John Ruskin (8 February 1819 to 20 January 1900) was one of the last great aesthetes. He was a hugely influential critic and the first Slade Professor of Fine Art. His best pronouncements come from the near invincible confidence he had in his own taste – later events, such as a barren marriage and a nasty libel suit, destroyed that early assurance. But he retained the sensible aesthetic view that “Taste is not only a part and an index of morality – it is the ONLY morality.”*
He took advantage of his natural advantages and developed his appreciations of the fine arts (painting, poetry, architecture) during wide travels through Europe where he fell in love with the central alps and the architecture of Venice that inspired his famous 3-volume The Stones of Venice. He was really one of the first important people to observe that Venice was in peril. He hated the idea of ‘restoration’ (his least favourite word), holding that preservation had to trump it.
“If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the World.”
Some picture Ruskin the critic as a curmudgeon but he was actually a modernist. For example, he wrote a massive defence of that notorious mess-maker, JWM Turner.
Only Ruskin could ascribe morality to buildings,, and he came up with seven of them: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience.^ He thought the Campanile of Giotto in Florence the only building in the world to contain all the elements of power and beauty:
Ruskin’s paintings combined pre-Raphaelite naturalism with a hint of embryonic impressionism dripping into the rather precise renderings. He’d liked several of works by J M Whistler that took such matters further, but there were limits, as we will see.
“All good work is essentially done…without hesitation, without difficulty, without boasting…”**
In 1877, Ruskin visited a contemporary art exhibition at the Grosvenor Galleries in London, featuring Whistler’s abstract Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875);
Ruskin wrote: “For Mr Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. 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 and “won”, but the award of damages was one farthing! He went broke from the court costs.
But Ruskin, a sensitive petal, was badly bruised by the whole experience, and slid into melancholy and dementia.
His last years were angry and befuddled but he left behind the records of his rocks – great art, great buildings and the granite edifice of his often contrary but passionate opinions.
[* The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), Lecture 2.] [**”The Mystery of Life and its Arts”, Lecture 3 from Sesame and Lilies (1865).] [^The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849).]