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for it is so light, shaking itself into mere showers of seed
pearl in the sun, that the pines don't know it from mist, and
grow through it without minding. Underneath, there is only



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 309

the mossy silence, and above, for ever, the snow of the name-
less Aiguille." " Modern Painters," vol. v. pp. 84, 85.

Perfect familiarity with the best pictures, a thorough
practical knowledge of art, clearly defined principles
of truth and goodness, an understanding of nature
probably unequalled these qualifications go a long
way to make a competent art critic. Mr. Ruskin
adds to them a command of language which has
certainly never been surpassed by any writer of
English prose. Wielding such an instrument, he can
adequately expound to readers all that his discerning
eye can see in the great masterpieces of art. His
power of interpreting pictures is astonishing. As a
general rule, no writing is less effective than what is
called word-painting. It is for the most part unsatis-
factory failing altogether to convey any adequate
conception of the original. But it is not so in the
hands of Mr. Ruskin. His fervid imagination enables
him to realise, his abounding style enables him ,to
express, the whole meaning of the painter. Not
indeed perfectly, but yet in no small degree, the
picture is brought before the reader. Such are the
descriptions of " The Slave Ship," of the " Baptism
and of the "Crucifixion" by Tintoret, and of the
" Massacre of the Innocents " by Raphael. We can
imagine no more instructive task than to take a good
engraving of any picture which Mr. Ruskin has thus
handled, and to compare it carefully, point by point,
with the eloquent interpretation. Any one who did
this once or twice conscientiously, would thereby gain
more real knowledge of art than by listlessly wander-
ing round dozens of galleries. The instances we have
alluded to have been often quoted before. We prefer
to give, in illustration of what we have said, a few
sentences by Mr. Ruskin on the St. Barbara and the
St. Elisabeth in the Pinacothek of Munich :



310 THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

" I do not know, among the pictures of the great sacred
schools, any at once so powerful, so simple, so pathetically
expressive of the need of the heart that conceived them.
Not ascetic, nor quaint, nor feverishly or fondly passionate,
nor wrapt in withdrawn solemnities of thought. Only
entirely true entirely pure. No depth of glowing heaven
beyond them, but the clear, sharp sweetness of the northern
air : no splendour of rich colour, striving to adorn them with
better brightness than that of the day : a gray glory, as of
moonlight without mist, dwelling on face and fold of dress ;
all faultless fair. Creatures they are, humble by nature, not
by self- condemnation ; merciful by habit, not by tearful im-
pulse ; lofty without consciousness ; gentle without weak-
ness; wholly in this present world, doing its work calmly ;
beautiful with all that holiest life can reach, yet already freed
from all that holiest death can cast away." " Cornhill
Magazine," vol. i. p. 328.

His descriptions of scenery are not less celebrated.
We select two, certainly, we think, among the best,
and also interesting from the contrast. The first is a
Highland, the second an Italian landscape.

" I was reading but the other day, in a book by a zealous,
useful, and able Scotch clergyman, one of these rhapsodies,
in which he described a scene in the Highlands to show (he
said) the goodness of God. In this Highland scene there
was nothing but sunshine, and fresh breezes, and bleating
lambs, and clean tartans, and all manner of pleasantness.
Now a Highland scene is, beyond dispute, pleasant enough
in its own way ; but, looked close at, has its shadows. Here,
for instance, is the very fact of one, as pretty as I can
remember having seen many. It is a little valley of soft
turf, enclosed in its narrow oval by jutting rocks and broad
flakes of nodding fern. From one side of it to the other
winds, serpentine, a clear brown stream, drooping into
quicker ripple as it reaches the end of the oval field, and
then, first islanding a purple and white rock with an amber
pool, it dashes away into a narrow fall of foam under a
thicket of mountain-ash and alder. The autumn sun, low
but clear, shines on the scarlet ash- berries and on the



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 311

golden birch-leaves, which, fallen here and there, when the
breeze has not caught them, rest quiet in the crannies of the
purple rock. Beside the rock, in the hollow under the
thicket, the carcass of a ewe, drowned in the last flood, lies
nearly bare to the bone, its white ribs protruding through
the skin, raven-torn ; and the rags of its wool still flickering
from the branches that first stayed it as the stream swept it
down. A little lower the current plunges, roaring, into a
circular chasm like a well, surrounded on three sides by a
chimney-like hollowness of polished rock, down which the
foam slips in detached snow-flakes. Bound the edges of the
pool beneath, the water circles slowly, like black oil; a little
butterfly lies on its back, its wings glued to one of the eddies,
its limbs feebly quivering; a fish rises, and it is gone. Lower
down the stream, I can just see over a knoll the green and
damp turf roofs of four or five hovels, built at the edge of a
morass, which is trodden by the cattle into a black Slough
of Despond at their doors, and traversed by a few ill- set
stepping-stones, with here and there a flat slab on the tops,
where they have sunk out of sight ; and at the turn of the
brook I see a man fishing, with a boy and a dog a pictur-
esque and pretty group enough certainly, if they had not
been there all day starving. I know them, and I know the
dog's ribs also, which are nearly as bare as the dead ewe's ;
and the child's wasted shoulders, cutting his old tartan jacket
through, so sharp are they." " Modern Painters," vol. v. pp.
210, 211.

" Perhaps there is no more impressive scene on earth
than the solitary extent of the Campagna of Eome under
evening light. Let the reader imagine himself for a moment
withdrawn from the sounds and motion of the living world,
and sent forth alone into this wild and wasted plain. The
earth yields and crumbles beneath his foot, tread he never
so lightly, for its substance is white, hollow, and carious, like
the dusty wreck of the bones of men. The long knotty
grass waves and tosses feebly in the evening wind, and the
shadows of its motion shake feverishly along the banks of
ruin that lift themselves to the sunlight. Hillocks of
mouldering earth heave around him, as if the dead beneath
were struggling in their sleep; scattered blocks of black



312 THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

stone, four-square, remnants of mighty edifices, not one left
upon another, lie upon them to keep them down. A dull
purple poisonous haze stretches level along the desert, veil-
ing its spectral wrecks of massy ruins, on whose rents the
red light rests, like dying fire on defiled altars. The blue
ridge of the Alban Mount lifts itself against a solemn space
of green, clear, quiet sky. Watch-towers of dark clouds
stand steadfastly along the promontories of the Apennines.
From the plain to the mountains, the shattered aqueducts,
pier beyond pier, melt into the darkness, like shadowy and
countless troops of funeral mourners, passing from a nation's
grave." "Modern Painters," vol. i., Preface, pp. 37, 38.

And, in a grander style than either, combining truth
of teaching with truth of description :

" Whatever beauty there may result from effects of light
on foreground objects, from the dew of the grass, the flash of
the cascade, the glitter of the birch trunk, or the fair day-
light hues of darker things (and joyfulness there is in all of
them), there is yet a light which the eye invariably seeks
with a deeper feeling of the beautiful, the light of the
declining or breaking day, and the flakes of scarlet cloud
burning like watch-fires in the green sky of the horizon ; a
deeper feeling, I say, not perhaps more acute, but having
more of spiritual hope and longing, less of animal and
present life, more manifest, invariably, in those of more
serious and determined mind (I use the word serious, not
as being opposed to cheerful, but to trivial and volatile),
but, I think, marked and unfailing even in those of the least
thoughtful dispositions. I am willing to let it rest on the
determination of every reader, whether the pleasure which
he has received from these effects of calm and luminous
distance be not the most singular and memorable of which
he has been conscious ; whether all that is dazzling in colour,
perfect in form, gladdening in expression, be not of evanes-
cent and shallow appealing, when compared with the still
small voice of the level twilight behind purple hills, or the
scarlet arch of dawn over the dark troublous-edged sea."
Tb., vol. ii. p. 38.

Yet Mr. Kuskin's writing has faults, and serious



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 313

ones. When we first noticed "Modern Painters," we
remarked " a tendency to overdo, a certain redundance,
an accumulation of words and images ; " and we
expressed a fear that these faults may go further. We
are sorry to say that this fear proves to have been
well founded. These faults have grown upon Mr.
Ruskin, and that to a very painful degree. The
Highland scene which we quoted above is to be
found in the fifth volume of " Modern Painters ; "
but, with few exceptions, all the finest specimens
of his writing are to be gathered from his earlier
works. Latterly, his redundancy has become tedious;
the disproportion of his style to his subjects almost
ludicrous. Formerly, his eloquence was called forth
only by the wonders of art, or the stupendous effects
of nature ; now, it is poured forth profusely and
indiscriminately on all things. He writes of every
subject in the same grandiose strain. No one can
read his rhapsodies at the beginning of the fifth
volume, about the " slow-fingered, constant-hearted
lichens," the " sacrifices, gloriously sustained, of poor
dying sprays/ 7 and " the gentle law of respect observed
by the leaves of the aspen," without a strong feeling
of the grotesque coming over him. They are far
worse than even Wordsworth's overpraised lines :

" To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

We refrain from quoting them, for it is no pleasure
to laugh at a man like Mr. Ruskin. But all this
is very mischievous. There is more harm in it than
any mere blemish in literary art. It is untrue. No
man can live through the world concerning himself
up to this pitch about lichens, and buds, and " dying
sprays." He would become totally unfit for better
duties if he did. Such exaggeration can only lead to

x



314 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

unreality ; and it leads Mr. Ruskin into unreality
many and many a time. His style gallops off with
him into the merest verbiage and incoherence. Mag-
nificent as is the language in the chapter " On the
Two Boyhoods," it is very much sound and fury,
signifying vastly little. Even in the description of
Venice, at the beginning, the ideas are completely
obscured by the glory of the words. Like Tarpeia,
they are crushed beneath the weight of ornament.
The ear is filled with sound ; but no picture is pre-
sented to the mind. If the reader will contrast this
passage with some of the descriptions in the earlier
volumes, as, for instance, with that of the Campagna,
quoted above, he will not fail, we think, to perceive
the wide distinction between powerful representation
and vague fine writing. And when we come to the
following description of the world of Turner's boy-
hood, Cimmerian darkness falls upon us at least,
utterly :

" A goodly landscape this, for the lad to paint, and under
a goodly light. Wide enough the light was, and clear ; no
more Salvator's lurid chasm on jagged horizon, nor Durer's
spotted rest of sunny gleam on hedgerow and field ; but
light over all the world. Full shone now its awful globe,
one pallid charnel-house, a ball strewn bright with human
ashes, glaring in poised sway beneath the sun, all blinding-
white with death from pole to pole, death, not of myriads
of poor bodies only, but of will, and mercy, and conscience ;
death, not once inflicted on the flesh, but daily fastening on
the spirit ; death, not silent or patient, waiting his appointed
hour, but voiceful, venomous ; death with the taunting word,
and burning grasp, and infixed sting." " Modern Painters/'
vol. v. p. 301.

Deep thinking and beautiful expression may, of course,
be found even in volume v.; for when did Mr. Buskin
write a whole volume without thinking deeply, and



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 315

expressing his thoughts beautifully? But, for the
most part, the thought is shallow and exaggerated,
and the style detestable. We could select passage
after passage, harsh and uncouth, in which Carlyle has
been feebly echoed. Nay, a hint seems occasionally
to have been borrowed from Alexander Dumas or
Mrs. Marsh ; and short, ungainly sentences stand
abruptly dotted over the page, trying to look emphatic.
The whole thing is like an inflated and incoherent
sermon. Such spasmodic writing, with the affected
titles of the chapters, will, of course, be admired by
the uneducated and the ignorant, but is quite un-
worthy of Mr. Ruskin. In short, this volume
reminds us of nothing so much as those Annuals,
or " Gift-Books," in which beautiful engravings are
accompanied, and made ridiculous, by the verses of
Ladies of Quality.

We have hitherto been considering only Mr.
Euskin's qualifications as an art critic. So far as we
have gone, these have appeared of the highest order.
But defects not a few have been urged against him ;
and foremost among all the charges has ever been the
charge of dogmatism. Now, at this particular time,
we would readily forgive dogmatism much greater
than that of Mr. Ruskin. In all branches of English
literature, really sound criticism a conscientious en-
deavour to see things as they are is exceedingly
rare. With regard to art, it is almost unknown ; and
the absurdity is, that the public seems to suppose that
it has no application there. Nothing is more common
than remarks of this sort : " It may or may not be a
good picture, but I like it." Nor do people appear
to be aware that, when they indulge in such observa-
tions, they are making fools of themselves. On the
contrary, they really believe that there is no room
for judgment as to pictures, but that they are to be



316 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

liked or disliked according to the dictates of mere
caprice. Hence, for example, we have Frederika
Bremer declaring Baphael's Madonnas "soulless and
lifeless" compared with the large Murillo in the
Louvre ; and, still worse, Mrs. H. Beecher Stowe
disparaging the Sistine Madonna. As if such opinions
proved anything at all, except the ignorance and bad
taste of those who entertain them. The vanity of
Mrs. Stowe would, of course, think even her ignorance
capable of enlightening the world on anything or
everything; but Miss Bremer would never probably
have said anything about this subject, had she not
been led away by the prevailing idea that the world
is bound to accept " likings " or " dislikings " as in-
telligent art criticism. It would be much better were
it generally admitted that pictures form no exception
to the rule, that people should only talk of what they
understand ; that a man like Mr. Euskin has some
principle of judgment according to which he can pro-
nounce a picture to be good or bad ; and that, when
a man says he " likes " a bad picture, he makes him-
self as ridiculous as if he were to confess a preference
of Festus to Paradise Lost. In the present state of
matters, " there is something grateful in any positive
opinion, as even weeds are useful that grow on a
bank of sand." But Mr. Buskin's opinions are more
than merely positive. They are the results of know-
ledge ; they are based on principle ; and, therefore,
we may well excuse the vehemence with which they
are occasionally expressed. For there is a truth of
the ideal which the imagination can be taught to
reach ; and if that truth is altogether lost sight of,
art may indeed afford some sensuous pleasure, but all
usefulness, all nobleness is gone. On the other hand,
Mr. Euskin cannot be defended in his trick of im-
puting motives. There he has no knowledge to guide



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 317

no principles on which to rest. Instances abound
in all his works. What right, for example, has he to
say that, because Rembrandt has painted his wife and
himself supping on a peacock and champagne, such
was the painter's ideal of happiness ? Still worse is
it to denounce Rubens as " without any clearly per-
ceptible traces of a soul ;" and nothing can excuse the
awful language used of Salvator (" Modern Painters,"
vol. v. pp. 241-2). Condemn paintings as may be
fit ; but to speak of one's fellow-men as " lost spirits "
and "fallen souls/' is perfectly appalling. What a
contrast to all this is presented by the gentleness
and generous appreciation of Sir Joshua Reynolds'
criticism ! How much truer, for example, as well as
kinder, is the feeling of Hazlitt : " It is a consolation to
us to meet with a fine Salvator. His is one of the great
names in art ; and it is among our sources of regret
that we cannot always admire his works as we would
do, from our respect to his reputation and our love of
the man. Poor Salvator! he was unhappy in his
lifetime ; and it vexes us to think that we cannot
make him amends by fancying him so great a painter
as some others, whose fame was not their only in-
heritance."

Again, many exult mightily over Mr. Ruskin's
inconsistency. One ingenious critic is very wroth
because he complains, in his odd way, that " Modern
Painters have not a proper sense of the value of Dirt ;
cottage children never appear but in freshly got- up
caps and aprons, and white-handed beggars excite
compassion in unexceptionable rags :" while elsewhere
he blames Murillo for elaborately painting the dirt on
little boys' feet. So, too, no man is more severe than
Mr. Ruskin on violations of the laws of nature for
the sake of effect ;. and yet, when on the canvas of
Tintoret an angel wrapt in light casts a shadow before



318 THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

over the objects of his wrath, Mr. Ruskin forgives
the license, nay, pronounces it " beautiful in its appli-
cation." In a similar spirit, he denounces the Pitti
Magdalen as disgusting ; and then again tells us that
in that very picture Titian teaches a true and lofty
lesson, having dared to "doubt a romantic fable
and reject the narrowness of sentimental faith."
Such instances might be easily multiplied. But they
are not vital inconsistencies. Who that has ever
been irritated by the offensive cleanliness of some
modern artists will refuse to acknowledge the value of
dirt \ and who but an uncandid critic can fail to see
that what Mr. Ruskin condemns in Murillo, is not
that he has painted dirt, but that he has painted it
obtrusively and unnecessarily ? Who, again, will
hesitate to admit that a profound genius may, for some
great imaginative purpose, indulge in a license which
to meaner men must be denied ? Still less can we
give up Mr. Ruskin as inconsistent in any evil sense,
because his views as to particular artists have not
been always the same. It does not, to our thinking,
impair the value of his teaching, that in youth he
admired, as he now thinks, too keenly, the power and
sweep of Rubens 1 that the reaction from this led
him at one time to reverence too exclusively the holy
feeling of the early religious painters that advancing
years, and extended study, have taught him to com-
prehend the nobility of Venetian art. Such changes
are not inconsistencies of opinion ; they are growth of
thought. They are not oscillations, but progressions.
But it cannot be denied that Mr. Ruskin makes these
changes in themselves slight assume proportions of

1 If Mr. Ruskin would be restored to this his youthful, and, as we
think, well-founded admiration, he should read a hearty and powerful
estimate of the great Fleming in a "Roundabout Journey," in the first
volume of the " Cornhill Magazine."



THE WHITINGS OF JOHN KUSKIN. 319

serious magnitude by the manner in which he ex-
presses them. This is another of the mischiefs which
are to be ascribed to his inflated style. Why should
he have called the Pitti Magdalen " disgusting " ? or
why, because he admires the Venetians more than he
once did, should he now assail Kubens in language
utterly unbecoming ? Any conscientious critic, who
will take the trouble carefully to compare and candidly
to reconcile Mr. Kuskin's statements, will be surprised
to find how what at first sight seemed glaring incon-
sistencies, finally disappear. He will be hardly less
surprised to find how often the appearance of incon-
sistency took its rise solely in vehemence of expression.
Would that Mr. Euskin would apply to his own style
that word which he tells us should be " relieved out in
deep letters of pure gold over the doors of every school
of art " the word Moderation.

Able critics have based this same accusation on
deeper grounds. Mr. Kuskin, they say, is not only
inconsistent in his judgment of pictures, and in his
estimates of schools of art. That might be forgiven.
But an abiding fault is, that his principles are
absolutely contradictory. A writer in the "Revue
des Deux Mondes " for August declares that, to any
ordinary reader, "Modern Painters" will prove an
insoluble enigma. In one page, the author is a realist
of the School of Comte ; in the next, he is an idealist,
who might have learned from the lips of Plato. He
attempts to reconcile these two extremes, and, in the
attempt, falls into utter and irreconcilable confusion.
Now, on the real point here at issue, it is the critic
who is in fault. He maintains that the only truth
possible in art is a " truth of sentiment/' meaning,
we presume, that the motive of every picture is to be
the chance feeling or emotion of the artist bearing,
however, no relation to the reality of nature. Mr.



320 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIX.

Kuskin maintains that the truth of art is a truth of
the imagination ; and that part of that truth consists
in the manner in which the imagination of the artist
has regarded reality in its working. On the one hand,
the imagination must be conscious of its own ideality,
or it becomes madness ; on the other, it must seek its
materials from reality, or it becomes grotesque and
meaningless. Thus, the highest motives of pictures
must be combined with the strictest adherence to
nature : any revelations of the unseen and eternal,
within the power of art, can only be made when what
is seen and known is faithfully represented. And
thus, too, the lofty sphere which Mr. Euskin claims
for art, the lofty functions which he assigns to artists,
are to be reconciled with his repeated injunctions to
study actual facts with what the French critic calls
his realism.

Yet here, too, Mr. Euskin has himself erred, and
erred grievously. In working out a theory so subtle,
there was need for the greatest precision both of
thought and expression. Unfortunately, the Gra-
duate of Oxford is not much given to either.
Especially is he deficient in the power of consecutive
reasoning. He is very fond of rebuking others for
being illogical ; and writes of himself, with no
apparent consciousness of doing anything odd : "Any
error into which I may fall will not be an illogical
deduction : I may mistake the meaning of a symbol,
or the angle of a rock-cleavage, but not draw an in-
consequent conclusion." It's the old story "Wad
some friend the giftie gie us," etc. For it so happens
that there never was a writer more destitute of the
capacity for logical thinking than Mr. Euskin. As-
sertion is his only wear. In all his lectures this is
obvious, but in none more than in his lectures on
the Economy of Art. And this natural inability is



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 321

increased by his faults of style. His redundancy of
language effectually prevents him from carrying on
clearly any line of argument. His faults of temper
also aggravate this evil. Instead of coolly refuting an
opposite view, he conjures up an opposing contro-
versialist, and rushes off into sarcasm, into reproach,
into fierce denunciation. He has, besides, a most un-
pleasant way of attempting to discuss a point, by



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 25 of 38)