Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
John Ruskin
By William James Stillman (1828–1901)
[Born in Schenectady, N. Y., 1828. Died in Surrey, England, 1901. The Century Magazine. 1888.]

I WAS sitting one afternoon with Longfellow, on the porch of the old house at Cambridge, when the conversation turned on intellectual development, and he referred to a curious phenomenon, of which he instanced several cases, and which he compared to the double stars, of two minds not personally related but forming a binary system, revolving simultaneously around each other and around some principle which they regarded in different lights. I do not remember his instances, but that which at once came to my mind was the very interesting one of Turner and Ruskin. The complementary relation of the great writer and the imaginative painter is one of the most—indeed the most—interesting that I know in intellectual history: the one a master in all that belongs to verbal expression, but singularly deficient in the gifts of the artist, feeble in drawing, with a most inaccurate perception of color and no power of invention; the other the most stupendous of idealists, the most consummate master of color orchestration the world has ever seen, but so curiously devoid of the gifts of language that he could hardly learn to write grammatically or coherently, and when he spoke omitting so many words that often his utterances, like those of a child, required interpretation by one accustomed to his ways before a stranger could understand them. Ruskin is a man reared and moulded in the straitest Puritanism, abhorring uncleanness of all kinds, generous to extravagance, moved by the noblest humanitarian impulses, morbidly averse to anything that partakes of sensuality, and responsive as a young girl to appeals to his tenderness and compassion. Turner was a miser; churlish; a satyr in his morals,—not merely a sensualist, but satisfied only by occasional indulgences in the most degrading debauchery; and even in his painting sometimes giving expression to images so filthy that when, after his death, the trustees came to overhaul his sketches, there were many which they were obliged to destroy in regard for common decency. It is hardly possible to conceive of a more complete antithesis than that in the natures of these two, who turn, and will turn so long as English art and English letters endure, around the same centre of art and each around the other. In fact, to the great majority of our race Turner is seen through the eyes of Ruskin, and Ruskin is only known as the eulogist of Turner.
  The conjunction leaves both misunderstood by the general mind. Ruskin looks at the works of the great landscape painter much as the latter looked at nature,—not for what is in the thing looked at, but for the sentiments it awakens. The world’s art does not present anything to rival Turner’s in its defiance of nature. He used nature when it pleased him to do so, but when it pleased him better he belied her with the most reckless audacity. He had absolutely no respect for truth. His color was the most splendid of impossibilities, and his topography like the geography of dreams; yet Ruskin has spent a great deal of his life in persuading himself and the world that Turner’s color was scientifically correct, and in hunting for the points of view from which he drew his compositions. Ruskin’s conviction that Turner was always doing his best, if in a mysterious way, to tell the truth about nature, is invincible. Early in the period of my acquaintance with him we had a vivacious discussion on this matter in his own house; and to convince him that Turner was quite indifferent as to matters of natural phenomena, I called Ruskin’s attention to the view out of the window, which was of the Surrey hills, a rolling country whose grassy heights were basking in a glorious summer sunlight and backed by a pure blue sky, requesting him then to have brought down from the room where it was hung a drawing by Turner in which a similar effect was treated. The hill in nature was, as it always will be if covered by vegetation and under the same circumstances, distinctly darker than the sky; Turner’s was relieved in pale yellow green against a deep blue sky, stippled down to a delicious aërial profundity. Ruskin gave up the case in point, but still clung to the general rule. In fact, having begun his system of art teaching on the hypothesis that Turner’s way of seeing nature was scientifically the most correct that art knew, he had never been able to abandon it and admit that Turner only sought, as was the case, chromatic relations which had no more to do with facts of color than the music of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” has to do with the emotions of the occasion on which it is played. His assumption of Turner’s veracity is the corner-stone of his system, and its rejection would be the demolition of that system.  2
  His art criticism is radically and irretrievably wrong. No art can be gauged by its fidelity to nature unless we admit in that term the wider sense which makes nature of the human soul and all that is,—the sense of music, the perception of beauty, the grasp of imagination, “the light that never was, on sea or land,” as well as that which serves the lens of the photographer; and Ruskin’s own work, his teaching in his classes, and his application of his own standards to all great work, show that he understands the term “fidelity to nature” to mean the adherence to physical facts, the scientific aspects of nature. Greek art he never has really sympathized with, nor at heart accepted as supreme, though years after he took the position he never has avowedly abandoned, he found that in Greek coinage there were artistic qualities of the highest refinement; but Watts has told me that he expressed his surprise that the artist could keep before him so ugly a thing as the Oxford Venus, a cast of which was in his studio, and that he pronounced the horse an animal devoid of all beauty. In my opinion he cares nothing for the plastic qualities of art, or for the human figure, otherwise than as it embodies humanity and moral dignity. The diverse criticisms he makes on Titian, Michael Angelo, and Raphael, put side by side with his notes on Holman Hunt, on George Leslie, and Miss Thompson, in the Royal Academy, and Miss Alexander’s drawings, show his appreciation of figure art to be absolutely without any criterion of style or motive in figure painting, if this were not already apparent from his contradictions at different periods of his life. These are puzzling to the casual reader. When he says, in the early part of “Modern Painters,” that the work of Michael Angelo in general, the Madonna di San Sisto, and some other works are at the height of human excellence, and later demolishes poor Buonarotti like a bad plaster cast, and sets Raphael down as a mere posturer and dexterous academician, one is at a loss to reconcile his opinions with any standard. The fact I believe to be that his early art education, which was in great part due to J. D. Harding, a painter of high executive powers and keen appreciation of technical abilities in the Italian painters, was in the vein of orthodox standards; that while under the influence of his reverence for his teachers, he accepted the judgment which they, in common with most artists, have passed on the old masters; but that when left to himself, with no kind of sympathy with ideal figure art, nor, I believe, with any form of figure art as such, but with a passion for landscape, a curious enthusiasm for what is minute and intense in execution, and an overweening estimate of his own standards and opinions, he gradually lost all this vicarious appreciation and retained of his admiration of old art only what was in accordance with his own feelings, i.e., the intensity of moral and religious fervor, and, above all, anything that savored of mysticism, the ascetic and didactic—especially the art of the schools of religious passion. This was due to the profound devotional feeling which was the basis of his intellectual nature. He said to me once that he was a long time in doubt whether he should give himself to the church or to art. So far as the world is concerned, I think he took the wrong road. In the church he might not have been, as his father hoped, a bishop, for his views have been too individual for church discipline, but I believe he would have produced a far greater and more beneficial effect on his age. As an art critic he has been like one writing on the sea-sands—his system and his doctrines of art are repudiated by every thoughtful artist I know. Art in certain forms touches him profoundly but only emotionally. Although he drew earnestly for years, he never seemed to understand style in drawing, master as he is of style (sui generis) in language; his perception of color is so deficient that he appears to me unable to recognize the true optical color of any object; that is, its color in sunshine as distinguished from its color in shadow; and in painting from nature he is always best pleased with what is most like Turner….  3
  There is in his character a curious form of individuality so accentuated and so imperious that it produces in him the sense of infallibility. He speaks of his opinions not as matters of opinion but as positive knowledge; yet in personal intercourse I found nothing of the dogmatism which is so notable a feature in his writing. He listened to all objections, and often acknowledged, during discussion, the inconsequence of his conclusions; and during the long and vigorous debates which occupied our evenings he not infrequently admitted error, but on the next day held the old ground as firmly as ever. His intellect, with all its power and intensity, is of the purely feminine type. The love of purity; the quick, kindly, and unreasoning impulse; the uncompromising self-sacrifice when the feeling is on him, and the illogical self-assertion in reaction when it has passed; the passionate admiration of power; the waywardness and often inexplicable fickleness,—all are there. But behind all these feminine traits there is the no less feminine quality of passionate love of justice, flecked, on occasions of personal implication, with acts of great injustice; there is a general inexhaustible tenderness, with occasional instances of absolute cruelty. Any present judgment of him as a whole is difficult if not impossible, because there are in him several different individuals, and the perspective in which we now see them makes of his position, as an art teacher, the dominant element of his personality; whereas, in my persuasion, his art teaching is in his own nature and work subordinate to his moral and humanitarian ideals. He always saw art through a religious medium, and this made him, from the beginning, strain his system of teaching and criticism to meet the demand of direct truth to nature, the roots of his enthusiasm and reverence being not in art but in nature and in her beneficial influence on humanity….  4
  Of Ruskin the writer, aside from the art critic, it is surely superfluous for me to say anything: for mastery of our language, the greater authorities long ago have given him his place; the multitude of petty critics and pinchbeck rhetoricians who pay him the tribute of tawdry imitation is the ever-present testimony to his power and masterhood. Probably no prose writer of this century has had so many choice extracts made from his writings,—passages of gorgeous description, passionate exhortation, pathetic appeal, or apostolic denunciation; and certainly no one has so moulded the style of all the writers of a class as he, for there scarcely can be found a would-be art critic who does not struggle to fill his throat with Ruskin’s thunders, so that a flood of Ruskin—and water—threatens all taste and all study of art….  5
  Description à la Ruskin has become a disease of the literature of the generation, and your novelist coolly stops you in the crisis of his story to describe a sunset in two or three pages which, when all is said, compare with Ruskin as a satyr with Hyperion.  6
  Ruskin obstinately bent all his conclusions and observations to his doctrines—what he wanted to see he saw, nothing else….  7
  He wanted to see truth in Turner’s drawings, and he made his truth accordingly. I can but regard his influence on modern landscape painting as pernicious from beginning to end, and coinciding as it did with the advent of a great naturalistic and, therefore, anti-artistic tendency in all branches of study, it was even more disastrous than it would have been in ordinary circumstances….  8
  But Ruskin’s true position is higher than that of art critic in any possible development. It is as a moralist and a reformer and in his passionate love of humanity (not inconsistent with much bitterness, and even unmerited, at times, to individual men) that we must recognize him. His place is in the pulpit, speaking largely and in the unsectarian sense. Truth is multiform, but of one essence, and, such as he sees it, he is always faithful to it. I have taken large exception to his ideas and teachings in respect to art because I feel that they are misleading. His mistakes in art are in some measure due to his fundamental mistake of measuring it by its moral powers and influence, and the roots of the error are so deeply involved in his character and mental development that it can never be uprooted. It is difficult for me (perhaps for any of his contemporaries) to judge him as a whole, because, besides being his contemporary and a sufferer by what I now perceive to be the fatal error of his system, I was for so many years his close personal friend, and because, while I do not agree with his tenets and am obliged by my own sense of right to combat many of his teachings, I still retain the personal affection for him of those years which are dear to memory, and reverence the man as I know him; and because I most desire that he should be judged rightly,—as a man who for moral greatness has few equals in his day, and who deserves an honor and distinction which he has not received, and in a selfish and sordid world will not receive, but which I believe time will give him,—that of being one who gave his whole life and substance to the furtherance of what he believed to be the true happiness and elevation of his fellow-men. Even were he the sound art critic so many people take him to be, his real nature rises above that office as much as humanity rises above art. When we wish to compare him with men of his kind, it must be with Plato or Savonarola rather than with Hazlitt or Hamerton. Art cannot be clearly estimated in any connection with morality, and Ruskin could never, any more than Plato or Savonarola, escape the condition of being in every fibre of his nature a moralist and not an artist, and as he advanced in life the ethical side of his nature more and more asserted its mastery, though less and less in theological terms….  9
  He considers himself the pupil of Carlyle—for me he floats in a purer air than Carlyle ever breathed. As a feminine nature he was captivated by the robust masculine force of his great countryman, and there was in the imperial theory of Carlyle much that chimed with Ruskin’s own ideas of human government. The Chelsean, regretfully looking back to the day of absolutism and brutal domination of the appointed king, was in a certain sense a sympathetic reply to Ruskin’s longings for a firm and orderly government when he felt the quicksands of the transitional order of the day yielding under his feet, but in reality the two regarded Rule from points as far removed from each other as those of Luther and Voltaire. Carlyle’s ideal was one of a Royal Necessity, an incarnate law indifferent to the crushed in its marchings and rulings,—burly, brutal, contemptuous of the luckless individual or the overtaken straggler; his Rule exists not for the sake of humanity, but for that of Order, as if Order and Rule were called out for their own sake; he puffs into perdition the trivial details of individual men, closing accounts by ignoring the fractions. Ruskin loses sight of no detail, but calls in to the benefit of his Order and Rule every child and likeness of a child in larger form, full of a tenderness which is utterly human yet inexhaustible. Carlyle’s ruler is like a Viking’s god, his conception utterly pagan; Ruskin’s is Christlike; Carlyle’s word is like the mace of Charlemagne, Ruskin’s like the sword of the Angel Gabriel; if Ruskin is notably egotistical, Carlyle is utterly selfish; if Ruskin dogmatizes like an Evangelist, Carlyle poses as a Prophet; and the difference, when we come to sum up all the qualities, moral, intellectual, and literary, seems to me to be in favor of Ruskin. Their ideals are similarly antithetical—Ruskin’s lying in a hopeful future, an unattainable Utopia, perhaps, but still a blessed dream; Carlyle’s in a return to a brutal and barren past, made forever impossible by the successful assertion of human individuality, and for whose irrevocability we thank God with all our hearts and in all hope of human progress. The public estimate has not overrated Ruskin, just as he had not overrated Turner, because the aggregate impression of power received was adequate to the cause; but in the one case as in the other the mistake has been relative, and consisted in misestimating the genius and attributing the highest value to the wrong item in the aggregate. I may be mistaken in my estimate of Ruskin, but I believe that the future will exalt him above it rather than depress him below it.  10

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