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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

John Ruskin

John Ruskin Self-portrait, 1861
A little over a hundred years ago, on January 20, 1900, the British artist, Walter Richard Sickert rushed into a men's' club in London brandishing the evening newspaper crying , "Ruskin's dead! Ruskin's dead!" He then collapsed into a chair with the words, "Thank God, Ruskin's dead! Give me a cigarette!" It was the end of an era as well as the end of a century. Actually the writer and art critic, John Ruskin had already been dead from a literary standpoint for some eleven years, suffering from progressive dementia, but his actual death just twenty days into the new century seemed symbolically a fitting close to the Victorian era which did officially end a year later with the death of the 82-year-old monarch.

The Garden of San Miniato near Florence, 1845, John Ruskin
Ironically, John Ruskin was born in London in 1819, the same year as his beloved Queen Victoria. His father was a prosperous wine maker, his mother a devout evangelical Protestant. His father collected art and encouraged his son's literary bent while his mother dedicated herself to seeing that her son dedicated himself to becoming an Anglican bishop. His father's interests won out. Schooled at home until the age of twelve, early on he showed a talent for drawing as well as writing. He published his first poem at the age of eleven, his first prose when he was fifteen. He began watercolor lessons when he was sixteen. When he was seventeen, his mother accompanied him to Oxford where he studied art and literature. By then he was an accomplished watercolorist who later did much to popularize his chosen medium.

J.M.W. Turner Self-portrait, 1799
It was at Oxford, in 1836, that Ruskin met fellow student, Joseph Mallord William Turner (45 years his senior). It was from Turner, whom he later popularized and defended religiously in his writings, that Ruskin learned art criticism. After Turner's death in 1851, Ruskin replaced his affections for Turner's atmospheric proto-impressionist land and seascapes with the hard edged, often sentimentally symbolic depictions by the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As much attracted to the predominantly male brotherhood itself as the paintings they produced, Ruskin's writings did much to bring their work to light and defend it from the majority of other critics who attacked it for its iconographic aridity and forced profundity.

Effie Gray, 1851,
Thomas Richmond

In 1848, Ruskin married Euphemia "Effie" Gray. By all accounts it was a disaster from the first night. In 1854, she obtained a scandalous annulment charging a failure, to consummate their marriage (attested to by a physical examination). Despite the public ridicule stemming from the proceedings, Ruskin never challenged the claim. A year later, with Ruskin's eager acquiescence, Effie modeled for, and later  married their good friend, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, with whom she later had eight children.

Order of Release, 1853,
John Everett Millais.
The woman is Effie Ruskin. 

Ruskin was something of an artist, and certainly a very vocal and insightful art critic, but we would be remiss in discussing him if we were to limit him to these two areas. Ruskin was a social critic as well, and as he grew older, a forceful writer for socialist causes. Many socialists in England, in fact, well into the 20th century, were much more influenced by his writings than those of Karl Marx. And unlike many other critics of his time, Ruskin's art criticism was always couched in a social context, believing that art was the province of every man, not just the social elite. He was the champion of the single craftsman and the burgeoning Arts and Crafts movement in England at the time; and though a forceful defender in his writings of the lower-class factory workers themselves, he was a loud, even vicious critic of the factories in which they worked and those of his own class who profited from their labors.

Nocturne in Black and Gold:
The Falling Rocket, 1875,
James McNeill Whistler,
Ruskin: "...flinging a pot
of paint in the public's face."
Given Ruskin's early love of the swirling environmental work of Turner, and despite his affections for the Pre-Raphaelites, one might expect him to embrace the work of the Impressionists whom Turner influenced and work by later artists such as Whistler and Sargent. But the famous lawsuit in which Whistler went broke suing Ruskin for libel (for which he won a single farthing) was only one instance in Ruskin's loathing of such modern painting movements. (Whistler's near-abstraction painting, which Ruskin so hated, is at left.) Despite this, Ruskin was by far the most important art critic of the Victorian era with books and articles on the subject so numerous as to fill a small library. More importantly however, his writings served to frame not only the ways and means of art criticism for his time and ours; they also served as the literary backbone behind many of the most profound social changes marking the 20th century.

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