John Ruskin

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John Ruskin

152 artworks

painter, draftsman, critic and professor

Born 1819 - Died 1900

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The south side of the Cathedral of St. Mark, Venice

Watercolor, gouache, pencil on paper

95.9 x 45.4 cms | 37 3/4 x 17 3/4 ins


Study of Willow Leaves

c. 1857

Watercolour and pencil on paper

29.9 x 13.9 cms | 11 3/4 x 5 1/4 ins

Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester, United Kingdom

Belfry of the church in Baden

Watercolor, pencil on paper

18.7 x 10.5 cms | 7 1/4 x 4 ins


Architectural Study


Watercolor, black ink, white gouache, and graphite on cream wove paper

37.9 x 19.9 cms | 14 3/4 x 7 3/4 ins

Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, United States


Tower and gable with embossed carving, Venice

Watercolor, graphite on paper

25.1 x 14.6 cms | 9 3/4 x 5 1/2 ins


A Branch of Flowering Peach


Watercolor and gouache on cream wove paper

20.9 x 16.1 cms | 8 x 6 1/4 ins

Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, United States


Sculptural ornament of the columns of San Giovanni Acco, San Marco, Venice

Watercolor, white water-color on paper

25 x 19 cms | 9 3/4 x 7 1/4 ins

British Museum, London, United Kingdom



Watercolor over pencil highlig

43.8 x 28.6 cms | 17 1/4 x 11 1/4 ins

Private collection, ,

Carved eastern door column, Baptistery, Pisa

Watercolor, gouache, pencil on paper

16 x 10.1 cms | 6 1/4 x 3 3/4 ins

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, United Kingdom


Peacock feather

Watercolor, graphite on cardboard

26.7 x 19.4 cms | 10 1/2 x 7 1/2 ins

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, United States

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RUSKIN, JOHN (1819-1900), English writer and critic, was born in London, at Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, on the 8th of February 1819, being the only child of John James Ruskin [1785-1864] and Margaret Cox [1781-1871]. They were Scots, first cousins, the grandchildren of a certain John Ruskin of Edinburgh (1732-1780). In Praeterila the author professes small knowledge of his ancestry. But the memoirs published on the authority of the family trace their descent to the Adairs and Agnews of Galloway. In this family tree are men famous in arms and in the public service: Sir Andrew Agnew of Lochnaw, Admiral Sir John Ross, Field-Marshal Sir Hew Dalrymple Ross, Dr John Adair, in whose arms Wolfe died at Quebec, and the Rev. W. Tweddale of Glenluce, to whom the original Covenant, now in the Glasgow Museum, had been confided. The name Ruskin is said to be a variant of Erskine, or Roskeen, or Rogerkin, and even Roughskin. It is more probably Rusking, an Anglian family, which passed northwards and became Ruskyn, Rusken and Ruskin. [...]

As the father was resolved that John should have everything that money and pains could give, and was one day to be a bishop at least, he entered him at Christ Church, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner, then an order reserved for men of wealth and rank. Ruskin's Oxford career, broken by the two years passed abroad, was not very full of incident or of usefulness. Though he never became either a scholar or a mathematician, he did enough accurate work to be placed in the honorary fourth class both in classics and in mathematics. By the young bloods of the House he was treated pleasantly as a raw outsider of genius. By some of the students and tutors, by Liddell, Newton, Acland and others, he was regarded as a youth of rare promise, and he made some lifelong friendships with men of mark and of power. Both he and his college took kindly the amazing proceeding of his mother, who left her husband and her home to reside in Oxford, that she might watch over her sons health. The one success of his Oxford career was the winning the Newdigate Prize by his poem Salsette and Elephanta, which he recited in the Sheldonian Theatre (June 1839). Two years of ill-health and absence from home ensued. And he did not become a Graduate of Oxford until 1842, in his twenty-fourth year, five years after his first entrance at the university. In fact, his desultory school and college life had been little more than an interruption and hindrance to his real educationthe study of nature, of art and of literature. Long before Ruskin published books he had appeared in print. In March 1834, when he was but fifteen, Loudon's Magazine of Natural History published an essay of his on the strata of mountains and an inquiry as to the color of the Rhine. He then wrote for Loudon's Magazine of Architecture, and verses of his were inserted in Messrs Smith & Elders Friendships Offering, by the editor, T. Pringle, who took the lad to see the poet Rogers. At seventeen he wrote for Blackwood a defence of Turner [1775-1851], which the painter, to whom it was first submitted, did not take the trouble to forward to the magazine. At eighteen he wrote a series of papers, signed Kata Phusin, ie, after Nature, for Loudon's Magazine, on The Poetry of Architecture. In 1838 (he was then nineteen) Mr Loudon wrote to the father, "Your son is the greatest natural genius that ever it has been my fortune to become acquainted with."

Having recovered his health and spirits by care and foreign travel, and having taken his degree and left Oxford, Ruskin set to work steadily at Herne Hill on the more elaborate defence of Turner, which was to become his first work. Modern Painters, vol. i., by a Graduate of Oxford, was published May 1843, when the author was little more than twenty-four. It produced a great and immediate sensation. It was vehemently attacked by the critics, and coolly received by the painters. Even Turner was somewhat disconcerted; but the painter was now known to both Ruskins, and they freely bought his pictures. The family then went again to the Alps, that John might study mountain formation and Truth in landscape. In 1845 he was again abroad in Italy, working on his Modern Painters, the second volume of which appeared in 1846. He had now plunged into the study of Bellini [1430-1516] and the Venetian school, Fra Angelico [1387-1455] and the early Tuscans, and he visited Lucca, Pisa, Florence, Padua, Verona and Venice, passionately devoting himself to architecture, sculpture and painting in each city of north Italy. He wrote a few essays for the Quarterly Review and other periodicals, and in 1849 (aet. 30) he published The Seven Lamps of Architecture, with his own etchings, which greatly increased the reptitation acquired by his Modern Painters. [...]

Ruskin's architectural studies, of which The Seven Lamps was the first fruit, turned him from Turner and Modern Painters. He planned a book about Venice in 1845, and The Stones of Venice was announced in 1849 as in preparation. After intense study in Italy and at home, early in 1851 (the year of the Great Exhibition in London) the first volume of The Stones of Venice appeared (aet. 32). It was by no means a mere antiquarian and artistic study. It was a concrete expansion of the ideas of The Seven Lampsthat the buildings and art of a people are the expression of their religion, their morality, their national aspirations and social habits. It was, as Carlyle [1795-1881] wrote to the author, a sermon in stones, a singular sign of the times, a new Renaissance. It appeared in the same year with the Construction of Sheepfolds, a plea for the reunion of Christian churches, in the same year with the essay on Pre-Raphaelitism, the year of Turner's death (19th December). The Stones of Venice was illustrated with engravings by some of the most refined artists of his time. The author spent a world of pains in having these brought up to the highest perfection of the reproductive art, and began the system of exquisite illustration, and those facsimiles of his own and other sketches, which make his works rank so high in the catalogues and price-lists of collectors. This delicate art was carried even farther in the later volumes of Modern Painters by the school of engravers whom Ruskin inspired and gathered round him. And these now rare and coveted pieces remain to rebuke us for our modern preference for the mechanical and unnatural chiaroscuro of photogravure, the successor and destroyer of the graver's art. Although Ruskin was practised in drawing from the time that he could hold a pencil, and had lessons in painting from some eminent artists, he at no time attempted to paint pictures. He said himself that he was unable to compose a picture, and he never sought to produce anything that he would call a work of original art. His drawings, of which he produced an enormous quantity, were always intended by himself to be studies or memoranda of buildings or natural objects precisely as they appeared to his eye. Clouds, mountains, landscapes, towers, churches, trees, flowers and herbs were drawn with wonderful precision, minuteness of detail and delicacy of hand, solely to recall some specific aspect of nature or art, of which he wished to retain a record. In his gift for recording the most subtle characters of architectural carvings and details, Ruskin has hardly been surpassed by the most distinguished painters. [...]

In 1853 The Stones of Venice was completed at Herne Hill, and he began a series of Letters and Notes on pictures and architecture. In this year (aet. 34) he opened the long series of public lectures wherein he came forward as an oral teacher and preacher, not a little to the alarm of his parents and amidst a storm of controversy. The Edinburgh Lectures (November 1853) treated Architecture, Turner, and Pre-Raphaelitism. The Manchester Lectures (July 1857) treated the moral and social uses of art, now embodied in A Joy for Ever. Some other lectures are reprinted in On the Old Road and The Two Paths (1859). These lectures did not prevent the issue of various Notes on the Royal Academy pictures and the Turner collections; works on the Harbours of England (1856); on the Elements of Drawing (1857); the Elements of Perspective (1859); and at last, after prolonged labor, the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters was published in 1860 (aet. 41). This marks an epoch in the career of John Ruskin; and the year 1860 closed the series, of his works on art strictly so called; indeed, this was the last of his regular works in substantial form. The last forty years of his life were devoted to expounding his views, or rather his doctrines, on social and industrial problems, on education, morals and religion, wherein art becomes an incidental and instrumental means to a higher and more spiritual life. And his teaching was embodied in an enormous series of Lectures, Letters, Articles, Selections and serial pamphlets. These are now collected in upwards of thirty volumes in the final edition. The entire set of Ruskin's publications amounts to more than fifty works having distinctive titles. For some years before 1860 Ruskin had been deeply stirred by reflecting on the condition of all industrial work and the evils of modern society. His lectures on art had dealt bitterly with the mode in which buildings and other works were produced. In 1854 he joined Mr F. D. Maurice, Mr T. Hughes, and several of the new school of painters, in teaching classes at the Working Mens College. But it was not until 1860 that he definitely began to propound a new social scheme, denouncing the dogmas of political economy. Four lectures on this topic appeared in the Cornhill Magazine until the public disapproval led the editor, then W. M. Thackeray, to close the series. They were published in 1862 as Unto this Last. In the same year he wrote four papers in the same sense in Frasers Mdgazine, then edited by J. A. Froude; but he in turn was compelled to suspend the issue. They were completed and ultimately issued under the title Munera Pulveris. These two small books contain the earliest and most systematic of all Ruskin's efforts to depict a new social Utopia: they contain a vehement repudiation of the orthodox formulas of the economists; and they are fOr the most part written in a trenchant but simple style, in striking contrast to the florid and discursive form of his works on art. [...]

In 1869 he issued the Queen of the Air, lectures on Greek myths, a subject he now took up, with some aid from the late Sir C. Newton. It was followed by some other occasional pieces; and in the same year he was elected Slade professor of art in the university of Oxford. He now entered on his professorial career, which continued with some intervals down to 1884, and occupied a large part of his energies. His lectures began in February 1870, and were so crowded that they had to be given in the Slieldonian Theatre, and frequently were repeated to a second audience. He was made honorary fellow of Corpus Christi, and occupied rooms in the college. In 1871 his mother died, at the age of 90, and his cousin, Miss Agnew, married Mr Arthur Severn [1842-1931]. In that year he bought from Mr Linton, Brantwood, an old cottage and property on Coniston Lake, a lovely spot facing the mountain named the Old Man. He added greatly to the house and, property, and lived in it continuously until his death in 1900. In 1871, one of the most eventful years of his life, be began Fors Clavigera, a small serial addressed to the working men of England, and published only by Mr George Allen, engraver, at Keston, in Kent, at 7d., and afterwards at 10d., but without discount, and not through the trade. This was a medley of social, moral and religious reflections interspersed with casual thoughts about persons, events and art. Fors means alternatively Fate, Force or Chance, bearing the Clavis, Club, Key or Nail, i.e. power, patience and law. It was a desultory exposition of the Ruskinian ideal of life, manners and society, full of wit, play, invective and sermons on things in general. It was continued with intervals down to 1884, and contained ninety-six letters or pamphlets, partly illustrated, which originally filled eight volumes and are now reduced to four. [...]

The close of his life was one of entire peace and honor. He was loaded with the degrees of the universities and membership of numerous societies and academies. Ruskin Societies were founded in many parts of the kingdom. His works were translated and read abroad, and had an enormous circulation in Great Britain and the United States. Many volumes about his career and opinions were issued in his lifetime both at home and abroad. His 80th birthday, 8th February 1899, was celebrated by a burst of congratulations and addresses, both public and private. His strength failed gradually: his mind remained feeble but unclouded, and his spirit serene. An attack of influenza struck him down, and carried him off suddenly after only two days illness, 20th January 1900. He was buried in Coniston churchyard by his own express wish, the family refusing the offer of a grave in Westminster Abbey.

Ruskin's litetary life may be arranged in three divisions. From 1837 to 1860 (act. 18 to 41) he was occupied mainly with the arts. From 1860 to 1871 (aet. 41 to 52) he was principally occupied with social problems. From 1871 to 1885 (act. 52 to 66) he was again drawn back largely to art by his lectures as professor, whilst prosecuting his social Utopia by speech, pen, example and purse. But the essential break in his life was in 1860, which marks the close of his main works on art and the opening of his attempt to found a new social gospel. With regard to his views of art, he himself modified and revised them from time to time; and it is admitted that some of his judgments are founded on imperfect study and personal bias. But the essence of his teaching has triumphed in effect, and has profoundly modified the views of artists, critics and the public, although it is but rarely accepted as complete or final. The moral of his teaching, that all living art requires truth, nature, purity, earnestness, has now become the axiom of all aesthetic work or judgment. John Ruskin founded the Reformation in Art.

With regard to his economic and social ideas there is far less general concurrence, though the years that have passed since Unto this Last appeared have seen the practical overthrow of the rigid plutonomy which he denounced. So, too, the vague and sentimental socialism, which pervades Munera Pulveris, Time and Tide and Fors is now very much in the air [at the time of writing, 1911], and represents the aspirations of many energetic reformers. But the negative part of Ruskin's teaching on economics, social and political problems, has been much more effective than the positive part of his teaching. It must be admitted that nearly the whole of his practical experiments to realize his dreams have come to nothing, which is not unnatural, seeing his defiance of the ordinary habits and standards of the world. A more serious defect was his practice of violently assailing philosophers, economists and men of science, of whom he knew almost nothing, and whom he perversely misunderstood: men such as Adam Smith [1723—1790], Comte [1798-1857], Mill [1806-1873], Spencer [1820-1903], Darwin [1809-1882] and all who followed them. In art, Ruskin had enjoyed an unexampled training, which made him a consummate expert. In philosophy and science he was an amateur, seeking to found a new sociology and a Utopian polity out of his own inner consciousness and study of nature, of poetry and the Bible. It is not wonderful if, in doing this, he poured forth a quantity of crude conceits and some glaring blunders. But in the most Quixotic of his schemes, and the most Laputan of his theories, his pure and chivalrous nature, his marvellous insight into the heart of things and men, and his genius to seize on all that is true, real and noble in life, made his most startling proposals pregnant with meaning, and even his casual play full of fascination and moral suggestion.

In mastery of prose language he has never been surpassed, when he chose to curb his florid imagination and his discursive eagerness of soul. The beauty and gorgeous imagery of his art works bore away the public from the first, in spite of their heretical dogmatism and their too frequent extravagance of rhetoric. But his later economic and social pieces, such as Unto this Last, Time and Tide, Sesame and Lilies, are composed in the purest and most lucid of English styles. And many of his simply technical and explanatory notes have the same quality. Towards the close of his life, in Fors and in Praeterita, will be found passages of tenderness, charm and subtlety which have never been surpassed in our language. [...]

Further Resources:
  • Entry on the artist in the 1911 Edition Encyclopedia.
  • The complete online text of W.G. Collingwood's Life of Ruskin.

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