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asking a series of questions a device probably in-
tended to impart liveliness, but which, to our mind,
only imparts obscurity. Thus, in vol. iii., ch. 10, he
starts an inquiry as to the use of pictures compared
with real landscape. No inquiry could be more in-
teresting or more instructive, if clear and precise.
But it is disfigured with questions, and abrupt transi-
tions, and polemical episodes, till the reader comes to
the end, wearied, perplexed, and indignant.

Worst of all is, that a want of arrangement and
connection marks "Modern Painters" as a whole. To
this Mr. Ruskin would, of course, reply, that the
book has grown to its present size unexpectedly ; that
at first it was intended merely as a defence of Turner
as a reply to ignorant critics who failed to honour
the great painter duly. But though we may admit
this defence to be a good defence, it does not remove
the blemish. The disproportion of the various parts is
indeed accounted for, and that in a very natural way ;
but it still remains a blot on the completed work. In
spite of it, the book will live ; more than that : in
spite of it, the book will mark an era in the history of
art ; but it is a drawback, and a grave one. It pre-
vents these volumes from being, what they ought, and
easily might have been, the development of a perfect
philosophy of art criticism. We would not willingly
descend to minute criticism on such a matter. But
the whole of vol. ii. is an excrescence. Every line of



322 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

it, excepting possibly the four chapters on the Ima-
gination, should have been worked up with other por-
tions of the book. It is embarrassing to the most
patient student to have principles thus separated
from their application. Almost the same may be said
of vol. iii. It is, in many respects, the most interest-
ing and beautiful of all, but it does not cohere with
the plan (if there ever was any plan) of the work. In
vol. i the ideas which are to be received from art
were classified into ideas of Power, Imitation, Truth,
Beauty, and Eelation. Now ideas of Imitation are
never treated of at all ; ideas of Power are never
treated of fully ; ideas of Truth and Beauty are fully
worked out ; and we hear nothing of ideas of Eela-
tion, which involve " the noblest subjects of Art," till
we come to the middle of vol. v., and are bewildered
by those chapters with the wonderful titles which
foolish people think very fine, but which no man of
sense can read with patience.

This want of a sense of proportion is especially
prejudicial to Mr. Euskin as a critic of architecture.
For architecture, beyond any other art, is concerned
with ideas of symmetry and of relation of subordina-
tion of the parts to the whole. No man can be a
great architect no man can be a great critic of
architecture in whose mind the feeling of propor-
tion is not a commanding idea. In Mr. Euskin's
mind this feeling does not exist. He fails to keep
the main purpose constantly before him ; he runs off
into disproportionate elaboration of details. Criti-
cism like his leads to a style of architecture rich, and
in a certain sense beautiful, but in which adaptation
and completeness are both wanting. Buildings in
this style as, for instance, the New Museum at
Oxford are so elaborated in every particular, that
the meaning and purpose of the whole is altogether



THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 323

obscured. The ornament is indeed all vital orna-
ment ; but it is so studied that it becomes dispro-
portionate, and throws the main object out of view.

We have already noticed Mr. Kuskin's prejudices
and occasional injustice. His omissions affect us
with not less surprise. Of course the answer to this
is, to repeat that the book was not a treatise on paint-
ing, but a pamphlet in defence of Turner. But what-
ever may have been the original intention, " Modern
Painters" has now grown to a size which entitles us
to expect that there should be few serious omissions.
It is impossible not to regret Mr. Buskin's compara-
tive silence on the Spanish school, and his entire
neglect of the early Flemish painters. Nor is the
list of notable English painters exhausted. Wilkie,
though not strictly a landscape painter, surely de-
served some notice ; and still more unaccountable
is the treatment of Linnell. That truly English
painter is only mentioned twice once in an .ap-
pendix, and once in a foot-note. All who remember
the beautiful Linnells in the Manchester Exhibition
will wonder at this, and regret it. Mr. Kuskin's
remarks on Linnell would have been most interesting
and most instructive.

With all its faults and shortcomings, "Modern
Painters" has done more for art than any one book
in the English language. Mr. Euskin began to write
filled with noble aims. He was resolved on vindi-
cating the fame of a great artist; and, as the best
means of so doing, on expounding to the world the
true glory of art. That glory he taught us to find
not in mere dexterity and tricks of skill, but in
reverently approaching the perfection of nature, and
in declaring the external beauty of the universe. For
immediate effect he did not hope ; yet he cherished
the expectation that " conviction would follow in due



324 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

time." His last volume breathes bitter disappoint-
ment : " Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful
things, thinking to be understood ; now I cannot any
more, for it seems to me that no one regards them."
We confess to a very different estimate of Mr. Euskin's
labours. To the painter he has given deep and true
rules for the interpretation of nature : the public he
has taught to judge of art by rational and intelligible
standards. Much of Mr. Euskin's advice to the
painter has, of course, been given before. He has
before been told that his first business is to learn to
paint, though the invariable connection between the
highest artistic merit and the greatest expressional
power has never been so distinctly enforced as in
Appendix 15 to vol. i. of "The Stones of Venice."
He has before been told of the duty of finish ; but
never was the duty so strictly inculcated as in the
second and third volumes of " Modern Painters :"
"No truly great man can be named in the arts, but
it was that of one who finished to his utmost." But
the originality of Mr. Euskin's criticism lies in this,
that he insists on judging pictures by the amount of
thought which they exhibit and convey : " He is the
greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his
works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas."
The perfect landscape, for example, is that which
brings before the eye of the spectator some scene of
nature, and at the same time guides his imagination
to those thoughts and feelings which such a scene is
calculated to excite. To accomplish this, there is
requisite truth of imitation, and worthiness in the
thing imitated. In treating this latter point, Mr.
Euskin has fallen foul of the Dutch and Flemish
schools, and has excited much foolish indignation
thereby.

Now all art poetry and painting alike is unques-



THE WHITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 325

tionably, as Aristotle said long ago, imitation. But it
is not imitation only. Something more than mere
mimicry is demanded of it, and that something is the
selection of worthy themes. Had Mr. Buskin's writ-
ings established nothing more than this that mere
undiscriminating representation of external objects,
however accurate, is nothing but a commonplace
trick, no more deserving admiration than the antics
of a monkey he would have rendered an inestimable
service to art. If ever his intolerance gains our
sympathy, it is when he contemptuously leaves the
admirers of the Flemish school " to count the spicula
of hay-stacks, and the hairs of donkeys." Why, in the
name of all that is wonderful, should I admire, we
may fancy a plain man exclaiming, pictures of cheeses,
and pipes, and pots of beer, and "boors drinking"?
I don't like boors in any circumstances. Withal, the
concomitants so much affected by Dutch painters cer-
tainly do not improve them. I would go, our exaspe-
rated amateur continues, a very considerable distance
out of my way in order to avoid boors drinking ; and
why, then, should similitudes of that unpleasing sight
be stuck over my walls ; and, above all, why should
I be called on to think them very fine ? Questions
certainly hard to answer. It is, indeed, surprising
what deep roots this fallacy has struck, and how long
it has flourished. Pictures of pot-houses, and dung-
hills, and scenes of debauchery, however true to the
miserable facts they tell, and however brilliant in
colouring, or skilful in composition, can claim no other
admiration than that which we reluctantly accord to
the indecencies of Byron or the witty profanities of
Voltaire. Plato saw this long ago ; and, as usual,
shrinking from no extreme to which his theory led
him, would have excluded even Homer from his ideal
state, because the poet represented scenes and depicted



326 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

emotions so coarse and violent as to be unbecoming
exemplars. Few would follow the philosopher quite
so far ; but his doctrine is right in the main. Not
only the low and degraded aspects of life, but excess
of misery, and the extremes of ignoble passion
danger, torture, and death, anger, and overmastering
grief or terror, it were wise to eschew, unless, indeed,
the theme be so set forth, that the mind is exalted by
the contemplation of the divine mercy, or strengthened
by the teaching of human love, or fortitude, or self-
devotion. In short, while all must aim at truth, the
rank of an artist is determined by the extent to which
he aims at spiritual truth, and the truth of beauty.

" High art, therefore, consists neither in altering, nor in
improving nature ; but in seeking throughout nature for
' whatsoever things are lovely, and whatsoever things are
pure;' in loving these, in displaying to the utmost of the
painter's power such loveliness as is in them, and directing
the thoughts of others to them by winning art, or gentle
emphasis. Of the degree in which this can be done, and in
which it may be permitted to gather together, without falsi-
fying, the finest forms or thoughts, so as to create a sort of
perfect vision, we shall have to speak hereafter : at present,
it is enough to remember that art (cceteris paribus) is great
in exact proportion to the love of beauty shown by the
painter, provided that love of beauty forfeit no atom of
truth." ..." In this respect, schools of art become higher
in exact proportion to the degree in which they apprehend
and love the beautiful. Thus, Angelico, intensely loving all
spiritual beauty, will be of the highest rank; and Paul
Veronese and Correggio, intensely loving physical and cor-
poreal beauty, of the second rank ; and Albert Durer, Eubens,
and in general the Northern artists, apparently insensible to
beauty, and caring only for truth, whether shapely or not, of
the third rank; and Teniers and Salvator, Caravaggio, and
other such worshippers of the depraved, of no rank, or, as
w r e said before, of a certain order in the abyss." " Modern
Painters," vol. iii. pp. 35, 36, 34.



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 327

At the same time, whatever be the object to be re-
presented, it must, above all things, be represented
faithfully. On no point has Mr. Ruskin laboured
more than on the necessity for truth. It is, he says,
" a bar at which all artists may be examined, and
according to the rank they take in this examination
will almost invariably be that which, if capable of
appreciating them in every respect, we should be just
in assigning them." His sarcasm is nowhere more
successful than in exploding the " generalising" theory :
" If there were a creature in the foreground of a pic-
ture, of which he could not decide whether it were a
pony or a pig, the critic of the ' Athenaeum ' would
perhaps affirm it to be a generalisation of pony and
pig, and consequently a high example of ' harmonious
union, and simple effect/ But / should call it simple
bad drawing." There can be no more reason why a
man should paint a tree unlike any known existing
tree, than why he should paint a beech-tree and call
it an oak. The prominence which Mr. Ruskin has
given to this topic, and the vehemence with which he
has insisted on it, have exposed him, more than any-
thing else, to the charge of inconsistency. But the
charge is not, we think, well founded. If any reader
will candidly compare chap. iv. of Part n. with chap,
iv. of Part v., he will be able to work out an intelli-
gible and consistent doctrine on this matter though,
like all Mr. Ruskin's doctrines, it might have been far
more simply and shortly expressed.

Is, then, the artist a copyist only ? Not so, any
more than the poet. It will help us if we bear in
mind that these arts are really alike, except that they
use a different language. He who speaks to us in
painting must speak truth not more or less, or other-
wise, than he who speaks to us in words. The secret
is given in a sentence not the individual, but the



328 THE WETTINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

specific is to be aimed at. " Every herb, flower,
and tree has a form to which it has a tendency to
arrive ; " and that is the ideal form of art. The
duty of the artist, therefore, is not to alter nature,
thinking to improve that were presumption ; but to
understand, and, understanding, to interpret to select
scenes of beauty and instruction, and to impress that
beauty and instruction on our minds. With this
purpose and end, he may give us combinations which
he has never seen exactly as he presents them the
artist is not a copyist ; but he must study the har-
mony of the whole ; he must observe unity of feeling
in every part, and propriety in the relation which
each part has to another, and all to the final result ;
he must avoid contradictions, and all things out of
keeping ; he must introduce nothing for the sake of
its own immediate effect, which is so often done ; in
a word, he must not " make up" a so-called ideal
landscape. Byron, who has so often and so truly
interpreted painting through the medium of poetry,
expresses the exact idea :

" A green field is a sight which makes us pardon
The absence of that more sublime construction,
Which mixes up vines, olives, precipices,
Glaciers, volcanoes, oranges, and ices."

The creations of the artist may seem as of an ideal
world, yet are only of the world around us, seen by
his insight and explained by his art. Herein lies the
genius of the painter : imagination is, in a sense,
creative ; painting is not photography. It is in in-
sisting on the presence of this imperial faculty, in
seeing clearly the relation between the mind of the
artist and nature, in illustrating the scope and influ-
ence of the imagination over reality, that Mr. Kuskin's
great merit consists. The necessity for the combina-



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSK1N. 329

tion of truth with imaginative power is the key-note
of Mr. Buskin's criticism. In expounding this dualism,
he exposes himself almost unavoidably to the blame
of inconsistency. Sometimes he labours at the one
branch of it, sometimes at the other ; and by contrast-
ing his dogmas on each occasion, an appearance of
plausibility may be given to the charge. But such
fault-finding is shallow and unfair. Taking Mr.
Ruskin's writings as a whole, the candid student will
easily find guidance in this puzzling question will be
taught how to reconcile the claims of truth with the
freedom of genius. It is not allowable that the ima-
gination should, as in Raphael's cartoon of "The Charge
to Peter," substitute a cheerful Italian landscape, with
convenient sheep, for the fire of coals on the desolate
sea- shore, should give us a stately band of all the
Apostles, robed and curled, and dignified as Grecian
sages, instead of the favoured seven, their raiments
girt hastily round their naked limbs, wearied with the
fruitless labours of the night, wet with struggling
through the waters to meet their Lord upon the land,
in a word, should falsify and make unreal the scene
at the Lake of Galilee, when our Saviour appeared to
His disciples. 1 On the other hand, it is allowed to
the imagination seeking, with Tintoret, the essential
truth and internal idea of the thing represented
to open out, in the Baptism, a wild distance of
mysterious light, in the midst of which the figure
of Christ is seen, in solitary supplication, borne into
the wilderness to be tempted of the devil, in the
background of the Entombment, to recall to our
minds the lowly scene of the Nativity by the roofing
of a ruined cattle-shed; and the loneliness of the

1 At the same time, it does not become Mr. Ruskin or any man, in
speaking of Raphael, to use such language as " infinite monstrosity and
hypocrisy."

Y



330 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

life of sacrifice, by desert places in which the foxes
have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but
the Son of Man had not where to lay His head ;
and, lastly, in the " Crucifixion," that we may under-
stand how disappointed pride hurried the Jewish
people from the hosannahs of the entry into Jeru-
salem to the tumultuous fury of the judgment-seat
of Pilate, "in the shadow behind the cross, a man,
riding on an ass colt, looks back to the multitude,
while he points with a rod to the Christ crucified.
The ass is feeding on the remnants of withered
palm -leaves." 1

No one, we think, can adequately estimate either
Mr. Ruskin or his writings, who does not keep con-
stantly in mind this his law or test whereby to judge
of pictures, i.e. the thoughts which they convey and
suggest. It proves his honesty, it explains his incon-
sistencies, it accounts for the enmity he has excited.
It proves his honesty, because no man who was other
than honest would have ventured to work out a theory
so difficult and so dangerous. In this respect the con-
stitution of Mr. Ruskin 's mind is a great puzzle. He is,
on occasion, sophistical beyond measure in thought and
argument ; he is never, we really believe, other than
straightforward in his aims. He shows this by the
courage with which he faces the real difficulties of
every question which he discusses. Here in painting,
for example, he has not shrouded himself in techni-
calities, or contented himself with external criticism.
On the contrary, he can boast with truth that "every
principle which I have stated is traced to some vital
and spiritual fact." So, too, in architecture, his point
of judgment is a comparison of the influences of
the various schools on the mind of the workman
a position which leads him into endless trouble ;

1 " Modern Painters," vol. ii. p. 174.



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN. 331

and even his papers on Political Economy in the
"Cornhill" possess this merit, that they at least
attempt to solve the apparent contradiction between
the selfish maxims of the science and the higher
feelings of human nature. His earnest wish for truth
forces him to encounter these subtle themes ; but his
courage makes him unconscious of paradox, and his
illogical habits of mind lead him into the wildest
regions of sophism and self-contradiction. Thus, in
the present case, the endeavour to work out his law
or test of painting is the true cause of the seeming
inconsistency of his judgments. When things so very
doubtful as thought or feeling are the grounds of
judgment, the judgments can scarcely be uniform.
It is so hard to trace them on any steadfast principle,
to mark with certainty their presence or their absence.
So much, too, depends on ourselves. In some instances,
we may supply them when they were wanting ; in
other instances, they may abound and yet be undis-
cerned by us. And this difficulty is increased by the
fact, that many painters never painted with this test
present to their minds. Not a few even of the great
names in art never troubled themselves about it. And
it is not easy, where all other excellence is found, to
detect and condemn the absence of feeling. Let no
one doubt but that it is the true test of excellence, in
painting as in all other art ; but it is not the less a
test most difficult to apply. Charles Lamb, as we
before observed, was one of the few former critics
who penetrated to the heart and sentiment of a
picture. We have already alluded to^his two essays :
in the same spirit are the following lines on a portrait
by Titian, which had succeeded a more worthy portrait
by Leonardo :

" Who art thou, fair one, who usurp'st the place
Of Blanch, the lady of the matchless grace ?



332 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSK IN.

Come, fair and pretty, tell to me,

Who, in thy lifetime, thou might'st be.

Thou pretty art and fair,

But with the Lady Blanch thou never must compare.

No need for Blanch her history to tell ;

Whoever saw her face, they there did read it well.

But when I look on thee, I only know

There lived a pretty maid some hundred years ago."

Let us not, however, be misunderstood. We do not
mean to say, and Mr. Ruskin never meant to say, that
painting, viewed merely as an art, has no excellence
peculiarly its own. Undoubtedly it has such an ex-
cellence : the goodness or the badness of the vehicle
of our thought is a matter of no slight moment. But
we do mean to say that this excellence is an excel-
lence of expression of language only. In its highest
development, it is almost always combined with ex-
cellence of the thought expressed or spoken. But
when it falls short of this, it is foolishness and
emptiness. It may be beautiful exceedingly it may
be rich in gorgeous colouring, and lovely with all
the loveliness of effective light and shadow ; but if
" the little bright drop from the soul " be absent, it is
not the highest art. To take poetry once more as an
illustration: it cannot be denied that rhythm, and
music, and felicity of expression are charms of no
common power. But, like mere personal beauty,
such charms are faint and fleeting, unless they come
from the heart and go to the heart. No poetry dwells
in the mind which possesses external perfection only.
On the other hand, when the heart is caught by the
feeling of the poem, howsoever simple the words may
be, as in Scott's " Proud Maisie," the charm endures
for ever. Compare, too, on this point, portrait-painting
and photography. The photographist catches only
the external appearance of a single moment. The



THE WRITINGS OF JOHN KUSKIN. 333

portrait-painter, if he be equal to his art, must accom-
plish far more. He must reach to the character and
real essence of the man, and make that appear in the
outward similitude ; even although that appearance
may be rare, though he himself may have never seen
it worn. He must not paint a face merely ; he must
represent a human being. As in Leonardo's portrait,
there must be " no need for Blanch her history to tell."
So, too, the landscape-painter may paint a scene on
which, in all its details, his visible eye has never gazed,
but which the inner eye of the imagination has revealed
to him as true to the reality of nature. Sculpture,
the most ideal of all the arts, affords yet another illus-
tration. The sculptor must speak with faltering lips,
and with a half-utterance which we often fail to hear.
There is less beauty and perfectness in his language
as such, than in the language of any other art. It is
apt to be obscure, may be quite meaningless, and
when it is so, possessing no loveliness in itself at all.
Exquisite may be the proportions of the marble ; but
if the soul is wanting, the rest is a small matter.
Kenyon's bust of Donatello possessed, to those who
caught its meaning, a far deeper attraction than the
Faun of Praxiteles. When truth and thought do
speak clearly through the imperfect medium, they
come to our imagination with a power and an appeal-
ing unrivalled by the other arts. Sculpture attains
an ideality altogether its own when it achieves its
highest triumphs when even in the o^drwv a-^via^
nature and life shine visible, though love may stray
unsatisfied. The same holds good with music. The
" concord of sweet sounds " is not enough something
more should charm than melody pleasant to the
ear. All music, worthy of the name, bears the im-
press of the feelings which inspired the composer ;
and thus it is that the works of the great masters



334 THE WRITINGS OF JOHN RUSKIN.

especially, for example, Beethoven impart a pleasure,
far higher and purer than can be derived from any
gratification of an outward sense. In short, the great
painter, to quote Keynolds not generally a profound



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 26 of 38)