Ruskin, John

views updated May 17 2018


RUSKIN, JOHN (1819–1900), major British critic of art and architecture and influential political writer.

John Ruskin was born in London on 8 February 1819, the only child of Scottish parents who had settled in London and made good. His parents were powerful influences, for good and ill, in his life. His mother was an evangelical Christian who destined her son for a career in the Church of England, and from infancy he was made to read and memorize the Bible with this formidable and extremely narrow matriarch. Margaret Ruskin adored her son, but she smothered him emotionally, and many of the sexual and psychological problems that dogged his later life can reasonably be seen as having their roots in her unwise treatment of him.

Ruskin's father, John James Ruskin, was very different. An extremely wealthy wine merchant and typical Victorian self-made man, John James was widely read in the literature of his young manhood (especially Sir Walter Scott [1771–1832] and Lord Byron [George Gordon Byron, 1788–1824]), and he was a willing patron of the arts; by the 1860s his collection of paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) was the most important in the world. John James Ruskin acted in effect as John Ruskin's editor and literary agent, eagerly promoting his brilliant son's writing, paying for publication of his work, and in a sense acting as his son's personal assistant. John James's death in 1864 removed an essential prop from Ruskin's life. Margaret's death in 1871, by contrast, removed an impediment. Only when he was rid of her could Ruskin, now a very rich man, set up his own home, at Brantwood on Lake Coniston, where he spent the happiest periods of what remained of his very troubled life.

As a parvenu and tradesman, John James was determined to buy social status for his son by sending him to Christ Church, Oxford, as a "gentleman commoner" (a status normally reserved for aristocrats). John Ruskin's social radicalism, which came to dominate his work after 1860, may be said to date back to his judgments on the manners and morals of these arrogant young men from the ruling class who were his familiars at Oxford.

In 1843 Ruskin, aged only twenty-four, became famous with the publication of first volume of Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters. This huge study, published in five volumes between 1843 and 1860, proclaimed itself from its opening pages as the work of a young lion determined to sweep away established attitudes to, and preferences for, painting. Turner's late paintings were misunderstood by reviewers in the early 1840s, and the strength of Ruskin's work was to argue that Turner's work displayed the natural world as God had made it. This appeal to creationist theology gave Ruskin's revolution irresistible authority in the eyes of the new middle class (people like his father) who had the money to buy art. Turner's reputation and fortune were made by Ruskin, and within a few years the careers of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (Dante Gabriel Rossetti [1828–1882], Holman Hunt [1827–1910], and John Everett Millais [1829–1896]) were also established in effect by Ruskin's hugely influential advocacy.

With The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851–1853), Ruskin became as powerful a critic of architecture as he was of painting. The central argument was, again, couched in an appeal to Christian authority: the Gothic style was the style of the early, humble, Christian world, and was therefore the right style for any building which wished to be taken seriously. The point of Gothic architecture for Ruskin was that it was democratic, flexible, and universal. He also managed to argue that it was instinctively "Protestant," despite the fact that the great exemplar of the form, medieval Venice, was, obviously, rooted in Catholic Europe. He arrived at this position on Venetian Gothic by a historical sleight-of-hand: because Venice of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries was a republic and politically independent of the papacy, it could be seen in this argument as the forerunner of the Protestant resistance to Rome that developed in northern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An extraordinary example of Ruskinian Gothic is the Oxford University Museum, created by Ruskin's friend Henry Acland (1815–1900, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford) in the 1850s. Ruskin's arguments ensured that a building based on the style of medieval structures devoted to Christianity was considered the obvious, and ideal, place for the study of geology, medicine, and the natural sciences, despite the fact that in the eyes of Oxford Movement theologians (such as Edward Bouverie Pusey [1800–1882]) science was the mortal enemy of religion.

In 1858 Ruskin lost his faith. He underwent what he called an "unconversion" in Turin, and from 1860 onward he devoted himself substantially to politics, especially in his brilliant and provocative essays published as Unto This Last (1861), which famously contains his anticapitalist battle-cry "There is no Wealth but Life." Ruskin followed this with his grand political project published serially from 1871 until the 1880s (with interruptions), called Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. Concurrently with these political and social writings he created his own utopia in the Guild of St. George, a medieval-style agrarian society designed to offer a radical alternative to the hard and aggressive competitiveness of mainstream Victorian capitalism. He also served as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford from 1869 to 1878 and again from 1883 to 1885.

Ruskin's personal life was notoriously unhappy. His marriage to Effie Gray in 1848 was annulled on the grounds of nonconsummation in 1854, and Effie then married Ruskin's former friend and protégé Millais (Millais went on to huge commercial fame and success, and he and Effie had eight children). His intense friendship with Rossetti was cruelly disappointing; Ruskin lavished money and affection on Rossetti, who responded with what is reasonable to regard as callous ingratitude and insensitivity. Later he was to lavish similar patronage on Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–1898), who was more responsive (and greatly benefited from Ruskin's support). In the late 1850s Ruskin fell in love with a little girl, Rose La Touche (she was ten years old), for whom he nurtured a consuming passion until Rose's early death in 1875. He suffered a period of complete insanity in 1878 and thereafter seems to have suffered bipolar disorder punctuated by periods of raving and violent derangement. His cousin Joan Severn became his companion and, when he was really mad, custodian, in these later years. Despite his illness, Ruskin wrote his magnificent and indispensable autobiography, Praeterita (1885–1889). This was his last work: he was silent for the last ten years of his life and died at Brantwood in 1900.

The opposition to capitalism set out in Unto This Last and Fors Clavigera made Ruskin hugely popular with late Victorian socialists, especially his disciple William Morris (1834–1896). Through Morris, Ruskin's work came to be seen in the 1890s as a bible of modern socialism. Ruskin was the central Victorian philanthropist, a man who could not find happiness for himself but passionately believed that it could be available to others. His influence is still seen in Victorian painting and architecture, and felt in the policies of successive socialist governments from the early days of the British Labour Party (the first Labour MPs named Ruskin as their leading influence). His intellectual and political heirs worldwide included Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Marcel Proust (1871–1922), and Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948).

See alsoMorris, William; Pre-Raphaelite Movement; Turner, J. M. W.


Batchelor, John. John Ruskin: No Wealth but Life. London, 2000.

Birch, Dinah. Ruskin's Myths. Oxford, U.K., 1988.

——. Ruskin on Turner. London, 1990.

Blau, Eve. Ruskinian Gothic: The Architecture of Deane and Woodward, 1845–1861. Princeton, N.J., 1982.

Hewison, Robert. John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye. Princeton, N.J., 1976.

Hilton, Tim. John Ruskin. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1985, 2000.

Wheeler, Michael. Ruskin's God. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.

John Batchelor

John Ruskin

views updated May 14 2018

John Ruskin

The English critic and social theorist John Ruskin (1819-1900) more than any other man shaped the esthetic values and tastes of Victorian England. His writings combine enormous sensitivity and human compassion with a burning zeal for moral value.

John Ruskin's principal insight was that art is an expression of the values of a society. Though he sometimes applied this insight in a narrow—even a bigoted—way, it nevertheless gave him an almost messianic sense of the significance of art to the spiritual wellbeing of a nation. Ruskin awakened an age of rapid change, uncertain taste, and frequently shoddy workmanship to the meaning of art. But because art was for Ruskin the evidence of society's underlying state of being, he gradually turned his attention, with a reformer's zeal, more and more from art to the transformation of society itself. Though his prose tracts were much abused, they were important and influential contributions to radical criticism of the dominant social and political philosophy of the age. Ruskin's art criticism found the most likely focus to interest a people whose leading concerns were more moral than esthetic.

Ruskin was born on Feb. 8, 1819, in London. His parents were of Scottish descent and were first cousins. His father was a well-to-do wine merchant with a fondness for art. His mother was stern and devout. Both parents lavished attention and supervision on their only child, recognizing his precociousness, but Ruskin's childhood was isolated and his education irregular. He was encouraged in reading, however, and received some instruction in art. In 1837 Ruskin matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, but his studies were interrupted by ill health and consequent travel abroad so that he did not receive his degree until 1842.

"Modern Painters"

Ruskin had early begun to write both poetry and prose, and by the time he left Oxford he had already published articles on architecture and on other subjects. After leaving Oxford, he undertook his first major work, Modern Painters; it testified to his love of nature, especially of Alpine scenery, and to his reverence for J.M.W. Turner as the supreme modern interpreter of "truth" in landscape. The first volume of Modern Painters, published anonymously in 1843, was a success with the discerning public, but it was attacked by professionals, who spotted the author's tendency to dogmatize on an insufficient foundation of experience and technical study. Ruskin then set about to remedy his deficiencies through a firsthand study of the Italian painters, particularly those of the Florentine and Venetian schools. Ruskin's Italian tour of 1845 culminated in his discovery of Tintoretto, who, together with Fra Angelico, displaced Turner to become the heroes of volume 2 of Modern Painters (1846).

In 1848 Ruskin married Euphemia Chalmers Gray. The parents of the bridal couple were old friends, and the match was arranged without any bond of deep affection on either side. Ruskin and his bride honeymooned in Normandy, where he studied the Gothic cathedrals. The pair, unfortunately, were not suited to one another, and the marriage was annulled in 1854. Euphemia Ruskin had by then fallen in love with the painter John Everett Millais, whom she subsequently married.

Architectural Criticism

The weight of Ruskin's interest had now shifted to architecture as the most public of the arts. If, as Ruskin thought, all art expresses the spirit of its maker, architecture then most fully expresses the whole spirit of a people. His religious emphasis was implicit in the title of his next book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), as well as in his emphasis upon "truth of expression" in materials and in structure. This book and its successor, The Stones of Venice (1851-1853), a great Protestant prose epic of the decline and fall of the Venetian Republic, became the bibles of the Victorian Gothic revival. Ruskin's style in this period was powerfully evocative and readily expanded into sermonic flourishes that cloaked many historical inaccuracies. Once again professionals, though fascinated by his works, were moved to demur on many points where theory had replaced a concrete knowledge of the facts of architectural practice. Perhaps Ruskin's most enduring contribution to the development of modern style was his hostility to classicism. He himself was too devoted to ornament and too hostile both to the machine and to standardized construction ever to figure as a grandfather of functionalism. However, his celebrated chapter on the nature of Gothic in The Stones of Venice can be taken as the main testament of Victorian esthetic values.

Social Criticism

Ruskin had interrupted the composition of Modern Painters for his architectural studies. He now returned to the earlier work, completing it with volumes 3 and 4 in 1856 and volume 5 in 1860. He also lectured on art and defended the Pre-Raphaelites, but his concerns were inevitably drifting further toward social criticism as a way of transforming society. In reality, he had dropped the integument of art from his sermons, and following the lead of Thomas Carlyle, he began to inveigh directly against the values of the political economists. The year 1860 marks the official turning point in his interests, for Ruskin published a series of social essays in the Cornhill Magazine that he later collected as Unto This Last. Ruskin's attack on the dehumanized ethic of modern industrial capitalism drew a bitter response from readers, but it influenced the thinking of many reformers in the developing Labour movement.

Another series of articles on economic subjects, published in Fraser's Magazine (1862-1863) and collected as Munera pulveris (1872), drew a similar outcry from the public. Ruskin now began to lecture frequently, and he later published two collections derived from his lectures, Sesame and Lilies (1865) and The Crown of Wild Olive (1866). Both volumes circulated widely and brought him a popular following. In 1869 Ruskin was appointed the first Slade professor of art at Oxford, a post that he held with some interruption until 1885. These years, however, were turbulent and troublesome for Ruskin. His religious faith had been undermined, and he was tormented by frustrated love for Rose LaTouche, a girl 30 years his junior, whom he had first met when she was a child.

Last Years

On the death of his father Ruskin became independently wealthy. The variety and fever of his activities were an indication of his deeply disturbed condition. In 1871 he began to publish Fors clavigera, a periodical that lasted until 1884. An attack on James McNeill Whistler in Fors in 1887 occasioned a celebrated libel suit which was decided against Ruskin. He also endowed and led a variety of welfare and socialist schemes, thereby consuming most of his inheritance. In 1878 Ruskin suffered his first clear attack of mental illness. Seizures recurred until 1888, when he fell victim to a severe mental breakdown which confined him to his house at Brantwood in the Lake District until his death. In lucid intervals between 1885 and 1889 Ruskin worked on his unfinished autobiography, Praeterita, one of the most moving and revealing of his works. He died on Jan. 20, 1900.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Ruskin is E. T. Cook, The Life of John Ruskin (2 vols., 1911). Important, more recent works are Derrick Leon, Ruskin: The Great Victorian (1949), and Joan Evans, John Ruskin (1954). The best introductions to Ruskin's thought and work are R. H. Wilenski, John Ruskin: An Introduction to Further Study of His Life and Work (1933), and John D. Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Genius (1961). The chapter on Ruskin in Graham Hough, The Last Romantics (1947), is very helpful. For intellectual and social background see G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1953), and Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Victorian Temper (1951). □

Ruskin, John

views updated May 18 2018


Art critic and social philosopher; b. London, Feb. 8, 1819; d. Coniston, Jan. 20, 1900. Only child of a wealthy wine merchant, Ruskin was raised in an Evangelical household whose strictness was somewhat lightened by his father's love of travel, literature, and painting. He matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1836, and took his B.A. in 1842 and his M.A. in 1843. He married Euphemia Gray in 1848, but the marriage was annulled in 1854.

The argument of his principal critical work, Modern Painters (184360), is rooted in the moral distinction between love and pride. An artist paints out of love for his subject, out of pride in his own virtuosity, or to minister to the pride of a patron. The first motive, love, is the root of all good art; the second motive, pride, is the source of all bad art. The development of this argument and its implications occupied Ruskin throughout his life.

To prove that the taste of Europe had been corrupted by the dazzling technique of the Renaissance masters, Ruskin turned, in The Stones of Venice (185153), to evaluate architecture, where individual genius is less evident and where he felt he could show that the renais sance had replaced something finer than itself. Ruskin's devotion to Gothic architecture should accordingly be understood as a tactic primarily in his defense of modern painters. Struck by the harmony that he saw between the medieval cathedrals and the culture from which they sprang, Ruskin turned to examine his own culture. He saw that industrial workers lived such miserable lives and were surrounded by so much ugliness that their taste for beauty must be impaired. He also believed that political liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism were creating a climate of anarchy, self-love, and competition in which art could not flourish. Hence, in Unto This Last (1862) and in Fors Clavigera (187184) he vigorously attacked the social system and spent his energy and his considerable fortune in futile efforts to change the direction of modern life. By 1860 he had perceived that he was dealing basically with the fallen nature of man; the last section of Modern Painters and Sesame and Lilies (1871) reflect this new awareness.

In 1869 Ruskin was elected the first professor of fine art at Oxford, holding the post from 1870 to 1878 and again from 1883 to 1885. In 1877 he had published his contempt for a picture by James A. M. Whistler. The painter successfully brought suit, and the case may be said to mark the end of Ruskin's active life; the principal work of his last years is Praeterita (188589), an autobiography noted more for its charm than for its accuracy. He was the most influential art critic of the 19th century, and has been shown to have influenced such diverse figures as Mohandas gandhi, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henri bergson, Marcel Proust, and many of the early members of the British Labour Party.

The general identification of Gothic architecture with Roman Catholicism was a source of embarrassment to Ruskin and he vigorously dissociated himself from Augustus pugin and the Catholic Revival. He found difficulty in reconciling his Evangelical tradition with his love for Catholic art and architecture, and in his early works he zealously appended anti-Catholic notes to his works on these subjects. After 1858, when he had renounced his Evangelical heritage, he felt no need to attack Catholicism. On the contrary, he purged his early works of what he termed "pieces of rabid and utterly false Protestantism." He tried by historical studies and by visiting monasteries to understand the culture that had built the great cathedrals. He was a cordial friend of Cardinal manning, and he once announced, for its shock effect, that he was a Catholic. His last Oxford lecture was a scandalous attack on Protestantism, which he had come to equate with the liberalism, competitive capitalism, and tastelessness of middle-class England. In spite of these episodes, he seems never to have considered actually becoming a Roman Catholic.

Bibliography: j. ruskin, Works, ed. e. t. cook, and a. wedderburn, 39 v. (London 190312); The Diaries, ed. j. evans and j. h. whitehouse, 3 v. (London 195659). j. d. rosenberg, The Darkening Glass (New York 1961). e. t. cook, The Life of John Ruskin, 2 v. (London 1911). d. leon, Ruskin, The Great Victorian (London 1949). f. g. townsend, Ruskin and the Landscape Feeling (Urbana, Ill. 1951). j. t. fain, Ruskin and the Economists (Nashville 1956).

[c. t. dougherty]

Ruskin, John

views updated Jun 08 2018

Ruskin, John (1819–1900). English academic and critic, who had an enormous influence not only on architectural style but on the ways in which standards of aesthetics were judged. He used an Evangelical and polemical tone in his writings that not only reached a mass audience but received the approval of the Ecclesiologists. Initially encouraged by J. C. Loudon, he contributed to some of Loudon's publications, but his key works date from the late 1840s and 1850s. The Gothic Revival was well established when Ruskin published The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), which was an immediate success, encapsulating the mood of the period rather than creating new ideas. He argued that architecture should be true, with no hidden structure, no veneers or finishes, and no carvings made by machines, and that Beauty in architecture was only possible if inspired by nature. As exemplars worthy of imitation (he argued that the styles known to Man were quite sufficient, and that no new style was necessary) he selected Pisan Romanesque, early Gothic of Western Italy, Venetian Gothic, and English early Second Pointed as his paradigms. In the choice of the last, the style of the late C13 and early C14, he was echoing A. W. N. Pugin's preferences as well as that of most ecclesiologically minded Gothic Revivalists such as G. G. Scott.

The Stones of Venice (1851–3) helped to promote that phase of the Gothic Revival in which Continental (especially Venetian) Gothic predominated. Deane and Woodward's University Museum, Oxford (1854–60), is an example of Venetian or Ruskinian Gothic. In particular, structural polychromy, featuring colour in the material used, rather than applied, was popularized by Ruskin's writings. The Stones also contained a section on the nature of Gothic in which Ruskin argued that the admirable qualities of medieval architecture were related to the commitment, creative pride, and freedom of the craftsmen who worked on the buildings. From this idea Morris developed his theories, and the Arts-and-Crafts movement began to evolve.

Ruskin found certain styles (e.g. Baroque) unacceptable because they exploited illusions, and therefore were not ‘truthful’. This use of moral disapprobation of justify an aesthetic stance has been a potent weapon in the hands of International Modernists. Gropius, for example, claimed to have been influenced by Ruskin's writings.


Batchelor (2001);
Bell (1978);
Blau (1982);
M. Brooks (1987);
R. Daniels & Brandwood (eds.) (2003);
Hewison (1976);
Hitchcock (1954);
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004);
Pevsner (1969, 1972);
Ruskin (1903–12);
Swenarton (1989);
D. Watkin (1977);
Mi. Wheeler & Whiteley (eds.) (1992)

Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

views updated May 21 2018

Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

Famous British author and critic born in London on February 8, 1819, who owed his belief in survival to Spiritualism. In Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood by W. Holman Hunt (2 vols., 1913) there occurs the following conversation:

"When we last met," said Holman Hunt to Ruskin, "you declared you had given up all belief in immortality." "I remember well," Ruskin replied, "but what has mainly caused the change in my views is the unanswerable evidence of spiritualism. I know there is much vulgar fraud and stupidity connected with it, but underneath there is, I am sure, enough to convince us that there is personal life independent of the body, but with this once proved, I have no further interest in spiritualism."

Also during one summer in Switzerland Ruskin had a startling experience with a child who saw a ghost that had long been known to haunt a particular spot in the valley of Chamonix. He described the female spirit as having no eyes, but only holes where they were supposed to be.

Ruskin died January 20, 1900.


Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House, 1991.

Prince, Walter F. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences. Boston: Boston Society for Psychical Research, 1928. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

Ruskin, John

views updated May 18 2018

Ruskin, John (1819–1900). Ruskin was the most influential art critic of his time as well as a talented draughtsman and water-colourist. The son of a wealthy wine merchant, he was able to travel extensively after Oxford, developing his artistic knowledge. His large written output gave him enormous influence over public opinion; he successfully defended the Pre-Raphaelites and championed Turner. While continuing to write prolifically on art, after 1860 he also wrote on social, political, and economic matters. These writings emphasized his view of the moral function of the arts as a ‘visible sign of national virtue’. Ruskin disliked the effects of the industrial revolution, but also resisted plans to improve mass design in industry, as commercially tainted. In 1870 he was appointed Slade professor at Oxford and endowed the Drawing School there. His last years were marred by mental illness and he died in the Lake District having rarely spoken for several years.

June Cochrane

Ruskin, John

views updated May 29 2018

Ruskin, John (1819–1900) English writer, artist, and social reformer. A strong religious conviction was the basis for Ruskin's advocacy of Gothic naturalism as the best style through which to praise God. His ideas are outlined forcefully in his books on architecture: The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (three vols., 1851–53). His five-volume work Modern Painters (1834–60) championed the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, and after 1851 he supported the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.