Ruskin and Turner: The Reciprocal Relationship of Artist and Critic in the 19th Century

By Benjamin Schaafsma

The following piece offers perspective on the beginning of art criticism as a discipline by focusing on the relationship between John Ruskin, critic, and JWM Turner, artist. Their relationship offers only a glimpse of what will perspire within the trajectory of the discipline. This article is the beginning of a series that will chronologically delve into the relationships between artist and critic from the 18th century through the 21st century.
— Ben Schaafsma

Art criticism, as a discipline outside of the Royal Academy, arose out of the 18th century, beginning with critiques of the Salon of 1746. When Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne took it upon himself to write critical discourse about contemporary art, not having become a professional through the Academy, he opened the floodgates for amateur critics, as well as challenging those from the Academy to re-evaluate their standards. La Font’s disillusion with the Royal Academy was very much in line with many contemporary thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, though La Font’s grievances lied with the Rococo, rather than Neo-Classicism. It was this increased interest in the individual and the rise of the Romantic period in France and England in the 18th and 19th centuries that lead to what we now know as Art Criticism.

John Ruskin became a leading figure in 19th century art criticism, well known for his writings Modern Painters. Though a critical thinker, Ruskin often contradicted himself, most obvious in his praise of both JWM Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In a quote highlighted in the introduction to Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites by Robert Hewison, Ruskin said, “For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times.”

I find this not as a point of contention regarding Ruskin’s theories, but instead it shows his thirst for critical thinking. Through examining Ruskin's ideas on Beauty and Truth, painting and poetry, and his work, Modern Painters, under the lens of contradiction, I will point to the necessity of reciprocity between Ruskin and Turner, critic and artist.

Ruskin believed Beauty to be “any material object which can give us pleasure in the simple contemplation of its outward qualities without any direct and definite exertion of the intellect.” Though, as pointed out by George Landow, Ruskin’s understanding of Beauty as “disinterested pleasure which has an objective reality,” he often spoke of the emotions of Beauty and also of the Sublime. The contradiction is obvious; emotions are subjective, so how can Beauty be objective if it is influenced by something subjective? Ruskin attempts to qualify himself by saying that all men will react with the same emotion to certain things because “it is God’s will and all men have a divine element in their nature.” Though, Ruskin goes on to say that all men are part of God’s creation and thus react instinctively to his creation.

In other words, according to Ruskin, people react with the same aesthetic emotions because they are all part of God’s creation; Beauty is the image of God. Ruskin’s take on Beauty was very removed from the Academy’s understanding of Beauty. He made a clear distinction that Beauty are the subjects of moral, not intellectual, perception. While the Academy relied on ideal forms, symmetry and rationality, Ruskin’s definition of Beauty defended the Romantic style of painting and poetry he was perpetuating. In the introduction of Modern Painters written by David Barrie in 1987, he finds that it was Ruskin’s religious background as an Anglican evangelical Christian and his practice typological interpretation of the Bible that lead him to apply the same approach to nature, which sets up his defense for art and poetry. If God is represented in nature, then anything interpreting nature is also Beautiful.

In Ruskin’s Notes on Pictures, he writes extensively on Turner’s “Third Period,” which he defines as the years from 1835-1845. “[Turner] began to think less of showing or trying what he could do, and more of actually doing this or that beautiful thing.” In this “Third Period,” Ruskin describes Turner at an older age, where he shrugs off everything that makes a painting “academic.” Rather than being concerned with the Academy, “as Turner drew towards old age, the aspect of mechanical effort and ambitious accumulation fade from his work, and a deep imaginative delight, and tender rest in the loveliness of what he had learned to see in Nature, take their place.” It is in this period of Turner’s disinterest with the Academy that Ruskin finds him most Beautiful. Ruskin writes about several pieces from this period, one of them being Snowstorm (1842). Contemporary critics characterized the painting as “soapsuds and whitewash.” It was this critique of Turner, along with another in 1936, that lead Ruskin to defend Turner in what would become Modern Painters, Though it is not the critics’ assessments of the piece that is important in understanding Ruskin’s Beauty, but rather his mother’s. In Notes on Pictures, Ruskin describes taking his mother to view a collection of Turners:

“I had taken my mother and a cousin to see Turner’s pictures, and, as my mother knows nothing about art, I was taking her down the gallery to look at the large ‘Richmond Park,’ but as we were passing the ‘Snowstorm’ she stopped before it, and I could hardly get her to look at any other picture; and she told me a great deal about it than I had any notion of, though I have seen many sea storms. She had been in such a storm on the coast of Holland during the war.”

Snowstorm was Turner’s real life account of being on “the Ariel leaving Harwich,” which the Academy catalog of 1842 described. The painting is an emotional response to the natural. Though the painting, like many of this period, is abstracted to the point that the horizon is difficult to locate, it still recalled something familiar with Ruskin’s mother who had witnessed a similar account. Why would Ruskin bother transcribing his mother’s assessment of a Turner painting, a woman who “knows nothing about art”? It is a perfect example of Ruskin’s qualification of Beauty that Landow describes as ”disinterested pleasure which has an objective reality and is perceived by the non-intellectual part of the mind”. Not only does Snowstorm emphasize Ruskin’s ideas on Beauty, but it also relates to theory of Truth versus Imitation.

In Notes on Pictures, Ruskin also describes the first time seeing a Turner, thinking that he had wasted the last 12 years of his life because no one had ever taught him to paint what he actually sees. This criticism separates Turner from those artists rooted in rational painting, which Ruskin would consider to be merely Imitation. In the first volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin discusses “Ideas of Truth,” in which he further defines in three points. He believes that Imitation is merely the material, while Truth holds to both the physical and the metaphysical, “emotions, impressions and thoughts.” Secondly, Truth may be communicated in painting by any objects, materials or marks that remind its audience of the Truth. His third point reemphasizes the second, in that Truth can exist in the smallest of details, while Imitation relies on as many familiar objects as possible resulting in merely a material familiarity. Snowstorm holds to this theory as well. Returning to the example of Ruskin’s mother, her experience evoked by a physical reaction, as well as an emotional response. Turner had painted what he had seen, and by doing so communicated an experience based in Truth to another individual.

Modern Painters was Ruskin’s personal defense of Turner, though Ruskin signed the writings only as “Graduate of Oxford,” as advised by his father in order to avoid it being discredited due to Ruskin’s age. In the introduction to Modern Painters, Ruskin qualified himself as the critic that is equipped to understand and critique Turner. He argues that “it is impossible that any new work of equal merit can be impartially compared with [a Master’s], except by minds not only educated and generally capable of appreciating merit, but strong enough to shake off the weight of prejudice and association, which invariably incline them to the older favourite.” It is easy to understand why his father suggested that he sign the work anonymously, having made such claims. These writings soon after gained praise from contemporary writers, such as Wordsworth, as well as contemporary critics. Though Turner was somewhat embarrassed by having been put on such a pedestal by Ruskin, he gained much more popularity.

Ironically, the introduction of Modern Painters would turn into one of Ruskin’s biggest contradictions. In an 1877 critique of James Abbot McNeil Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, Ruskin made a narrow statement, which is now one of his most famous, accusing Whistler of “flinging paint in the public’s face.” As Barrie points out in his introduction to Modern Painters, it was this type of scornful criticism that Ruskin was trying to defend Turner from and then became exactly what he was refuting.

Beyond the defense of Turner, Modern Painters had a much more influential effect on 19th century criticism which was modeled after a writings concerning literature of the same time. A major influence on the first volume, other than Turner, was Wordsworth, specifically his Lyrical Ballads. This publication marked the beginning of Romantic literature, just as Ruskin rejected the Neo-classical style of painting, so to did Wordsworth want to break away from the “classical poetic diction.” Ruskin, whether consciously or not, intended for Modern Painters to bring in a new era of painting, which it did with the inception of Turner. The influence of Romantic literature on Ruskin’s art criticism did not end here either. The idea ut pictura poesis (“as poetry, so is painting”) was a very popular idea in the 18th century and obviously had an effect on Ruskin in his studies and was also evident in the paintings of Turner. This idea was used in attempting to raise the stature of painting from a mere craft to a liberal art by insisting that painting rely on poetry, which was held in higher regard than painting during this time. It is evident in the full title of Snowstorm, which is Snowstorm—Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. According to Landow, out of Turner’s 200 displayed oil paintings, 53 have poetic titles, some written by himself other from works by writers such as Milton. This aspect of Ruskin’s thinking shows the influence not only of the critic on the artist, but the artist upon the critic. Romantic poetry holds many of the same ideas as Ruskin’s ideas concerning Beauty, Truth and what makes art great.

Through understanding Ruskin’s theories that imbue his criticism, it is easy to understand his willingness to contradict himself. When he started Modern Painters, Ruskin was only 24 years old and he continued his conversation about nature and interpreting it for the next 17 years. Though the first volume comes across being rather dogmatic, his contradictions show his willingness to evolve as a thinker and critic (ironically he is best known for his situation with Whistler). The criticism surrounding Snowstorm was the initial inspiration for Modern Painters, and it is the work that is best infused with Ruskin’s ideas, as well being the inspiration for them. The reciprocity of the personal and professional relationship between Ruskin and Turner has become a model for Modern and contemporary art criticism.

Posted on August 22, 2006 11:51 PM


Good article. Knowing and disseminating where your disciplanary roots are is a needed reminder. Things are not always as they are. Ben, you also have some typo issues. Like repeating the entire second paragraph. Keep it up.

Posted by: Joel on August 24, 2006 8:10 AM

Unfortunately, I have to take credit for the repeat of the second paragraph. I have since fixed it.

The other typos are up to Ben and our editors. (That's currently you, dear reader.) However, if anyone would like to volunteer to edit articles before we embarrass ourselves by publishing them, please contact Ben or myself.

Posted by: jdawe on August 24, 2006 9:43 AM

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