Ruskin’s World: Nineteenth-Century England

Nineteenth-century England, the world from which John Ruskin hailed, had a well-developed community of artists and critics well before Ruskin began writing. The Dulwich, the first public art gallery in England, and The National Gallery of Art both opened within ten years of Ruskin’s birth in 1819. While the Royal Academy was declining in popularity, demand for new exhibition spaces resulted in the creation of the Society of British Artists and the New Society of Painters in Water-Colours. As the number of artists and the level of talent in Britain grew, the buying and selling of works also increased. Critics of the day considered England to be “the most vital center of European art,” while modern critics have referred to the Victorian era as “the golden age of English art.”[1]

With the growth of British art, the critical community in England also grew and developed. By the time Ruskin published his first work in 1836, critics had already been discussing many of the themes that Ruskin focused on in his work. For instance, the superiority of the Gothic was an idea already well established when Ruskin began writing, with the Houses of Parliament having been rebuilt in the Gothic style in the 1830s. Furthermore, the relationship between an artist, his morality, and his work had been extensively discussed, many critics having decided that virtue was imperative to the creation of truly good art.[2] While much of the basis for Ruskin’s ideas was not new, he was one of the first to present these ideas in such a detailed and well-developed manner.

With the revolutionizing of the British artistic community came a new view of other cultures, particularly that of Venice. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the English tended to associate Venice with wealth, power, and prosperity. By the seventeenth century, this view had radically changed, as Venice no longer served as an international power and economic depression was plaguing all of Italy. While the English still admired Venice for its beauty, they felt the city was in decline. This period marks the beginning of the longstanding belief that the moral degradation of Venetian citizens had led to their city’s decline, an idea which culminates in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice two centuries later.[3]

As evident in Ruskin’s work, many of the English still regarded Venice as a fallen empire, but this sentiment had become mixed with a sense of admiration and romanticism. The writings of Lord Byron and his contemporaries, along with paintings by Canaletto, J.M.W. Turner, Samuel Prout, and others, shaped this romanticized image of Venice held by most Englishmen in the early nineteenth century. It was with this vision that Ruskin first encountered Venice in 1835, marking the beginning of Ruskin’s love affair with the city, as well as the radical shift in the way that Ruskin viewed both Venice and his native England. His thorough studies of Byzantine and Gothic architecture and Venetian painters, such as Tintoretto, led him to reject the romantic, Byronic view of the city. He came to see two sides of Venice: its former state and its current state, “one ideal and ancient, the other modern and ruinous,” a realization that resulted in several of Ruskin’s major works, including Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, and The Stones of Venice.[4]

[1] Wendell V. Harris, “Ruskin’s Theoretic Practicality and the Royal Academy’s Aesthetic Idealism,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 52, no. 1 (June 1997): 81-82, (accessed September 27, 2008).

[2] Ibid., 84.

[3] Jeanne Clegg, Ruskin and Venice (London: Junction Books, 1981), 17.

[4] Ibid., 2.

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