Ruskin’s “Modern Painters”

Though Ruskin is best known in the art world for his architectural studies, he repeatedly returned to the topics of drawing and painting throughout his career, and was even an artist himself. His five-volume Modern Painters, written over the course of seventeen years during the early part of his career, provides one of the most important modern works of art criticism, as well as an insight into how his ideas were developing over time. There are several major themes present in each of these five volumes, but, as each volume was written separately, Ruskin’s ideas clearly change from the first to the fifth volume, suggesting that the writer’s ideas were undergoing constant reevaluation throughout his career.[1]

The first volume of Modern Painters originally carried the subtitle “Their Superiority on the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters, proved by example of The True, The Beautiful and the Intellectual, from the Works of Modern Artists, especially those of J.M.W. Turner, Esq., R.A.,” revealing the original purpose of the work: to argue the superiority of Turner.[2]

J.M.W. Turner, The Sun of Venice: Going to Sea, exhibited 1843, Tate Gallery, London

J.M.W. Turner, The Sun of Venice: Going to Sea, exhibited 1843, Tate Gallery, London

The Sun of Venice: Going to Sea, exhibited by Turner in 1843, is one of the artist’s many paintings analyzed by Ruskin. First, he praises the accurate portrayal of the brightly painted sail of the boat, a common sight in Venice, but one that Ruskin feels other artists rarely portray. Secondly, he praises the way that Turner paints the water’s surface, saying that “no man had ever painted the surface of calm water but Turner.”[3] Here, Turner has no reflections from nearby buildings to assist him in depicting the surface, but must rely on line and color. In Ruskin’s opinion, Turner’s ability to do this is one of the skills that sets him apart from other painters of Venice, such as Canaletto.

Canaletto, The Rialto Bridge, 1735-1740, The Louvre, Paris

Canaletto, The Rialto Bridge, 1735-1740, The Louvre, Paris

In contrast to Turner’s sense of movement across the water’s surface, Canaletto “almost always covers the whole space of it with one monotonous ripple.”[4] This technique is seen in Canaletto’s The Rialto Bridge, painted between 1735 and 1740, where the artist paints geometrically identical ripples across the whole surface of the water. Furthermore, he paints neat, clear reflections of the buildings, as if they were on a “quiet lake” rather than the busy Grand Canal.[5] Looking at The Sun of Venice: Going to Sea, as well as Turner’s own The Rialto, done between 1820 and 1821, it is clear that Turner’s surface possesses a much more realistic sense of movement and reflection, as one would see in a modern city, turning away from the calm, idealized version of Venice seen in Canaletto.

J.M.W. Turner, The Rialto, 1820-21, Indianapolis Museum of Art

J.M.W. Turner, The Rialto, 1820-21, Indianapolis Museum of Art

As the first volume of Modern Painters grew into four later volumes, Ruskin widened his focus, creating a monumental treatise on art during modern times, as well a thorough investigation of the connection between art, humanity, God, and nature. Throughout, he repeatedly returns to the subject of Venice, as seen through his own observations and those of painters of Venice. In his studies of Venetian-born painters, including Tintoretto and Titian, he concludes that they are superior. Ruskin also argues the idea that art serves as “an index to the moral health of the society” that created it.[6] It is in the fifth volume of Modern Painters that Ruskin bemoans the current state of Venice:

I know not how far in humility, or how far in bitter and hopeless levity, the great Venetians gave their art to be blasted by the sea-winds or wasted by the worm. I know not whether in sorrowful disobedience, or in wanton compliance, they fostered the folly, and enriched the luxury of their age. This only I know, that in proportion to the greatness of their power was the shame of its desecration and the suddenness of its fall. The enchanter’s spell, woven by centuries of toil, was broken in the weakness of a moment; and swiftly, and utterly, as a rainbow vanishes, the radiance and the strength faded from the wings of the Lion.[7]

Here, it is apparent that Ruskin, while still fascinated with Venice, has been thoroughly disillusioned by its current state. Although he is unable to determine what role art played in this downfall, he does suggest that art has served as a reflection of it. In his major discourse on architecture, The Stones of Venice, as well as in the work leading up to it, The Seven Lamps of Architecture¸ he repeatedly returns to the idea that a society’s degeneration is visible in its art and architecture.

[1] Clark, 132.

[2] Clegg, 45.

[3] John Ruskin, Modern Painters¸ edited and abridged by David Barrie (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1987), 148.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Harris, 90.

[7] Ruskin, Modern Painters, 543.

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