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denunciations, often very commonplace in themselves,
command attention from the force and originality
with which they are expressed ; and the contemptuous
tone of his philosophy becomes popular because it
appeals pleasantly to our self-conceit. But beyond
this he affords no help ; no troubled and truth-seeking
mind will find any guidance from him. A state of
cheerless mockery or passionate discontent, leavened
with a flattering sense of superiority to all mankind,
such would be the perfected triumph of Mr. Carlyle's
teaching. He can pull down, but he cannot build.
He leads his votaries out into the wilderness, and
leaves them to wander there alone. He stirs up doubt
and discontent in their minds, and then abandons
them to that unhallowed companionship. Happily
we have nothing now to do with his tone on religious
subjects. But he has in this work assaulted political
morality, the recognised principles of Government,
and the British Constitution. We refuse to cast aside
any of these at his bidding ; and we believe that he
will render no useless service who shall, however
humbly, labour to show that morality must be ob-
served in political affairs not less than in the common
business of life ; that a despotic, meddling, " paternal"
government represses the independent exertions of the
people, and so obstructs their progress and hinders
their wellbeing; that the Constitution, in the per-
fecting of which so many great men have spent them-
selves, sparing not their goods, their comfort, or their
lives which so many generations of Englishmen have
loved, and been wont to glory in is not a thing of


naught, to be despised and rejected, to be disparaged
and cast aside because of some slight defects or some
temporary failure ; but a rich and noble inheritance,
as Comines called it centuries ago, " a holy thing ;"
a treasure of great price ; to be revered with exceeding
reverence ; cherished, amended, but never slandered ;
in a word, that this country, so far as we can see, is
not hurrying to destruction, nor, so far as we can
judge, is worthy of such a doom.


SOME fourteen years ago, the "North British Ee-
view " called attention to two very remarkable
volumes on Art, which had shortly before appeared.
They had, up to that time, been strangely neglected ;
and we then ventured to express our surprise that
none of the more influential periodicals had noticed a
work which was likely to produce an effect on all
art criticism. These were the first and second volumes
of " Modern Painters." They were not destined to be
neglected long. They would not have been so even
had they stood alone; but as Mr. Euskin went on
writing, it was speedily felt that an author of great
original power was addressing the public, and one
who, for good or for evil, would surely influence the
men of his own time, and, it might be, also the men
of the times which should succeed him.

At first, loud and harmonious was the chorus of

1 1. "Modern Painters." In Five Volumes. Smith, Elder, and Co.

2. "The Seven Lamps of Architecture."

3. " The Stones of Venice." In Three Volumes.

4. " Lectures on Architecture and Painting."

5. " The Two Paths."

6. "The Harbours of England."

7. " The Political Economy of Art."

8. "Selections from the Writings of John Ruskin, M.A. Oxon."
1861. [Reprinted from the "North British Review," No. 71. February



praise. Language the most exalted was freely used.
Mr. Ruskin was not only recognised as an able and
earnest art critic, but he was hailed as a great teacher
and regenerator of the age. His denunciations were
like the denunciations of the Hebrew prophets ; his
teaching was like the teaching of the evangelists. His
services as a critic were forgotten beside those loftier
functions which were readily conceded to him. He
was extolled in terms which would have required some
modification if applied to Pascal. Such adulation was
enough to turn a wiser and steadier head than Mr.
Ruskin's. A little praise is a good moral tonic, but
exaggerated commendation will lead any man off his
feet. Accordingly, faults observable from the very
first grew upon him. His dogmatism and his in-
tolerance increased. The inevitable reaction was
thereby hastened and strengthened. An author who
has risen to sudden popularity occupies a dizzy emi-
nence. At one time or other, the public is sure to
quarrel with its spoiled darling. There is great truth
in the Eastern tale of the Sorceress, whose love lasted
but fourteen days, then changing into deadly hatred.
In Mr. Ruskin's case, the reaction was unusually
vehement. There had always been some dissentients,
who now saw that their time was come. His writings
had made him many enemies, and they all took heart
of grace when they saw the public wavering in its
regard. Thunders began to mingle with the paeans,
until at last the latter were altogether unheard. Wasp-
ish critics ran into extravagance of blame as wildly
as they had before run into extravagance of praise.
Articles appeared, rude, almost savage in their tone.
The last paper, for example, which appeared on Mr.
Ruskin in the " Quarterly Review " was conceived in a
spirit utterly unbecoming. Not less so was a paper
which appeared lately in a northern contemporary,


called " Mr. Dusky on Art," in which a great writer
and a great subject were handled with a buffoonery
which would be thought vulgar in a barrack-yard.
For some of this, Mr. Euskin has himself to blame.
He is at times the most irritating of writers. But it
is surely possible for Reviewers to rebuke his faults
without imitating them. If we allow him to make us
lose our tempers, we shall be unable to derive from
his writings the instruction and the pleasure which
they are so well calculated to afford.

The present time seems not inappropriate to an
attempt to estimate fairly the services which Mr.
Ruskin has rendered to literature and to art. During
the years that have elapsed since he was first noticed
in this journal, he has not been idle. The list of
books which we have placed at the head of this article,
represents an amount of literary labour which, we
suspect, few men have accomplished in the same time.
And yet the list is far from exhausting what Mr.
Ruskin has done. Many of his best pamphlets are
not included in it. He has been instant in season, and
sometimes out of season, in urging his views on the
public. And now he seems disposed to rest a while,
or at least to stray into devious tracks, whither we
will not follow. Political economy is not his forte.
The series of papers in the "Cornhill Magazine,"
throughout which he laboured hard to destroy his
reputation, were to our mind almost painful. It is
no pleasure to see genius mistaking its powers, and
rendering itself ridiculous. But the fact that Mr.
Ruskin did think himself competent to write on such
a subject, shows how sadly he has been led astray
by his own self-confidence. Throughout his whole
literary career we shall find evidences of the same

Looking, then, at Mr. Raskin's writings as a whole,


it is no flattery to say that he is the greatest writer
on art in the English language indeed, in any lan-
guage ; but unqualified praise must there end. He
has attempted to write on many things besides ; but
on little else has he written well or truly. Eloquent
and ingenious he always is ; but take him away from
art, and he seems to us ignorant and delusive. To
do him anything like justice, we must first look at him
exclusively as the subtle critic of art, and the eloquent
exponent of nature. It will be a less pleasing, but yet
a necessary task, to see into what errors he runs him-
self, and would lead his readers, when he announces
his opinions on metaphysics, literature, history, and

In carrying out such an inquiry, we shall do Mr.
Euskin no injustice if we confine our attention mainly
to "Modern Painters." It would be impossible within
the limits of one article to criticise adequately and in
detail all that he has written ; but in endeavouring to
estimate roughly the general tendency of the whole,
we may safely take " Modern Painters " as represen-
tative of the rest. It was his first book ; it is, beyond
comparison, his greatest book. " The Stones of Venice "
and "The Seven Lamps " have, indeed, an amazing
beauty, and an exceeding wealth of information,
peculiarly their own ; but they are based on the same
principles of thinking as the original work. His
many lectures and pamphlets are but expansions of
these principles. The five magnificent volumes of
" Modern Painters " contain all that is most markedly
characteristic of the man.

In England art has been unfortunate in its litera-
ture. Till Mr. Ruskin wrote, most of our criticism
was technical and external, dreary and unprofitable.
The real principle whereby a picture should be judged
i.e. the quantity and quality of thought which it


expresses was rarely recognised. There were a few
exceptions to this prevailing barrenness. Conspicuous
among these, is a charming little book, now too seldom
seen, called the "Picture Galleries of England," by
Hazlitt. Even there we may remark some defects,
arising perhaps from a limited range of observation,
as, for instance, his insufficient estimate of Holbein ;
but, on the whole, there is more of the soul of criticism
in these few pages than in any other work we know of,
prior to the publication of " Modern Painters." Not
less admirable are two essays by Charles Lamb, on
" The Productions of Modern Art," and " The Genius
and Character of Hogarth." In Wilkie's letters there
is the same strain of thinking; nor, when true art
criticism is spoken of, should some old papers in
" Eraser's Magazine" be forgotten, which bore the now
well-known signature of Michael Angelo Titmarsh.
What good can be said of the academicians' lectures
of Barry and the fluent Opie, with their worship of
the Caracci or of the fanciful Fuseli ? It may be our
own fault, but neither do we find ourselves much in-
structed by Sir Joshua Keynolds, either in his lectures,
or in his special criticisms on the great pictures of the
Continent. He is always sound, so far as he goes ;
he is generous and hearty in his estimates, seeing the
best of everything ; but, partly from his own habit of
mind, partly because our modern analysis was a
stranger to his age, he seems to have rested at the
outward form never to have penetrated to the soul
of art. Later critics too proud to learn of Euskin
have not much improved matters. Kugler is de-
clamatory, and restlessly inquisitive after hidden
meanings ; Waagen is hard, unenthusiastic, and

Much may be said both for and against technicalities.
It were mere folly to denounce them altogether ; but


after all, their main value consists in this, that they
conduce to brevity. They are a sort of formulae ;
and, like all formulae, can only be understood by the
initiated. Therefore their use should be confined to
occasions when the initiated alone are addressed ; in
all writing intended for the unprofessional public,
they should be carefully avoided. Their place can
easily be supplied by two or three additional words of
plain English ; and prolixity is better than obscurity.
We may be uncharitable, but we suspect that the
inveterate use of them arises from a desire to seem
learned. Now we have the less patience with this
folly, because art has suffered from it severely. People
have been led to believe that in order, not to judge
of a picture, but even to understand the principles by
which a picture should be judged, it is necessary to
"get up" a whole vocabulary of hard words. Accord-
ingly the public have turned away from the matter
altogether, and have surrendered themselves to guides
often unworthy. Since the days of Goldsmith, the
art critic has been a good deal of a humbug: his
trick, of course, being "to say the painter might
have done better had he done his best, and* to praise
the works of Pietro Perugino." To this day, why
are popular notices of pictures in our best papers
expressed in a mysterious jargon ? It is not so with
their literary articles. In them ideas are conveyed
in plain English ; it is not thought necessary to
obscure the meaning by hard grammatical terms.
The public understand what is said, and are in-
structed by it. Hence they are able to form literary
judgments for themselves, and they have confi-
dence in these : but the public has little confidence
in its judgments with regard to pictures. And,
indeed, the less it has the better ; because its
judgments are formed upon no principle, and are


utterly worthless. But what is the reason of this ?
Not, surely, that a picture is harder to understand
than a book. No ; but the reason is rather this, that
the public have never been taught to comprehend
painting, because for years and years almost all criti-
cism on pictures has been so expressed as to be quite
unintelligible. To understand pictures is not easy ;
to criticise them worthily, is very hard ; but neither
difficulty is simplified by all ideas regarding them
being communicated in an unknown tongue. The first
great excellence which we admire in Mr. Kuskin, is
his freedom from all this wretched affectation. He has
written the most profound art criticism in the English
language ; and he has so written it, that any man of
ordinary education can readily discern his meaning.
This has not arisen from ignorance ; on the contrary,
here, as elsewhere, simplicity has flowed from know-
ledge. It certainly seems rather odd to notice, as a
special merit in an author, the fact that he knows his
subject. But the truth is, that with regard to this
particular subject, such merit is by no means very
common. It has been possessed by very few of the
writers who are so fond of darkening what counsel
they have by the use of long words. And, indeed,
on any subject, knowledge such as Mr. Kuskin's is
rare. We may dispute the soundness of his judg-
ments ; but we cannot dispute the extent and the
accuracy of his knowledge. He has seen, we believe,
every great picture in Europe, and he has studied each
one with as much minuteness as if he had never seen
any other. And at the same time, with an avoidance
of pedantry which deserves high praise, he has con-
fined his minuter criticism, so far as was possible, to
well-known pictures more particularly to works in
the Dulwich and National Galleries. His readers are,
therefore, the better able to comprehend him, while


at the same time they reap the benefit of his more
extended experience. It is hardly necessary to say
that such experience has not been gained without
hard and constant labour. Writers who labour to
depreciate Mr. Euskin should pause with reverence, if
they have any reverence in them, before such a passage
as the following :

" The winter was spent mainly in trying to get at the
mind of Titian ; not a light winter's task ; of which the
issue, being in many ways very unexpected to me (the
reader will find it partly told towards the close of this
volume), necessitated my going in the spring to Berlin, to
see Titian's portrait of Lavinia there, and to Dresden to see
the Tribute Money, the elder Lavinia, and girl in white,
with the flag fan. Another portrait, at Dresden, of a lady
in a dress of rose and gold, by me unheard-of before, and
one of an admiral, at Munich, had like to have kept me in
Germany all summer." " Modern Painters," vol. v., Preface,
p. viii.

Surely such a simple, unaffected picture of con-
scientious work must command our respect. The
reward has been that, on art, Mr. Euskin never speaks
without authority. It is lamentable to think how
many opinions he has expressed on other subjects,
to the formation of which he has devoted no similar

Nor are Mr. Euskin's qualifications limited to a
knowledge of pictures. From his thorough know-
ledge of technical details, we might anticipate that
he was himself an artist, as well as a great critic of
art ; and so, in truth, we find it to be. Never,
we should think, before was book so written and
so illustrated by one man. It would be, of course,
unjust minutely to criticise Mr. Euskin's powers as an
artist ; because he uses those powers only to illustrate
his teaching his drawings are all in subordination to


his words. He has used them as means only to
bring out fully some excellence in Turner ; to show
some curious wonders of rock, or leaf, or moss ; to
catch some aspect, more lovely than common, of earth,
or sea, or air. Yet the most inexperienced observer
cannot fail to see proofs of a capacity which would
have made him a great painter had he not been a
great poet. Every one will mark his delicacy and
accuracy of drawing, his deep feeling of colour, his
laborious truth, and the thought which breathes
through all. His drawings of Venice are grand in
their light and shade, and bold even to audacity in
their strict fidelity to fact. What sacredness, and
awe, and tenderness of heavenly radiance in "The
Rocks of Arona." What strength of the hills is seen
exultant in the " Buttresses of the Alps." And, in
a different style, how are our minds possessed by
serenity and quiet enjoyment, as we look on " Peace,"
and the " Moat of Nuremberg." The patient and
various labour of Mr. Ruskin is astonishing. He will
accurately follow out the traceries of the richest archi-
tecture ; he will render lovingly the markings of the
smallest wild -flower ; and then he passes, seemingly
without effort, to the " Cloud Flocks " or the " Sunset
on Monte Rosa." Indeed his descriptions of the
aspects of the sky are hardly more abounding in truth
and beauty than his drawings of them. He is, what
some wit called Turner, the very Prince of the
Power of the Air. With equal truth he gives us the
clouds sweeping in stormy grandeur ; calmly floating,
like angels' wings, in the far distance of the higher
heaven ; clustering in gorgeous pomp around the
sunset ; lying dark against the fading orange of the
evening sky. And in all this there is a quietness
and freedom from exaggeration which does not always
pervade Mr. Buskin's writings. There is, undoubtedly,


a literalness and want of abandonment in the drawings,
which would be a drawback, but that it is appropriate
to their position as illustrations. Their end is merely
to enforce what is said ; and this they do plainly and
forcibly, yet with exceeding beauty. The combina-
tion gives to Mr. Kuskin's books a completeness quite
their own. The desire of the eye is fulfilled. By these
drawings and etchings, Mr. Ruskin has not only made
us understand his own writings better, but has done
more for art than all the Art Unions that ever existed.

Next among Mr. Ruskin's qualifications for his task
must be mentioned his wonderfully minute observa-
tion of nature. He has watched her in her every
aspect : he is familiar with every detail of her work-
ing. And yet, with his careful noting of particulars,
he has never lost sight of the poetry of nature as a
whole. His is not the spirit of the botanist who pulls
to pieces a weed in a ditch, blind to the expanse of
beauty which lies spread out before him. Take, for
instance, the conclusion of the chapter on the " Truth
of Clouds," in vol. i. : the knowledge therein displayed,
of the various effects of sky, must have cost years of
study ; yet we are never allowed to dwell unduly on
any detail, but are filled and exalted by the grandeur
of the panorama which the power of real eloquence
makes visible to the eye of the imagination the pro-
cession of the clouds over the face of the heavens
from early morning, through stormy noon, through
evening in tempest, through the serenity of midnight,
until sunrise comes round again. Not only does he
love nature with exceeding love, but he invests her
with personality, and half dreams that his love can be
returned. Quaint, perhaps, but very beautiful, is his
fancy that nature must have grieved over the neglect
of mankind in the rude olden times.


" For in like manner the whole of Nature only shone
hitherto for man between the tossing of helmet-crests ; and
sometimes I cannot but think of the trees of the earth as
capable of a kind of sorrow, in that imperfect life of theirs,
as they opened their innocent leaves in the warm spring-
time, in vain for men ; and all along the dells of England
her beeches cast their dappled shade only where the outlaw
drew his bow, and the king rode his careless chase ; and by
the sweet French rivers their long ranks of poplar waved in
the twilight, only to show the flames of burning cities, on the
horizon, through the tracery of their stems ; amidst the fair
denies of the Apennines, the twisted olive trunks hid the
ambushes of treachery ; and on their valley meadows,
day by day, the hills which were white at the dawn
were washed with crimson at sunset." " Modern Painters,"
vol. v. p. 5.

By how long an intercourse this sympathy with
nature has been fostered, with what patient labour
this knowledge of her secrets has been acquired, is
shown by the chapter on the " Truth of Water," in
vol. i. We have there quotations given from diaries
at Venice and at Geneva, in which the various pheno-
mena of water are marked down and discussed how
a sky is reflected in blue, while the hulls of vessels on
the same sea are reflected in pale sea-green, their
orange masts reflected in the same colour, white and
red stripes round their gunwales neglected by the
water altogether why one boat throws a shadow,
and another throws no shadow at all. Unwearied
observation, note-books filled with sketches of water-
efiects taken on the spot, with remarks on their
peculiarities such has been Mr. Kuskin's way of
working ; and it is a way of working which entitles a
man to speak with some decision. In his own words,
his secret is " watchfulness, experience, affection, and
trust in nature." No other man living, we think,
could have written the section on "Leaf Beauty" with


which the fifth volume opens. The following exqui-
site passage on pines exemplifies both the character-
istics of which we have spoken the observation, and
the deep feeling :

" Then note, further, their perfectness. The impression
on most people's minds must have been received more from
pictures than reality, so far as I can judge ; so ragged they
think the pine ; whereas its chief character in health is green
and full roundness. It stands compact, like one of its own
cones, slightly curved on its sides, finished and quaint as a
carved tree in some Elizabethan garden ; and instead of being
wild in expression, forms the softest of all forest scenery; for
other trees show their trunks and twisting boughs : but the
pine growing either in luxuriant mass or in happy isolation,
allows no branch to be seen. Summit behind summit rise
its pyramidal ranges, or down to the very grass sweep the
circlets of its boughs ; so that there is nothing but green
cone and green carpet. Nor is it only softer, but in one sense
more cheerful than other foliage ; for it casts only a pyra-
midal shadow. Lowland forest arches overhead, and chequers
the ground with darkness ; but the pine, growing in scattered
groups, leaves the glades between emerald-bright Its gloom
is all its own ; narrowing into the sky, it lets the sunshine
strike down to the dew. And if ever a superstitious feeling
comes over me among the pine-glades, it is never tainted
with the old German forest fear ; but is only a more solemn
tone of the fairy enchantment that haunts our English mea-
dows ; so that I have always called the prettiest pine-glade
in Chamouni, ' Fairies' Hollow/ It is in the glen beneath
the steep ascent above Pont Pelissier, and may be reached
by a little winding path which goes down from the top of
the hill ; being, indeed, not truly a glen, but a broad ledge
of moss and turf, leaning in a formidable precipice (which,
however, the gentle branches hide) over the Arve. An
almost isolated rock promontory, many-coloured, rises at the
end of it. On the other sides it is bordered by cliffs, from
which a little cascade falls, literally, down among the pines,

Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 24 of 38)