Greek myths, or a critique of the current (to his mind, always deserving of critque) ecclesiastical practices of England, each “intrusion” making these discussions all the more delightful, “full of delight”. Indeed, surprise is one of the great pleasures one has while reading Ruskin. Suddenly, when he’s got you, say, thinking hard about the importance of geography in shaping Europe’s cultures, the next sentence or paragraph becomes like a beacon rotating fully around, lighting up your imagination and thought about the subject at hand and sunsets in ways you never could have expected. Once you have read a few of these shining sentences, it becomes simply impossible not to take the time necessary to stop and watch these special risings and settings whenever time and chance put them in your way.

The next watercolor, however, Sunrise, London, 1868, is a less happy instance of these painted lovelinessesBeautiful in color variation and shading, Ruskin drew the picture during a time when he was increasingly convinced that rampantly industrializing England was, by means of the smoke and pollutants it was churning out by the billions of bits every day, literally beginning to block out the sun and its life-giving goodness.


While the essence of this Post is celebratory, another Ruskin drawing in the Edinburgh show is important to note, his Self-Portrait, 1873. (Curator Newall uses it to anchor the show.) As the sunset painting above suggests, as his years lengthened, Ruskin was given to ever-deepening despair, the cause of the sadness being his growing certainty that his contemporaries were, at breakneck speed, wantonly destroying  the beauties and nurturant qualities of the earth for pelf, while, at the same time, determinedly ignoring all of his writings, the prime purpose of which had been to warn them against social and environmental disasters already worsening and motivate them to prevent still greater ones from coming into being. By 1884, his fury at the despoliation overflowed in a pair of lectures (some of the very greatest in a long career of same), “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century.” Delivered at the London Institute,  the core of his argument was to document, using meticulous meteorological records he had kept for forty years, the crippling of nature being created in the wake of the hard, cruel march known as the Industrial Revolution. You can read these remarkable lectures, truly among the first and most important salvos in what we now think of as the environmentalist movement, should you be interested, here: Ruskin: Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century. (Once on the site, click on the option to “Read this book on-line: HTML.”) One of the most heart-rending things about the self-portrait, created for Ruskin’s American friend, Harvard Professor Charles Eliot Norton, is that you can see the despair taking root on the right (actually left) side of his face. By the time his working and writing life ended in 1889, if there had been another self-portrait, the artist, his conviction by then much more advanced that his advice had been ignored and persuaded that he had failed miserably in his life’s mission, would very likely have painted the entirety of his face dark.



On a much brighter note, there is this astonishing Peacock Feather, painted, interestingly enough, in the same year as the Self-Portrait–1873–proof positive that, despite his intensifying despondency, Ruskin’s delighted side, especially his passionate love of nature, was still alive and well. What is marvelously on view in this picture is his ability to find, in nature’s tiniest things, splendors missed by almost everyone else. Such drawings were, for him, studies, not art per se, a way to get to the living essence of the thing depicted. (Ruskin never considered himself an “artist” and never drew or painted anything for sale.) For us, it is a wonderful lesson about something we may have missed, and, even better, if such missing has indeed been the case, a lesson about not missing such diminutive glories any more.

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And then there is architecture, about Ruskin’s studious mastery of which and his commonly acknowledged status as the greatest architectural critic of his age, this site has been also grievously mute (more, I promise, approaching). His love of buildings, like his love of nature, began early. His first book, in fact, was titled The Poetry of Architecture, and appeared first as a series of articles in an architectural magazine in 1837-38 when he was still in his precocious late teens. A decade later, in 1847, taking a conceptual break after the widespread celebration of the second volume of his Modern Painters series, he published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, a book which almost immediately became the thoughtful book of the year in England’s literary, art, and architectural circles. This drawing of The East End of Santa Maria del Spina in Pisa, completed during his Italian sojourn of 1845, was one of the “studies” he had undertaken for the book. Its detail is almost endlessly fascinating to examine and, as importantly, like the drawing of the Cathedral of St. Wulfran in Abbeville above, it serves as an accurate historical record of what this majestic small church looked like before more ravages of time and restorers had their way with it.   

Ruskin 00740

A taste then, the pictures above, of some of the remarkable instances of Ruskin’s art on current display in Edinburgh. If these are not enough to entice those of you who have at least the chance of attending this show before it closes, you can find even more inspiration to go there by watching the video below, filmed while the show was at the National Gallery of Canada, which accompanies Curator Christopher Newall on a brief walk-through of the show, a video with, I’m pleased to report, highlights still more magnificent and different reproductions of Ruskin’s art. Here’s the link:


I said above that all the images I would include in this Post, save one, would be from the show in Edinburgh. The one below, our last, is the one reserved: Ruskin’s astonishing watercolor of The Falls at Schaffhausen, Switzerland, drawn during yet another trip to the Continent, this one in 1842. To the accuracy of this surging, swirling painting, I can attest from a visit of my own to this spot on the Rhine’s banks some few years ago. As is easily imaginable, the Schaffhausen falls have been a favorite, not to say a striking, challenge for artists for centuries, including the painter Ruskin championed as the greatest Western civilization had ever produced, J. M. W. Turner–more on this favoring in later posts too. (For other renderings of the Falls, including Turner’s, see: https://www.google.com/search?q=schaffhausen+falls+paintings&rls=com.microsoft:en-US&rlz=1I7MXGB_enUS512&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=DGXVU7-yD9KdyASNnYKgBw&ved=0CCwQsAQ&biw=1366&bih=673). Ruskin’s praise of Turner’s work occasioned a number of London meetings with the great landscapist and his young advocate. During one of these, a dinner at the Ruskin family home in South London, Ruskin, then in his early twenties, overcame his shyness and showed Turner this painting. Upon seeing it, the elder master remarked that it was “very good indeed,” a picture so good, he said, that he wished he had painted himself.


But the real reason for including this remarkable image as our final one is to suggest that today’s Post has but brushed the surface of the wonderful cache which is John Ruskin’s art.

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