John Ruskin: Victorian Thought and Criticism

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  • 0:05 Introduction
  • 3:10 Early Life and Focus on Art
  • 4:26 Modern Painters
  • 6:58 Other Works
  • 8:32 Later Life and Social Critique
  • 12:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

From his beginnings as a poet and painter to his status as one of Victorian England's foremost social critics, learn all about John Ruskin's influence on the worlds of art and economic structure.


If you think about your favorite creative person - I don't know, maybe Joss Whedon. He's a favorite of mine - Buffy, Firefly, all those good things; imagine if he used his artistic background to transition from being just a producer of art to being a critic of stuff, an important essayist, a thinker, a social critic of things. Imagine if that were to happen. Or if Roger Ebert, a famous film critic, eventually wrote a whole bunch of book-length treatises about 21st-century social skills. That would be the kind of career transition that was made by Victorian thinker John Ruskin. He began his professional life as a painter and an art critic, eventually ended up contributing to discourse across many topics and helping to shape socialist and charitable institutions through his thought.

In case you haven't figured it out already, this in one of those non-fiction lessons that needs the non-fiction glasses. These are Harry Potter glasses. I bought these at a costume shop, just in case you're wondering. That's why there's tape down the nose.

We're going to talk about Ruskin's written output. The guy was super prolific, with over 50 works to his name, and we are not going to talk about all of them - even I would get bored. It's important to keep in mind a general principle that informed all of his work. To Ruskin, 'art' doesn't just refer to a pretty picture. Art, to him, is the natural expression of humanity's commune with truth, beauty and the divine. That's how he sees it.

In a lecture at Oxford he remarked that 'The teaching of Art… is the teaching of all things,' and he believed that art was the measure of a nation's well-being: 'The art of any country is the exponent of its social and political virtues.' To get back to our opening metaphor, it would be like Roger Ebert saying that a country is only as good as the movies it produces. If you go and pause and look at Fandango right now to see what's playing at your local theater, you might be horrified, if this were true. I don't know what's playing right now. I think Madagascar III is one of them. In an earlier lesson I joked about Madagascar III. It turns out that it's real, and it's playing right now. If Ruskin is right about the artistic output reflecting the country, then I think we're all doomed. Anyway, back to Ruskin.

For the sake of easy conceptualization, easy demarcation, we're going to divide Ruskin's life into two halves - his artistic phase and his social critique phase. There's a lot of overlap between them, and we've already established that the ideas he explores in the two are definitely linked. His most important published works can be easily organized into these two categories, and it's a handy way to show the gradual universalization of Ruskin's thoughts and how he goes from art to more generalized thinking.

Early Life and Focus on Art

He was born in London in 1819. He's the only child of two first cousins, which kind of makes modern day people go 'eww' but made ancient day people go ... I don't know. His father was a wine importer. His business required a great deal of travel, which Ruskin would actually go along with and actually helped shape a lot of his views because he was a well-traveled little kid. For much of his life, he was educated at home, although he eventually went off to Oxford. It didn't really agree with him. He didn't like it so much, although he did end up winning a poetry prize, which was good. He tried it more than a few times, but he eventually won.

But poetry turned out not to be where Ruskin's real creative interests were. Otherwise, I wouldn't have these nonfiction glasses on, would I? While he was traveling with his family, he was falling in love with landscapes and architecture. He was exposed to lots of interesting things. From a pretty young age, he would sketch really complicated maps, buildings and nature scenes. These drawings were heavily influenced by a Romantic painter named JMW Turner, who ends up becoming a crucial figure both in Ruskin's published life and in his personal life.

Modern Painters

When he was 15, Ruskin published three articles in the Magazine of Natural History, which indicated even then that he had a real attentive eye to detail in nature. He would gradually expand on this idea. His first published book of criticism, 1843's Modern Painters I (there's a few more coming as you might notice from that Roman numeral), is ostensibly a defense of JMW Turner's works and also presents Ruskin's artistic philosophy for the first time. He's saying that the goal of the artist was truth to nature, which just means he wants to see moral as well as material truth. In other words, he's saying that good art isn't just about representing a thing on the canvas (which would be the 'material'), it's also about the impression of the world that it conveys (and that's the 'moral'). Art is about thought and about matter. You can't just paint a pretty picture. It has to say something about the world, is what he's arguing.

Two years later, he publishes a second volume of art criticism. This one is more focused on the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance painters. Here, he more concretely connects truth, beauty, and divinity. He says, 'the Beautiful as a gift from God.' The role of the great artist, at least for Ruskin, is to perceive beauty, divinity and truth, and communicate it through his work. This goes along with his earlier message. You can't just have a pretty picture. You have to have something there behind it. In this way, the artist functions more as a translator than as a communicator, which is an interesting idea if you think about it. It's a very Romantic notion, probably influenced by Turner, probably influenced by Ruskin's own father, who was into people like Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, who are Romantic authors.

Ruskin rejects all notions that art is mechanical. He thinks it should really be a soulful, holistic, creative process, not one that you can replicate in a cold, sterile environment like a studio. You need to be out experiencing it. In 1856, he publishes Modern Painters III (remember we said there'd be more of them). He would write that art is 'the expression of spirits of great men.' That's his real art theory.

Other Works

Beyond the Modern Painters volumes, he published a whole bunch of other art criticism books, in the 1840s and 1850s, that illuminate other key parts of his philosophy. In 1849's The Seven Lamps of Architecture, readers learn that Ruskin vehemently opposed architectural restoration - he only wants to preserve things. If the Globe Theater burns down, he does not think that we should rebuild it. It should be lost forever. He writes about it, that 'it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.' I don't know; that's his opinion.

His three-volume The Stones of Venice from 1851-1853 (that's a whole bunch of works that he's publishing in that), he continues his anti-restoration thread. He attempts instead to preserve in words what he sees as a city whose architecture is being ruined by Austrians who were occupying it and by corrupt artists. It's in these volumes that his cultural critique starts to seep in to his writing. This is where we see the transition from art to more social writing. In the second volume of Stones, he writes this passage about the disconnect between gentlemen and workmen (upper class people and lower class people, essentially):

'… it is only by labor that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labor can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.'

He's saying that you have to work to be good, essentially. His postulations on creative work, division of labor and industrial capitalism are brief here, but they're there, and they soon become the focus of his career, as we'll see next.

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