It took me some little while to decide which passage to use for this, the first of our second hundred of Mr. Ruskin’s wisdoms. The choice was difficult for the not very surprising reason, at least to those of you who have been following this site for some time, that, even though a hundred (and more) of Ruskin’s thoughts have made their way onto the web via the vehicle of this blog (I still dislike this odd technoword, but I guess there’s no help for it!), there remain hundreds more that are eminently worthy of a place in cyberspace and, more importantly, for your consideration.
As it happened, at least a dozen passages, some petitioned for selection, some rather stridently. In the end, I chose one which reflects, I believe beautifully, one of Ruskin’s deepest convictions: that in Nature lies our ground, our inspiration, our salve, and, should we decide him right in this view, our salvation. (After almost four years of posting, not to mention a quarter century more during which I tried to convince others using various other means that Ruskin does indeed speak truth in this matter, I have found that, although not a few love this or that passage, and many agree pretty much wholeheartedly that he is right in his criticisms of the social world in which we live, this “nature stuff” plays weakly in our increasingly high-tech age; I find it ironic, too, that this same high-tech is the vehicle I am now using to affect the convincing!)
I ended our last (Post 100) with one of our subject’s most beautifully composed paragraphs informing us of the necessity of allowing nature into our lives. Today, with the happily accepted aid of Claude Monet, Victor Chocquet, and two fine poets, Gabriel Meyer and Dante, I try to make the case once more.
It is just past dawn. Paris. A fine summer day in the 1880s. Claude Monet, the painter, is up. He walks over to peer out his hotel room window. What he sees delights him. The window affords him an expansive view of the city’s famous garden, Les Tuileries. Already there the light is soft and lovely. He will be soon painting in these gardens. He is not yet sure what his subject will be, but he knows he will find something sweet, something majestic, to render.
A knock at the door. Opening it, Monet discovers his good friend, Victor Chocquet. Last night, before they bid each other goodnight at the restaurant where they had dined, they had agreed to meet for breakfast. M. Chocquet is a not-very-important functionary at the Ministry of Finance here in Paris. What distinguishes him is the fact that, for more than a decade now, he has been avidly collecting the “new art” of the time, buying up, as his thin purse allows, not only Monet’s works, but those of Delacroix, Renoir, and Cézanne. The artists are not yet widely known yet, so their canvases remain affordable, if barely. Chocquet is in utterly in love with these works. He is friends with most of the painters. Some years ago Cezanne painted his portrait. He was embarrassed, but honored and very proud. Around the same time, he saw Renoir’s portrait of Monet and dearly wanted to buy it. But he lost it to another aficionado with deeper pockets. Today, Monet, whom he hasn’t seen in months, has promised to show him his most recent works. Surely he will buy one if he can. But he is frustrated. He is a half-hour late. The extra wine last night.
With a smile, Monet invites him in, eager to show his patron the shimmering, glorious garden beneath. He takes Chocquet to the window, excitedly telling him to look (the rising sun light has already altered the view)! Chocquet gazes out. Then turns to Monet, a quizzical look on his face.
“One watches and waits,”
the painter told Chocquet.
“One sees nothing at first,
but everything is there.”
–Gabriel Meyer, A Map of Shadows
A little more than forty years before, John Ruskin had been up in his hotel room even earlier than Monet. Immediately after washing, he had dressed, gone out and, in the pre-dawn dark, had energetically set out for the peak of one of his favorite mountains near Lucerne, a spot which affords a panoramic view of the entire region–the city, the plain,the rivers and lakes, the breath-taking Alps. Kindly, his good hotelier had packed a light lunch for his excursion, which will last the day. In the early evening, he will return to the hotel to dine with his parents, John James and Margaret and his cousin, Mary Richardson, who have been exploring the Continent with him ever since they left England, a month before. The dinner will be followed by an early retirement because Ruskin has already planned to rise at four the next morning so that he can ascend to the same summit for a second sunrise. Arriving at the summit on this morning, he looks for a wide, flat rock on which he can sit. Once he has settled himself comfortably, he watches. Two years later (1843), the description of what he will see this day and during the morning to come will appear in the first of what will be his five-volume Modern Painters series. His description of just one day watching nature unfold its wonders will be just one of the many passages in the book which will make him famous throughout Britain, the Continent, and not much later, North America.
Stand upon the peak of some isolated mountain at daybreak, when the night mists first rise from off the plains, and watch their white and lake-like fields as they float in level bays and winding gulfs about the islanded summits of the lower hills, untouched as yet by more than dawn, colder and more quiet than a windless sea under the moon of midnight.
Watch, when the first sunbeam is sent upon the silver channels, how the foam of their undulating surface parts, and passes away, while, down under their depths, the glittering city and green pasture lie, like Atlantis, between the white paths of the winding rivers, the flakes of light falling every moment faster and broader among the starry spires, as the wreathed surges break and vanish above them, and the confused crests and ridges of the dark hills shorten their gray shadows upon the plain.
Wait a little longer and you shall see those scattered mists rallying in the ravines, and floating up toward you along the winding valleys, till they couch in quiet masses, iridescent with the morning light upon the broad breasts of the higher hills, whose leagues of undulation will melt back into that robe of material light, until they fade away, lost in its luster, to appear again, above, in the serene heaven, like a wild, bright, impossible dream, foundationless and inaccessible, their very bases vanishing in the unsubstantial and mocking blue of the deep lake below. Wait yet a little longer, and you shall see those mists gather themselves into white towers, to stand like fortresses along the promontories, massy and motionless–only piled with every instant higher and higher into the sky, and casting longer shadows athwart the rocks.
And, then, out of the pale blue of the horizon you will see forming and advancing a troop of narrow, dark, pointed vapors which will cover the sky, inch by inch, with their gray network, and take the light off the landscape with an eclipse which will stop the singing of the birds and motion of the leaves together. And, then, you will see horizontal bars of black shadow forming under them and lurid wreaths creating themselves (you know not how) among the shoulders of the hills. You never see them form; but when you look back to a place which was clear an instant ago, there is a cloud on it, hanging by the precipices, as a hawk pauses over his prey. And then you will hear the sudden rush of the awakened wind, and you will see those watch-towers of vapor swept away from their foundations, and waving curtains of opaque rain let down to the valleys, swinging from the burdened clouds in black bending fringes, or pacing in pale columns along the lake level, grazing its surface into foam as they go.
And then, as the sun sinks, you shall see the storm drift for an instant off the hills, leaving their broad sides smoking, while loaded yet with snow-white torn, stream-like rags of capricious vapor—now gone, now gathered again—while the smoldering sun, seeming not far away, but burning like a red-hot ball beside you as if you could reach it, plunges through the rushing wind and rolling cloud with headlong fall, as if it meant to rise no more, dying all the air about with blood.
And, then, you shall hear the fainting tempest die in the hollow of the night, and you shall see a green halo kindling on the summit of the eastern hills—then brighter, and brighter yet–till the large white circle of the slow moon is lifted up among the barred clouds step by step, line by line. Star after star she quenches with her kindling light, setting in their stead an army of pale, penetrable, fleecy wreaths in the heaven, to give lights upon the earth, which move together, hand in hand, company by company, troop by troop, so measured in their unity of motion that the whole heaven seems to roll with them.
And, then, wait for yet one hour more, until the east again becomes purple, and the heaving mountains, rolling against it in darkness, like the waves of a wild sea, are drowned one by one in the glory of its burning. Watch the glaciers blaze in their winding paths about the mountains, like mighty serpents with scale of fire. Watch the columnar peaks of solitary snow kindling downwards, chasm by chasm, each in itself a new morning, their long avalanches cast down in keen streams brighter than the lightening, sending a tribute of driven snow, like alter-smoke, up to the heaven, the rose light of their silent domes flushing the heaven about them, and above them, piercing with purer light through its purple lines of lifted cloud, casting a new glory on every wreath as it passes by, until the whole heaven, one scarlet canopy, is interwoven with a roof of waving flame and tossing, vault beyond vault, as with the drifted wings of many companies of angels.
Always in such passages Ruskin is trying to show us how Nature, given just a smidgen of the attention it deserves, has an abiding capacity to saturate us with delight. It is as if, having gone to the trouble of creating itself, it desires that a part of itself, the only part capable of appreciating it as it should be appreciated, will take time to look at it. He said as much, very directly, in a passage cited long ago (our second post: “The Wondrous Sky”) In fact, there “is not a moment of any day of our lives when nature is not producing scene after scene, picture after picture, glory after glory, and working still upon such exquisite and constant principles of the most perfect beauty that it is quite certain it is all done for us, and intended for our perpetual pleasure. And every man, wherever placed, however far from other sources of interest or of beauty, has this doing for him constantly.”
The painter and the bureaucrat go down to breakfast. As they eat and have their coffee, Chocquet is noticeably and increasingly nervous. Seeing this, Monet asks him why. Because I must be at my work soon, Chocquet replies. I want so much to see your paintings and now I think it is too late. No matter, the painter says. We shall have dinner tonight and you shall see them after. We shall have less wine!
Mollified, but delighted by the generous proposal, a few minutes later, Chocquet is hurrying through the streets toward his (invariably uninteresting) tasks at the Ministry. Monet, one of the earth’s blessed few who can create their own days, returns to this room, gathers his painting paraphernalia, and walks to the Tuileries. As he enters the gardens, he passes through some sculpted iron-gates. The beautifully rendered figures there give him pause. They remind him of Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, that goodly spirit who, each morning, after having renewed herself with the central energy of creation, crisscrosses the sky, announcing the immanent return of the sun, reminding us that, very soon, the beauties of this coming day, some recurring, some wholly new, will make themselves visible.
She stood, unperceived
In the wet shadows
by the angels
of the garden’s wrought-iron gates.
–Gabriel Meyer, A Map of Shadows
He walks on. Half an hour later, he has still not found his subject. This is unusual. Over the years, he has learned to trust his creative process, knowing that in due course he will be brought to his proper subject, just as a bee, in its due course, is brought to the flower with the finest nectar. He sits by a resplendent flower bed. Bees at their work. Glorious, but not, today, he thinks, right. He walks on again. Sits again, this time by a marvelous tree-shaded pathway. The colors and shapes transfix him for some minutes. No, not right either. Various people, en route to their pre-determined days, pass. He watches them. They do not notice him.
The young stroll soundless on the terrace
heedless of the pleasures that they pass.
With what charm he flings his cigarette
into the bright, wet grass.
–Gabriel Meyer, A Map of Shadows
Then, suddenly, as so often happens, it comes. Of all the marvelous sights he has seen this morning, the most beautiful was his view, as the sun rose, of the Tuileries from his window. Twenty minutes later, he is in back in the room, gazing out the window. Yes, this is right. He sets up his easel, places his canvas on it, gets out his brushes and palate, and sets to painting. He will paint all day, knowing that, when he does not come down again, his kindly hotelier will send up a small lunch, probably around one.
Hours later, the sun begins its descent. As agreed, he and Chocquet meet for dinner at their favorite place. The pair share stories about their respective days, Chocquet self-effacing about his own, but exceptionally eager to hear of Monet’s. After refusing the regularly consumed second bottle of claret for coffee, Monet takes his excited friend up to his room. He wants most to show him this day’s painting, still not dry on the easel. In an instant, Chocquet says he will buy it. How much does Monet wish for it? The artist, just recently much more secure because of the improving sales of his works, mentions a sum much lower than what he might ask of someone who had not been a long-time patron and friend. Quickly, Chocquet does some inner calculations, determines that, once he sets aside so much for his monthly living expenses, he can just afford the picture with what remains of his unlavish salary. Both are delighted. Monet tells Chocquet that he will be happy to wait the two weeks until his friend is paid again. In the meantime, Chocquet is welcome to come and collect the painting two days hence, once today’s paint has had time to dry.
A hundred and thirty years later, long after Chocquet’s brief possession of the painting has ended (he will die in 1891), Monet’s picture of a portion of the Tuileries garden as seen from his hotel window will fetch more than seventy-five million dollars at auction.
The lamp that shines through
all the vaults of heaven is lit in us.
–Dante, Paradiso, Canto V, ls. 118-9
Until next time.
Be well out there!