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This book traces the sources and development of Ruskin's aesthetic and critical theories. In his attempt to skirt the danger of excessive emotion and association in art, Ruskin's struggle with the sublime but not the picturesque, is, along with the pathetic fallacy, examined. These concepts, too, are considered in light of Ruskin's continuing religious and intellectual development. Finally, Ruskin's loss of faith is analyzed in relation to the problem of allegory in art. Ruskin argued for an unchanging standard of beauty, though the psychological nature of the artist is related to his art medium.
Originally published in 1971.
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Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin
By George P. Landow
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1971 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Ruskin's Theory of the Sister Arts
I. Ruskin and the tradition of ut pictura poesis
The weary tradition of ut pictura poesis, so popular throughout the eighteenth century, had all but died by 1856 when John Ruskin published the third volume of Modern Painters, and it is thus striking to encounter a statement that "Painting is properly to be opposed to speaking or writing, but not to poetry. Both painting and speaking are methods of expression. Poetry is the employment of either for the noblest purposes" (5.31). In this same volume Ruskin again describes art as expression: "Great art is produced by men who feel acutely and nobly; and it is in some sort an expression of this personal feeling" (5.32). It is characteristic of Ruskin's relation to previous criticism that he has added a romantic emphasis on the expression of emotion to an older and rather unfashionable view that verse and painting are analogous arts. If we can perceive the manner in which Ruskin drew upon both these ways of considering art, we shall gain entrance at an important point to his ideas about painting and poetry. We shall, therefore, begin by examining the notion of ut pictura poesis, next consider the idea of art based on expression of emotion, and then investigate the ways in which these views, in the form Ruskin encountered them, occasionally conflicted.
Ruskin began Modern Painters as a defense of J.M.W. Turner against charges that his works were not true to life; and though this defense became entwined with other interests and Ruskin was led far afield before he reached the final volume seventeen years after he had begun the first, Modern Painters in part remained a vindication, a defense, just as Ruskin himself, to the end of his career, remained a missionary whose proselytizing devices ranged from golden descriptions to the harshest polemic. It is thus particularly appropriate that a work which had been undertaken to defend the value of painting should have referred to the principle of ut pictura poesis, for throughout the Renaissance and eighteenth century, poetry and painting had been juxtaposed as a means of defending the prestige of the visual art. In Renaissance Italy, in eighteenth-century England, and in the England of 1843, when Ruskin published the first volume of Modern Painters, painting was the younger sister of poetry, trying to edge into social acceptability on the arm of an elder relation. Since the Renaissance, artists had vehemently protested that their enterprise, like the poet's, was not merely a craft or trade but a liberal art requiring mental skills capable of providing great gifts for mankind. Modern notions of the fine arts had not existed in the Middle Ages and grew slowly. Painters of saddles and painters of fresco were often placed in the same guilds. Poetry, on the other hand, had no connections with trade; and although, as in the English Renaissance, literary arts occasionally had to be guarded against charges of triviality or immorality, it was generally accepted that poetry was a liberal art possessing a long history of service for intellect and soul. As Rensselaer W. Lee has shown, the obvious defense of the painter's work and status was in a close alliance of the two arts which relied heavily upon support from the classics. Zeuxis and Simonides, Aristotle and Horace were summoned to the defense, and their illustrative comparisons became the basis of a widely held theory of the arts. This hardening of analogies produced the humanistic theory of painting which emphasized that painting had to depend upon poetry, both as model and source, for subject, content, and purpose. As poetry drew painting upward, it impressed its own nature on the sister art.
Ruskin, who had encountered the principle of ut pictura poesis in his favorite critics and in the practice of his favorite artist, was well versed in this manner of viewing the arts long before he began to write Modern Painters. In addition to references to ut pictura poesis which Ruskin would have found in eighteenth-century literary criticism, he read the usual formulations in Reynolds's Discourses and in the published versions of similar lectures which Henri Fuseli and James Barry delivered before the Royal Academy. It was probably after finishing his first volume that Ruskin read another famous work on the subject, Leonardo da Vinci's Treatise on Painting. With the Discourses this remained in later years one of Ruskin's favorite works of critical theory.
Turner, the painter whose works Ruskin knew best when he began Modern Painters, believed in the principle of ut pictura poesis, and the titles and epigraphs which he gave his paintings emphasize his own alliance of poetry and painting. Of the approximately 200 oil paintings which Turner exhibited in his lifetime, 53 have poetic epigraphs, and 26 of these the artist composed himself. In addition Turner used five passages from the Bible. Of the poetic epigraphs which Turner appended to his paintings, six are from Thomson and three from Milton, both poets whom he discussed in his own lectures at the Academy. Byron, with whom Ruskin compared Turner in the last volume of Modern Painters, was the source of three epigraphs, and the painter also used selections from Rogers, Mallet, Gray, Langhorne, Ovid, Pope's Iliad, and Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting. The titles of sixty canvases, often those without epigraphs, make reference to Shakespeare, Byron, Ossian, and other poets, and in addition, many of the water colors similarly employ poetry for title or epigraph. For more than a century, Ruskin was the only critic to pay any close attention to Turner's use of poetry. In contrast, the painter's biographer, A. J. Finberg, a man most unsuited to his task, makes no use whatsoever of Turner's own "Fallacies of Hope" and pays little attention to the all important epigraphs. Indeed, not until the recent valuable work of Jack Lindsay, who has edited Turner's hitherto unpublished poems and contributed a critical biography, has there been an appreciation of the value of the painter's poetry comparable to Ruskin's. The author of Modern Painters early perceived how the poems which the artist appended to his works provide major clues to his intentions. He points out that the "course of his mind may be traced" (13.125) through the poetry he attached to his works:
His first [epigraph] was given in 1798 (with the view of Coniston Fell, now numbered 461) from Paradise Lost, and there is a strange ominousness — as there is about much that great men do — in the choice of it. Consider how these four lines, the first he ever chose, express Turner's peculiar mission as distinguished from other landscapists: —
"Ye mists and exhalations, that now rise From hill, or steaming lake, dusky or grey, Till the sun paint your fleecy skirts with gold, In honour to the world's great Author rise."
In this and the next year ... came various quotations, descriptive of atmospheric effects, from Thomson, interspersed with two or three from Milton, and one from Mallet.
In 1800, some not very promising "anon" lines were attached to views of Dolbadern and Caernarvon Castles. Akenside and Ossian were next laid under contribution. Then Ovid, Callimachus, and Homer. At last, in 1812, the "Fallacies of Hope" begin, apropos of Hannibal's crossing the Alps: and this poem continues to be the principal text-book, with occasional recurrences to Thomson, one passage from Scott, and several from Byron. ... The "Childe Harold" ... is an important proof of his respect for the genius of Byron. (13.125-126)
Ruskin, then, was well aware of the continued importance of poetry to his favorite painter, and when we examine his interpretations of Turner in a later chapter, we shall perceive how sensitive was Ruskin to the implications of "The Fallacies of Hope." The author of Modern Painters, who uses "the words painter and poet quite indifferently" (5.221), knew that he was following the precedent of Turner: the full title of one of the paintings exhibited in 1842 in whose behalf Ruskin began his book is Snowstorm: Steamboat off a Harbour's Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the night the Ariel left Harwich (see Plate 1). In his description of the Turner Bequest, Ruskin places an asterisk after author and instructs the reader to note "Turner's significant use of this word, instead of 'artist'" (13.161n).
Moreover, as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, Turner delivered lectures between 1811 and 1823 which often considered the relation of the two arts. Jerrold Ziff's recent article, "J.M.W. Turner on Poetry and Painting," discusses the preparation and content of these hitherto unpublished and almost unknown writings. Between the time Turner received his appointment in 1807 and four years later when he delivered his first lecture, he studied standard treatises on perspective and also read the usual works on art theory, including Charles Du Fresnoy, John Opie, Roger de Piles, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jonathan Richardson, and Sir Martin Archer Shee. The lectures themselves contain discussions of verse by Milton and Thomson, these being the only known instances of the painter's written analyses of verse which he appended to his own paintings. Ziff quotes this paraphrase of Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination, which Turner included in one of his lectures:
Painting and poetry, flowing from the same fount mutually by vision, constantly comparing Poetic allusions by natural forms in one and applying forms found in nature to the other, meandering into streams by application, which reciprocally improve, reflect, and heighten each other's beauties like ... mirrors.
Ruskin probably encountered Turner's strangely written lectures when, during the years from 1856 to 1858, he arranged the Turner Bequest for the British Museum. They would have demonstrated even further that Turner believed poetry and painting were interdependent.
Well aware of the usual aims and methods of the critics who made use of the principle of ut pictura poesis, Ruskin referred to the older tradition with some cause, for the need for a polemical defensive alliance of the two arts continued in Ruskin's time. Art was gaining respectability (there was a Royal Academy), but painting had not achieved anything like the popularity or prestige of literature. Education of increasing numbers of people and new publishing practices had produced a sizeable reading public in England, and part of Ruskin's purpose in Modern Painters was to create and attract a similar audience among those, largely the middle classes, who were unaware of the art of painting.
Like most writers who allied arts in order to defend painting, Ruskin stressed its ability to convey information in the service of religion and morality. Unlike most who had preceded him, he did not defend painting on the ground that, like poetry, it educates and entertains by imitating nature. In the theory of poetry which Ruskin allied with pictorial art, the expression of noble emotion had replaced the earlier concerns with imitation as a center of critical attention — a changed attitude toward imitation that was related to new views of the nature of art.
From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century the defense of the artist and poet against charges of frivolity and immorality had been closely associated with the theory of a particular kind of imitation. Although in the eighteenth century imitation was occasionally used in the sense of duplication or mechanical copying, it was generally taken as a technical, philosophical term, which conveniently removed it from comparison with other more practical forms of human endeavor such as the counterfeiting of money. One thing upon which many writers on painting and poetry, including Dryden and Reynolds, agree is that imitation is a selective, idealizing process which communicates the potential best of nature. According to Dryden, "both these Arts ... are not only true imitations of Nature, but of the best Nature, of that which is wrought up to a nobler pitch. They present us with Images more perfect than the Life in any individual: and we have the pleasure to see all the scatter'd Beauties of Nature united by a happy Chymistry, without its deformities or faults." Similarly, in his Discourses Reynolds quotes the statement of Proclus that the artist "who takes for his model such forms as nature produces, and confines himself to an exact imitation of them, will never attain to what is perfectly beautiful. For the works of nature are full of disproportion, and fall very short of the true standard of beauty." Dryden and Reynolds, with many others, believed that the artist and poet working side by side repaired the accidents and errors of particular nature. As Reynolds put it: "Upon the whole ... the object and intention of all the Arts is to supply the natural imperfection of things."
Reynolds, whose criticism and painting Ruskin knew thoroughly, is the critic who may most fittingly be compared with the author of Modern Painters on the subject of imitation. Each was not only the major theorist of painting in his age but was also an important proponent of the alliance of painting with poetry. Both agree that the artist is a poet of lines and colors, but Reynolds's poet is of the eighteenth century, and Ruskin's of the nineteenth. The Discourses describe the ideal artist as a liberally educated man permeated with a knowledge of the rules and their decorums. While neither theorist believes that a man without innate genius can create great art, Reynolds, far more than Ruskin, held that abilities are developed through practice of the rules and through imitation of the ancients. But if Ruskin's painter and poet know the rules, they create despite rather than by means of them. "The knowing of rules and the exertion of judgment have a tendency to check and confuse the fancy in its flow; so that it will follow, that, in exact proportion as a master knows anything about rules of right and wrong, he is likely to be uninventive ... [and thus he will work] not despising them, but simply feeling that between him and them there is nothing in common" (5.119). Reynolds's defense of the artist and his theory of imitating la belle nature are based on the belief, stated in the Discourses, that "the value and rank of every art is in proportion to the mental labour employed in it, or the mental pleasure produced by it. As this principle is observed or neglected, our profession becomes either a liberal art, or a mechanical trade." Reynolds relates this view of art to imitation in his Idler 79:
Amongst the painters and the writers on painting there is one maxim universally admitted and continually inculcated. "Imitate nature" is the invariable rule, but I know none who have explained in what manner this rule is to be understood; the consequence of which is that everyone takes it in the most obvious sense — that objects are represented naturally when they have such relief that they seem real. ... It must be considered that if the excellency of a painter consisted only in this kind of imitation, painting must lose its rank and be no longer considered as a liberal art and sister to poetry, this imitation being merely mechanical, in which the slowest intellect is always sure to succeed best.
Reynolds bases his defense of art on the old opposition of physical and mental labor; since the art of painting, like the art of poetry, demands the use of the intellect, it should therefore be accorded the greater respect due an intellectual art. Reynolds's opposition of the mechanical and the fine arts is based on a psychology that could not conceive the unconscious creative processes or theories of aesthetic-moral emotion that were important in nineteenth-century conceptions of poetry. Ruskin, in contrast, allies painting to a romantic view of poetry, and his theory of arts is characteristically centered not on intellect but emotion:
Manufacture is, according to the etymology and right use of the word, "the making of anything by hands," — directly or indirectly, with or without the help of instruments or machines. ... ART is the operation of the hand and the intelligence of man together. ... Then FINE ART is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together. (16.294)
Since his romantic defense of the allied arts could not gain prestige for painting by employing Reynolds's major argument — that they require intellect — Ruskin had to find other means to demonstrate the value of Turner's glorious representations of color and form.
Excerpted from Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin by George P. Landow. Copyright © 1971 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- PREFACE, pg. vii
- CONTENTS, pg. ix
- LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS, pg. xi
- INTRODUCTION, pg. 1
- CHAPTER ONE Ruskin's Theory of the Sister Arts, pg. 41
- CHAPTER TWO. Ruskin's Theories of Beauty, pg. 87
- CHAPTER THREE. Ruskin's Theories of the Sublime and Picturesque, pg. 181
- CHAPTER FOUR. Ruskin's Religious Belief, pg. 241
- CHAPTER FIVE. Ruskin and Allegory, pg. 319
- INDEX, pg. 459