Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Volume 1

Given that John Ruskin when he wrote this book his erudition is astounding, despite the apparent pretension in describing himself as a graduate of Oxford. Unfortunately in the edition I read the publisher admits to ‘numerous typos, missing text, images and indexes.” In fact there are no indexes or images though it is crucial to have access to copies of the works Ruskin refers to in order to grasp the points he laboriously makes. Though it seems much of his labour was to urge a celebration of the landscape painter, Joseph Turner, who died the year the first volume of “Modern Painters” was published, as if it were a way to bring about his apotheosis.

The point of Ruskin’s investigation is to demonstrate that “modern artists, as a body, are far more just and full in their views of material things than any landscape painters whose works are extant”. By material things he means the sky, sea, foliage and the terrain; and he expects a truthful painter to have a deep understanding of all four aspects, or to focus only on those elements that he knows well. He can be harsh in his judgements of painters who travel abroad and paint landscapes which they have not studied, but he is especially scathing of artists who paint from memory or who repeat stock images under different titles or themes, notably Claude Lorrain, Gaspar Poussin and Salvator, whom he condemns repeatedly as charlatans and tricksters, blasphemers who belie God’s creation. He decries Dutch painters, like Cuyp, for their unimaginative attention to detail that fails to capture the truth in perspective, of which Turner was a master.

Apart from Turner, Ruskin lauds James Duffield Harding, who despite, like Cuyp, becoming immersed in obstructive detail, was the foremost European painter of foliage, citing his Stone Pine Plate 25, in his The Park and the Forest. He also acknowledges the ability, though limited of R.A. Creswick for his illustration of “The Nut-brown Maid” because he tries for truth, to paint a ‘real green’. But though Ruskin finds fault with even the artists he favours, it seems he has a strong bias towards English modern painters while decrying the old masters from Italy, France and the Netherlands.

But despite Ruskin’s jingoistic bias, he does inform the reader, in a long-winded way, about what he describes as laws and principles for the ‘truthful’ depiction of the elements of landscapes and seascapes, and the importance of knowing the differences in types of clouds, waves, trees, mountains, leaves; the use of light and shade; and the crucial necessity of reflecting the changes through an entire view if the artist is to render his subject accurately.

Ruskin certainly had no time for poetic licence.

Turner's The Slave Ship


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