his book seems to give me eyes," wrote Charlotte Brontë of Modern Painters.1 She was not alone in her opinion that to read Ruskin is to see with a new intensity—to look at both natural and painted landscapes in a different way. The claim could as easily be reversed, however: to see intensely with Ruskin is to learn to "read" what we see—to consider landscape, natural or painted, as art, and visual art as a language requiring interpretation to yield its various kinds of meaning.2 The Stones of Venice , where the reader is assumed to be a tourist, may be a special case of seeing as reading. The genre of travel history that Ruskin adopts deliberately collapses the distinction between spectator and reader. But the interaction between beholder and building or landscape or painting is reading in other senses. Ruskin himself begins Modern Painters by asserting that painting is a language; in Stones he constantly makes metaphorical connections between buildings and books; in much of Modern Painters he speaks of a divine language of nature that art should use; at the close of Modern Painters he offers a series of elaborate readings of Turner's symbolic art. Although the sense in which we can speak of Ruskin as a reader of visual art is different in each of these instances, the close connection between seeing and reading remains real.
One recent critic has set out to rescue Ruskin's reputation as a visually astute observer by deliberately avoiding "the shoals of Ruskinian metaphysics" encountered when one crosses the line between seeing and reading art.3 I don't think we need be embarrassed to follow this potentially fruitful inquiry, particularly since Ruskin's various methods of reading visual art are rather extensions than betrayals of his more purely visual insights. It is, in fact, next to impossible to decide [167/168] where seeing becomes reading in his work—or, indeed, in almost any critical response to a work of art. I have treated as "reading" three aspects of his response to visual art. Each of these can be directly connected with methods of reading literary texts of demonstrable importance to Ruskin: the imaginative participation of the romantic reader, scriptural exegesis, and historical philology. Just why Ruskin should have wished to bring the activities of reading and seeing closer together for his Victorian audience is a question that needs asking at several points in the development of his critical practice. I shall be concerned in this chapter primarily with Ruskin's claim in Modern Painters I that painting is a language and with the ways in which his discussions of Turner there and in Modern Painters II I suggest a deliberate revision of romantic ideas about the difference between looking at paintings and reading poems.
o call painting a language has traditionally been to argue that it is a mental and not merely a mechanical art. Ruskin claims, near the beginning of Modern Painters I : "Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing" (3.87). This claim puts him in a long line of defenders of painting going back all the way to Simonides ("painting is mute poetry"). The defense of painting as language is not a continuous theme in English art criticism, but it is made by England's first important art critic, Jonathan Richardson, and again by Ruskin more than a century later. Richardson's rather different understanding of the language of art illuminates both what is old and what is new in Ruskin's.
For Richardson, self-advertised as the first Englishman to write—in 1719—of the "science" of beholding the visual arts, "Painting is another sort of Writing."4 Ruskin's and Richardson's defense of painting as a language may at first seem quite different from a second traditional defense stated by Leonardo da Vinci: "The imagination is to reality as the shadow to the body that casts it and as poetry is to painting, because poetry puts down her subjects in imaginary written characters, while painting puts down the identical reflections that the eye receives, as if they were real . . . [Poetry] does not, like painting, impress the consciousness through the organ of sight."5 Leonardo argues [168/169] that sight gives us the most immediate impression of what is real, and hence direct appeals to sight in the visual arts possess a nonlinguistic (and nonimaginative) power that poetry cannot claim. John Locke's theories, however, made it possible for writers on art from the early eighteenth century on to argue both that art was a language and that it possessed an advantage over literature because of its closer connection with the sensations produced by an external reality—sensations that were the source of the mind's ideas. Leonardo contrasted the "darkness of the mind's eye" in which the verbal imagination must work with the light of the real eye admitted by painting. Locke's mind might be, in its newborn state, a dark closet or tabula rasa, but as soon as the senses began to function it was neither dark nor blank but filled with ideas. "Ideas of Sensation" became the primary material of language.6 Painting, according to the Lockean view adopted by both Richardson and Ruskin, deals not only with sensations as "the identical reflections that the eye receives" but also with sensations apprehended by the mind as ideas—images used as mental conceptions. Painting could therefore both reflect reality and communicate ideas.
Ruskin makes this claim when, in Modern Painters II, he contrasts ideal with unideal or realistic art, and gives all his preference and attention to the former: "Any work of art which represents, not a material object, but the mental conception of a material object, is, in the primary sense of the word, ideal. That is to say, it represents an idea and not a thing. Any work of art which represents or realizes a material object is, in the primary sense of the term, unideal" (4.165-66). Ruskin's eloquence on behalf of "truth to nature" makes it easy to overlook the insistence throughout Modern Painters that art is concerned not with truth but with ideas of truth: "it represents an idea and not a thing." Though he insists that visual art be accurately representational, he dismisses imitation as a secondary source of aesthetic pleasure, and maintains that even imitative art, to convey pleasure, must not actually deceive (3.99-103). However closely the images of art may approximate our visual images of nature, they remain signs. Early in Modern Painters I Ruskin even goes on to suggest, cautiously, that resemblance may not be necessary to the signifying function:
Truth may be stated by any signs or symbols which have a definite signification in the minds of those to whom they are addressed, although such signs we themselves no image nor likeness of anything. Whatever can excite in the [169/170] mind the conception of certain facts, can give ideas of truth, though it be in no degree the imitation or resemblance of those facts. If there be—we do not say there is,—but if there be in a painting anything which operates, as words do, not by resembling anything, but by being taken as a symbol and substitute for it, and thus inducing the effect of it, then this channel of communication can convey uncorrupted truth, though it Jo not in any degree resemble the facts whose conception it induces. [3.104-105]
Denotation is, at least theoretically, more important than resemblance, though Ruskin is reluctant to admit the possibility of a nonrepresentational visual art.7
Like Ruskin, Richardson moves from writing to reading in his discussion of painting: "To consider a picture aright is to read." The analogy between painting and books is, however, only half the story: "In Respect of the Beauty with which the Eye is all the while entertain'd, whether of Colours, or Figures, 'tis not only to read a Book, and that finely Printed, and well Bound, but as if a Consort of Mustek were heard at the same time: You have at once an Intellectual, and a Sensual Pleasure" (Two Discourses, II, 38-39). This description of reading is not so Lockean. The intellectual pleasures of finding ideas or verbal allusions are separate from—not based on—the sensual pleasures of colors and figures. Furthermore, Richardson, like most English critics later in the century, tended increasingly to disapprove of the intellectual pleasures of painting if verbal allusions were difficult to read.9 The effect of a good painting should be immediate. Overly literary intellectual pleasures should not interfere: "And the Ideas thus convey'd to us [in painting] have this advantage, They come not by a Slow Progression of Words, or in a Language peculiar to One Nation only; but with such a Velocity, and in a Manner so Universally understood that 'tis something like Intuition, or Inspiration" (Two Discourses, II, 17). The primary pleasures of the imagination, according to Addison, have this immediacy and intensity.11 Shaftesbury specifically warns against including "any tiling of the emblematical or enigmatic kind" in painting; what is too learned, humorous, or witty will make it harder "for the eye, by one simple act and in one view, to comprehend the sum or whole."12 Reynolds, defining the difference between painting and poetry in 1778, reiterated what had become the rule: "What is done by Painting, must be done at one blow."13 The "reading" required by elaborate emblems and cluttered [170/171] compositions, relished in the century before, was perceived as incompatible with the new emphasis on visual immediacy. Skill in reading emblematic art did not of course disappear, but the defense of painting as a language to be read, perhaps because it suggested the difficult pleasures of emblematic compositions, is not often made between Richardson and Ruskin.
Why does it reappear in Ruskin? Not, in Modern Painters I, because Ruskin is referring to an emblematic art. Ruskin's conception of the language of art and of the kind of response it requires from the beholder is in fact quite different from Richardson's, despite their common Lockean heritage. If art is. for Ruskin personally at least, more powerful than literature, it is not because literature, like the shadows in Plato's cave that Leonardo's figure suggests, is less real. The language invoked by Ruskin in Modern Painters I is not primarily realistic —a language coincident with the world of things that its images resemble—but psychological: "an expressive language." Ruskin was, as George Landow has pointed out, the first important English writer on art to formulate a theory of art based on romantic theories of an expressive literature.14 Just what does this mean for Ruskin as a beholder or reader of visual imagery? In the early volumes of Modern Painters Ruskin assumes that art communicates not only ideas but the individual mental process that converts sensation into perception and perception into art. The Modern Painters II passage quoted above goes on to define ideal art not only as a representation of ideas but as "the result of an act of imagination." Painting is described in the second preface to Modern Painters I as more than the vehicle of thoughts; it is a vehicle of thinking, of expression and emotion, ideas as they are connected by feeling and imagination (3.36). The kind of response an expressive language of art implies is neither the intellectual pleasure of reading emblematic images nor the sensual pleasure of immediate sensation, but a combined activity of discovering both sensations and ideas together with the movements of mind that produced them. This was not an unfamiliar conception of reading in 1843 — the romantics had written extensively of it—but it was a conception they had explicitly denied to the beholder's response to visual art.
The differences between Richardson's and Ruskin's response to the language of art may be clearer if we look at three descriptions of paintings: [171/172] one by Richardson, one by Hazlitt, and one by Ruskin. Hazlitt, Ruskin, and the Richardsons, father and son, are perhaps the principal critics, with Reynolds, in the first two centuries of English art criticism. All write for lay readers (as Reynolds, addressing art students, did not); though each also painted or drew, their criticism of pictures is primarily intended for connoisseurs, amateurs, and laymen. Jonathan Richardson the senior writes self-consciously about the novelty of his attempt to instruct English viewers. His is not a theory of art, but an "Art of Criticism," the first "Science of the Connoisseur."15 The Richardsons maintain their status as leading English art critics throughout much of the eighteenth century. William Hazlitt's criticism, written between 1814 and 1830, continues their nonprofessional approach. Though Hazlitt reminisced about the pleasures of painting from a former art student's point of view,16 he is primarily concerned with the pleasures of viewing. Hazlitt was better known as a drama critic, general essayist, political writer, and lecturer on literature during his lifetime, but from the time of his death in 1830 there was a growing chorus of voices calling attention to his art criticism. Its republication in 1838 and 1843 helped to establish his reputation in the thirties and early forties as the leading English art critic of the nineteenth century. In April 1843—one month before the first volume of Modern Painters appeared—the reviewer in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine announced that there is "no English critic on works of Art to be compared with Hazlitt."17 With the publication of Modern Painters, Hazlitt's reputation as an art critic was almost immediately eclipsed by Ruskin's. Ruskin continued to dominate the field well into the next century. Swinburne, Pater, Symonds, Henry James, and later Clive Bell, Roger Fry, Herbert Read, and even Ernst Gombrich had to come to terms with—or challenge—Ruskin's shaping influence on the tastes and viewing habits of his English audience.
Ruskin, Hazlitt, and the Richardsons share several assumptions: art criticism should provide descriptions, not just catalogues or biographies, to help the viewer to see; their viewers are not painters; the greatest art is ideal, in Ruskin's primary sense (it communicates ideas or thoughts). Hazlitt and the Richardsons can further agree that Raphael is the ideal painter. But there the resemblances end. Their choice of paintings to describe, their modes of talking about paintings, their thoughts about what visual qualities in painting render it ideal, [172/173] and how those qualities are perceived and understood by viewers are a useful index to important shifts in theory, in taste, and in the practice of art criticism between 1720 and the 1840s.
The Richardsons' most extended descriptions of paintings occur in their guidebook to art in Italy (1722). Hazlitt and Ruskin, though both write guidebooks, deliver their most memorable accounts of paintings outside that format. The difference is significant because the reader of a Richardson description is in fact always a spectator standing in a fixed position before a canvas in a particular room. The prose description locates the reader in a picture-viewing situation; it does not transport him to the place and time of the picture's subject or of the painter's mind. One of the most striking accounts in their book describes Raphael's fresco The Liberation of St. Peter in the Vatican.
The Liberation of St. Peter by Raphael. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
Richardson (the son) has already described the room in which the fresco appears, and he begins his detailed account of the picture: "'Tis over a Window, and (as the rest of those in these Apartments that are so) of an Odd Shape; what That is has been said heretofore. Over this Window is the Prison, which does not appear to consist of any more than One Room, the Walls of which are very thick, and continue the Perpendicular Line of the Window 'till they end in an Arch a-top, very near the greater Arch of the Out-line of the Picture; which Room is seen into through a large Iron Grate, which reaches from Side to Side, and from the Top to the Bottom."18 The space of the picture as Richardson describes it is very nearly continuous with the space of the Vatican room; it is a space we see into but are kept out of by the massive iron grate that Raphael has painted across the central prison scene of the painting. The prison and its steps are a kind of triple stage framed by the window and arch of the room itself, below which we stand. The description here is particularly apt, perhaps even required, by the fresco—but it is Richardson's procedure even when he is dealing not with a fresco but with an oil painting whose space does not particularly suggest a stage built into the room. Of Raphael's Madonna delta Pescia, for example, Richardson begins by noting not only the spatial relationships of the figures within the painting, but also the physical size and construction of the surface on which it is painted (69). He is much more concerned with delivering in prose a vicarious experience than his continental predecessors or his English followers are. Thus he frequently refers to prints and drawings available in England, [173/174] suggesting that his book is intended as much for stay-at-homes as for those who actually make the grand tour. His careful accounts of physical locations and relationships between paintings, buildings, and spectator seem designed to allow English readers at home to imagine themselves walking the galleries and palaces of Italy.
Besides Richardson's greater attention to the physical conditions of spectatorship, there are further significant differences between him and the two later critics in the choice of visual elements to be read and the notion of the spectator's role. Richardson, for example, considers light primarily as a means of enhancing or defining ideas conveyed through figures and actions. In his commentary on The Liberation of St. Peter, he proceeds from the physical conditions of viewing to the "several distinct Actions" in the painting (the figures, where they are on the stage set, what they are doing), and finally to the most striking and controversial aspect of the picture, "the Particularity, and Variety of its Lights." Although some believe these lights—two angels, a torch, and the moon—violate the accepted rule of a single principal light, Richardson compares them with other examples of "Night-Pieces" and concludes: "Those great Masters owe their Fame in this Particular chiefly to the Unity of Light, surrounded by Darkness; Here all is Night, but all Shines; with such a due Subordination however, that One does not hurt Another, or torment the Eye in the least, which at ease can consider the Whole, and every Part; and not at Ease only, but with Delight." This passage is a fine and rare example of Richardson's attempt to convey a visual effect, what his father called the sensual pleasure of painting as opposed to the intellectual pleasures of identifying ideas, but it is at the same time revealing to find that what pleases him is a management of light that permits a particular kind of reading. The eye can "at ease consider the Whole, and every Part"—as Richardson has just done three times, with respect to setting, figures, and light. The clear and easy articulation of parts and their relationships to a whole informs both the intellectual and the sensual pleasures of viewing an ideal painting.
But Richardson has still more to say: the final judgment of a picture must be principally by means of the expression of the historical figures. In this case, expression too is greatly enhanced by the management of light. [174/175]
Had Raffaele done This only to show his Art in the Management of the Clair-Obscure, had it been a Jeu d' Esprit, in Painting it had been much less considerable; hut That moreover contributes vastly to the Expression, That fierce Flash of Light given by the Angel in the Centre of the Picture, together with the Horror of a Prison strikes forcibly upon the Imagination: The Iron Grate thro' which those Figures appear is plac'd there very Artfully, it immediately gives you the Idea of a Jail, and those Dark Lines cutting the Brightness behind into so many small parts gives a Flickering, and a Dazzle that nothing Else could possibly have done. And though it must be confess'd the Angel with the Apostle Deliver'd breaks the Unity of the Action [St. Peter is shown first in prison, then outside the prison on the right], yet one cannot wish this Picture was without this Fault; it is Enrich'd by it, and you have one of the Finest Pictures in the World of two Figures as it were flung into a spare Corner of This; for these two Figures are exquisite: Nor are they without their farther Use; the Mind is something relieved from the Concern 'tis in upon seeing the Abject Condition of the Apostle in Chains: Here he is seen as we should Wish him; at Liberty, and under the Conduct, and Protection of his Heavenly Guide.
The effects of light to which Richardson responds so attractively show most clearly his assumptions about how paintings are perceived and understood. Light, enhancing action, strikes the imagination and "gives you the Idea of a Jail"; the second action then relieves the mind by giving a second idea of the apostle "as we should Wish him." The spectator here is a passive mind receiving ideas; those ideas are distinct and relatively clear, visually articulated in the painting and verbally articulable in Richardson's prose. This language, of course, is Locke's, and Richardson the senior uses it throughout his preface: "As every Picture, Statue, or Bas-relief, besides what it was intended to exhibit, leaves upon the Mind of him that sees it an Idea of its Self, distinguished from every Other of its Kind; he that would describe them should endeavour to communicate such Distinct Ideas" (unpaginated preface). The clear divisions of a unified picture space, the separable but related actions, illuminating but not distracting variety of lights, all work together produce a visually realized idea of St. Peter's release from prison by angelic intervention. This distinct idea, it should be noted, is not realized in the mind of the spectator; it is already fully realized in the painting, given to or left on the spectator's mind where it can be [175/176] judged. The spectator needs only to bring to the painting his attention and some information (he needs to know the story). Richardson's prose account tries to give the reader a sense of what such a viewing experience would be, to "put a Reader Almost upon a Level with him that Sees the thing," and further, to enforce the attention that makes seeing into perceiving, or reading, the painting's visual ideas.
The Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun by Nicholaus Poussin. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
Though Hazlitt's essay "On a Landscape of Nicolas Poussin" (1821) is equally concerned with giving the reader the experience of the painting, his description is not, like Richardson's, an analysis of the visual image and the ideas it realizes, but a description of the idea—by no means wholly visual—evoked in the mind of a responsive spectator by light itself. The essay opens without any preliminary stationing of the spectator:
Orion, the subject of this landscape, was the classical Nimrod; and is called by Homer, "a hunter of shadows, himself a shade." He was the son of Neptune; and having lost an eye in some affray between the Gods and men, was told that if he would go to meet the rising sun, he would recover his sight. He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way;—you see his blindness, though his back is turned. Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews; the "grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance," and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, "a forerunner of the dawn." The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light "shadowy sets off" the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter's canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things. This great and learned man might be said to see nature through the glass of time: he alone has a right to be considered as the painter of classical antiquity. [Hazlitt, Works, VIII, 168-69]
Though there are references to remind us that we are spectators before a painting (it is a "landscape," "conceived and done" by Poussin; Orion, its "principal figure", "is represented" in a certain situation); yet the main pull of Hazlitt's description is to make us forget that we are looking at a canvas and imagine the same scene appearing directly [176/177] before the mind's eye. Even what he tells us we see must in fact be inferred or imagined—Orion's blindness. The felt moisture of the mists, the spirit of morning breathed by the landscape, the "feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms" are rather impressions evoked in the spectator than clear and distinct ideas visually realized on the canvas. Hazlitt's ideal painting can "fill the moulds of the imagination" (170). The picture is completed not on the canvas but in the mind of the imaginative viewer.
Like Richardson, Hazlitt identifies the figures and tells the stories in which they appear, but even his telling of the story is an example of an active and personal response. His Orion is immediately associated with Nimrod and then given the Homeric epithet which, in fact, strongly colors Hazlitt's—and perhaps Poussin's—perception of him. Phrases from Keats, Pope's Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, Spenser, and Wordsworth are similarly sprinkled throughout Hazlitt's essay; they are not identified or used as explicit comparisons, but as the verbal associations or memories, of unexplained connection, which might occur to a literate English viewer whose mind was stimulated by the Poussin painting.
Hazlitt's impression may not be given as a visually precise description, let alone a visual analysis, but it is by no means unrelated to the painting. Here, as with Richardson, the visual effects to which Hazlitt responds are instructive. Though he begins traditionally enough with the action of the principal figure, his interpretation even of that figure, "himself a shade," seems guided by a visual quality that figure shares with landscape: "the same dull light," "the same atmosphere," a gray mistiness "which tinges and imbues every object, [and] 'shadowy sets off' the face of nature." The actual gray, misty light of the painting is almost obscured in Hazlitt's account by the ideas it metaphorically suggests. The pre-dawn light implies Orion's blindness, soon to be dispelled. Hazlitt also associated it with the prerational perception of a mythological nature: the "glass of time" has colored Poussin's representation. Hazlitt's Orion, like Keats's (in the essay's epigraph), is "hungry for the morn" in all its senses: the light of dawn, of recovered sight, and of post-mythological rational thought.
Richardson praises Raphael's light because it aids in the clear articulation of the actions and more forcibly impresses on the spectator's mind the ideas visualized in distinct but related actions. Hazlitt focuses [177/178] on the light in Poussin's painting because it suggests to a literate and active mind ideas that cannot be articulated by actions. Richardson is impressed by light that distinguishes and makes clear, Hazlitt by light that unifies and suggests. Both critics might be said to read their respective paintings. They articulate ideas as the meaning of visual images. But their habits of seeing, ideas of what can be read, and understanding of the perceptual process of reading differ widely.
Before I examine the associationist views of mental process that lie behind Hazlitt's reading of the Poussin, I want to draw some further distinctions between Hazlitt and Ruskin. In many ways, of course, the two critics are much closer than Richardson and Hazlitt. Both attacked Reynolds for equating the ideal with generalized nature—probably the most important nineteenth-century challenge to Reynolds and the academic ideal of the preceding three centuries. The similarities of their modes of describing paintings, or the spectator's experience, are equally great, as we can see if we juxtapose Hazlitt's greatest set piece, the opening of the essay on Poussin's Orion, with Ruskin's— the description of Turner's The Slave Ship in Modern Painters I.
Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying -- Typho[o]n Coming On by J. M. W. Turner. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
Like Hazlitt, Ruskin interweaves literal description and metaphoric evocation; unlike the romantic critic, Ruskin pays closer attention to purely visual details.
It is a sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rain-clouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendour which burns like gold, and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the undistinguishable images of the burning [178/179] clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea. [3.571-72]
She is a slaver, throwing her slaves overboard. The near sea is encumbered with corpses. [Ruskin's note]
Ruskin too abandons the analytic procedure of Richardson together with that barrier between spectator and painting which Richardson is constantly aware of. The two later critics synthesize their observations offsetting, action, light, and the painting's ideas into a single continuous account of a viewing experience which is simultaneously interpretive. Both men suggest that meaning is implicit in the visual facts of the painting. They articulate that meaning not by naming ideas represented but by giving visual terms— the gray tone of the Poussin, the scarlet hues of the Turner—a weight of metaphorical meaning, with the help of literary quotation or allusion. This kind of description implies, as Richardson's does not, that the painting is completed by the spectator's response. Hazlitt states this quite clearly: "What looks," he exclaims of Orion, "which only the answering looks of the spectator can express!" (173) For all his stress on active seeing, however, Ruskin does not make Hazlitt's claim that seeing, and by extension a verbal account of imaginative seeing, completes a picture by expressing what the painting cannot.
The pleasure of viewing that Hazlitt describes is the pleasure of reverie where seeing passes into metaphorical thinking. The spectator both sees what is there and is transported to "the regions of imagination": "it is to dream and to be awake at the same time; for it has all the sober certainty of waking bliss, with the romantic voluptuousness of a visionary and abstracted being" (169, 173). Waking bliss or romantic voluptuousness seems to be equally removed from vigorous engagement, judging by the tone of Hazlitt's prose. From the first suggestion of a certain lazy, pleasant imprecision ("having lost an eye in some ray") to the lulling repetition of the painting's dominant effect ("the [179/180] same atmosphere . . . the same dull light . . . one feeling, of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms") to the final imaginative transport ("and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things"), Hazlitt's prose suggests that looking is a kind of seduction of the imagination. The process is something like what Coleridge traces as the effect on a spectator of the opening acts of Shakespeare's plays, in which the imagination participates in its own enchantment by the gradual "willing suspension of disbelief."25
Ruskin's seeing, by contrast, is charged with undreamlike energy. That energy, as I suggested in Chapter 1, is conveyed by such things as participial forms and lengthening sentences of piled-up, assymmetrical phrases; it is an energy ascribed to the landscape itself, but reflecting equally the energy of looking. Reading the Hazlitt and the Ruskin together we find that the impression of greater energy in Ruskin's description does correspond to a considerably more active and excited visual experience. Hazlitt makes a single progress through the painting: from figures to foreground (mist, forests, earth), then back through gray dawn and Pleiades to the distant hills and ocean. Ruskin begins with the scarlet clouds streaming off the left and into the distant horizon of the picture, then moves back and forth between sea and sky reflected in it; finally he reverses his opening, following the mist of the night as it converges on the ship seen against the sky, whose light spreads across the water. In the course of all this moving around (corresponding to the much less simple spatial structure of the painting), Ruskin goes into considerably greater detail, especially about color and light as they play against the multiple forms of the sea. (This description is the climax of Ruskin's section on the "truth of water.") Much as painter and context seem to require the kind of description he gives, the important fact is that this is the kind of looking Ruskin always finds most satisfying. With The Slave Ship Ruskin actually puts off mentioning the ship itself until the last sentence of his description, as if to give himself time to look around first. What seduces Ruskin into this protracted description is not his own metaphoric imagination, stimulated by the subject's literary associations, but its visual richness. That richness draws him into a characteristically delighted, slow visual exploration.
The Fall of Tees, Yorkshire. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Admiring the foreground of Turner's The Fall of the Tees, Ruskin noted: "The articulation of such a passage as the nearest bank . . . might serve us for a day's study [180/181] if we were to go into it part by part . . . you are everywhere kept upon round surfaces, and you go back on these you cannot tell ho\v, never taking a leap, but progressing imperceptibly along the unbroken bank, till you find yourself a quarter of a mile into the picture, beside the figure at the bottom of the waterfall" (3.490-491). If Ruskin's eye is drawn into intense exploration by the foregrounds of drawings, it is at first bewildered and then ecstatically lost in the visual abundance of ideal paintings like The Slave Ship: "how shall words express or follow that which to the eye is inexhaustible?" (3.4921-1) Hazlitt's spectator breaks the boundary between spectator and painting by imaginatively entering into the conception of the painting; Ruskin's by tracing the visual details of the composition until he imaginatively enters its space. "The eye ... is guided from stone to stone and bank to bank, discovering new truths totally different in aspect according to the direction in which it approaches them" until "you find yourself a quarter of a mile into the picture, beside the figure at the bottom of the waterfall."26
Ruskin's method of reading The Slave Ship corresponds to his pleasure in visual exploration. Hazlitt's paragraph is an expansion and explication of the painting's principal figure as stimulated by the line from Pope's Homer quoted in Hazlitt's opening sentence: "a hunter of shadows, himself a shade." The description of the painting demonstrates how not only the painted Orion but also the landscape itself suggests the verbal figure. For Ruskin too landscape is more than the stage setting that Richardson sees (one can imagine how Hazlitt or Ruskin would have used those thick walls and barred grate of St. Peter's prison). But in Ruskin's description the fiery hues of sun and water only gradually come to express the guilt and punishment of the slave ship. Once we get to "the guilty ship . . . girded with condemnation in that fearful hue," all the previous references to water fearfully dyed with fiery, bloody color fall into place as part of a reading of the meaning of the painting. In the echo from Macbeth with which Ruskin closes his description, as in the phrase from Pope's Homer, the metaphoric meaning of color is fully contained. But Ruskin, putting figure, story, and literary allusion last instead of first, makes the interpretive process quite different: meaning does not emerge easily or at once; it seems to come only out of energetic visual exploration. Ruskin's description even ignores much more obvious signs: the legs, [181/182] chains, and sharks in the foreground and, of course. Turner's own verses. The effect of both strategies is not, certainly, to deny a readable meaning, but rather to locate it in its most impressive visual effects. These effects, lavishly explored and described, are never restricted to any simple signifying function.
We are used to tracing, in the period between the early eighteenth and
the early nineteenth century, a complicated shift in aesthetic and poetic
theory. The correspondent shift in theory and habits of reading visual
art is roughly represented by the distance between the Richardsons, in
1722, and Hazlitt and Ruskin, in 1821 and 1843. For the Richardsons
visual images are ideas given to the mind through the eye, but for the
later critics visual effects suggest meaning by an associative process;
spectator and critic need not judgment but sympathy and a participating imagination. This change in reading habits may seem to follow
quite naturally from the new primacy of sympathy and imagination in
theories of artistic and poetic creation, and no less from changes in I
contemporary poetry and painting themselves: new kinds of verbal
and visual allusion, a different use of figurative language and iconography, a new idea of poetic and compositional unity, and a different
logic—the looser associational connections that affected syntax as well
as semantics in verbal and visual arts. In fact, however, the changes in
creative theory and practice were not always reflected, at least immediately, in ideas about how reader and spectator respond. The lag is
particularly noticeable for painting. As we have noted, Hazlitt reads
Poussin's painting by first introducing a literary version of its guiding
metaphor. His roundabout method of reading a painting as expressive
language is not surprising in light of what eighteenth-century and romantic critics have to say about the new way of reading imaginative
creations. Though they can almost all be shown to respond to painting
much as they respond to poetry, they nonetheless go out of their way
to state that painting is necessarily less satisfying than literature according to the new criteria for imaginative aesthetic response. Hazlitt
achieves the full imaginative response to Poussin's painting by first
turning it into a poem. For Ruskin no such translation is necessary.
But he broke with romantic practice when he included the visual arts
in the new notion of reading.
omantic critics have most to say about the differences between reading and seeing when they consider the drama. One can either read or see a play, and Lamb, Coleridge, and Scott agree that it is better to read than to see. They argue that the direct appeal to the senses, especially sight, of stage performance inhibits action of the imagination essential to the adequate realization of a great play. Lamb is vehement: Lear, Othello, or The Tempest cannot be acted. "When the novelty is past, we find to our cost that instead of realizing an idea, we have only materialized and brought down a fine vision to the standard of flesh and blood. We have let go a dream, in quest of an unattainable substance." To see a play performed is to give up "that vantage ground of abstraction which reading possesses over seeing"; "the imagination is no longer the ruling faculty, but we are left to our poor unassisted senses."27 Coleridge comes to the same conclusion: "For the principal rind only genuine excitement ought to come from within,—from the moved and sympathetic imagination; whereas, where so much is addressed to the mere external senses of seeing and hearing, the spiritual vision is apt to languish, and the attraction from without will withdraw the mind from the proper and only legitimate interest which is intended to spring from within."28 And Hazlitt, when he is writing on drama, assumes a similar opposition between sensation and imagination: "Poetry and the stage do not agree together . . . The ideal has no place upon the stage; the imagination cannot sufficiently qualify the impressions of the senses."29
If the ideal has no place on the stage, what place can it have in painting? Hazlitt's attitudes as art and drama critic are not actually contradictory. The advantage he and his contemporaries assign to words is relative: though reading a play more successfully arouses the imagination than watching one, the response to visual art is also, but to a lesser degree, active and imaginative. The imaginative activities of seeing and reading can be difficult to distinguish in critical practice, but romantic critics agreed that there should be a difference. Literature, they argued, directly presents a certain train of associations. Its order is essentially the order of an imaginative mind, first the poet's, then the reader's. Looking at a painting merely stimulates such a train of associated ideas. Its order is that of space, not of mental process. It can provide the occasion for imagination, dream, abstraction, reverie, but [183/184] such imaginative activity actually takes place in the mind of the spectator only when he stops seeing. For Hazlitt an ideal painting makes an immediate impression, but "the imagination must qualify the impressions of the senses." The order of his paragraph on Orion is not the spatial order of the painting or even the temporal order of a visual experience of it, but an order of literary association and verbal metaphor. Coleridge would approve such a reading: "It is the nature of thought to be indefinite; — definiteness belongs to external imagery alone. Hence it is that the sense of sublimity arises, not from the sight of an outward object, but from the beholder's reflection upon it;—not from the sensuous impression, but from the imaginative reflex."30 Hazlitt's prose passage records the more valuable imaginative reflex. For the viewer of a painting or play, seeing and imagining are temporally separable and potentially conflicting activities, but for the reader of a literary text they need not be so. Sensuous impressions may be conveyed through the mental response they elicit in a speaker. Literature alone can both portray and evoke the imaginative reflex.
The basis for this distinction between imaginative reading and imaginative seeing can be found in the most widely read of the associationist aestheticians, Archibald Alison. Alison, like the romantic critics who are indebted to him, insists above all that aesthetic pleasure, "the emotion of taste," is dependent on the activity of the imagination in the reader, listener, or spectator.
Whatever may be the nature of that simple emotion which any object is fitted to excite, whether that of gaiety, tranquillity, melancholy, etc. if it produce not a train of thought in our minds, we are conscious only of that simple emotion. Whenever, on the contrary, this train of thought, or this exercise of imagination is produced, we are conscious of an emotion of a higher and more pleasing kind; and which [we] distinguish by the name of the emotion of taste . . . The emotions of taste may therefore be considered as distinguished from the emotions of simple pleasure, by their being dependent upon the exercise of our imagination; and though founded in all cases upon some simple emotion, as yet further requiring the employment of this faculty for their existence.31
Alison's account posits an initial simple emotion and a subsequent activity of the imagination. This activity is a succession of ideas distinguished from a nonimaginative train of thought in two ways. It is [184/185] composed of "ideas productive of emotion," and it exhibits a greater than normal unity—a unity not of logic but of some form of resemblance cemented by the simple emotion that provoked it. This division into simple emotion or impression and train of thought or imaginative reflex is parallel to Coleridge's. Put together with the century's insistence on immediacy of effect in paintings, this line of thinking leads to a location of the impression in the painting, and the imaginative train of thought in the spectator's mind. Applied to literature, however, Alison's model of aesthetic response yields a different description of the reading process: the imaginative reflex can be located in the text itself, as well as in the mind of the active reader.
The closer kinship between literature and mental process is argued on several grounds. First, as Burke held, words can raise ideas of emotion directly, without necessarily first calling to mind a sensuous image.32 Hence language can directly present that train of emotionally connected ideas that the picture can only hope to stimulate in the viewer. This advantage of words over visual images, as argued in later eighteenth-century associationist aesthetics, is reflected in Hazlitt's often quoted dictum, "Painting gives the object itself; poetry what it implies. Painting embodies what a thing contains in itself: poetry suggests what exists out of it, in any manner connected with it. But this last is the proper province of the imagination."33 Behind Burke's, Hazlitt's, and Alison's belief in the unique power of words lies an important assumption about the nature of verbal language; that it is itself a form of association. Literary language especially seemed to combine ideas in a typically associative fashion, building up trains of thoughts and images linked by emotions. Visual art, however, was not considered as an associative language—or, more often, not considered as language at all.
To this argument Alison adds a second: the painter operates under a disadvantage in evoking either the initial simple emotion or the succeeding imaginative train of ideas because he cannot be as selective as the poet. Painting is at the same time both too limited and too inclusive to achieve the kind of emotional unity that governs imaginative association. Too limited, because it can appeal to a single sense and evoke a single moment of time only; too inclusive, because the painter hampered in his efforts to bring out the "expressive character" of a place by the demands of imitation. A painting, by its very nature as a [185/186] representation, must maintain unity of place, time, and action from which literature is freed. Thus, Alison argues, the poet is subject to the most rigorous demands for associational unity of composition precisely because he, of all artists, can best achieve it (pp. 88-89).
The assumption that unity of expression or character is essential for imaginative response is very much in evidence in Hazlitt's description of the Poussin painting. It necessarily exists in some tension with Hazlitt's other, and very strong, conviction that ideal nature cannot be Reynolds' generalized nature; it depends for its imaginative power on "specific character." Hazlitt in fact credited painting with changing the way his contemporaries saw nature and read poems. Painting demonstrated the importance of specific character in evoking the ideal. But Hazlitt, like Alison, noted that the poet can be far more selective in his use of detail to establish specific character than the painter, who is obliged to maintain some consistency in the finish or degree of detail of his representation. Thus visual realization, despite its salutary influence on modern seeing and reading, could not serve Hazlitt as a model for ideal imaginative art.35
The understanding of reading that emerged between 1750 and 1820, supported by associationist psychology, opened new possibilities to critics of the visual arts.36 The distinction between an expressive literature and an imitative painting that persists in Hazlitt and others is misleading. In fact, romantic critics and associationist aestheticians approach paintings as if they were an expressive art—though less expressive than literature. Viewers of pictures may reach imaginative response differently from readers of poems, but imagination in poet and artist is the same. Rather than a simple opposition between seeing and reading, Kames, Alison, Hazlitt, and Coleridge set up a hierarchy of the arts as they are able to exhibit the imaginative process that created them and to evoke imaginative response in an audience.37 In this hierarchy painting is always lower than literature, higher than sculpture or gardening. Literature fully embodies imaginative process; painting stimulates it. But the praise of painting that associationist criticism fostered could seem back-handed. When a critic like Kames, Alison, or Hazlitt wished to give the highest possible compliment to a painter, he was likely to call him almost a poet: "Poussin was, of all painters, the most poetical."38 Romantic critics remained quite reluctant to speak of "reading" a picture—to equate the imaginative response to painting with that of the reader to poetry. [186/187]
The exception to this general rule is Charles Lamb's 1811 essay on Hogarth, a work that in many respects anticipates Ruskin's praise of Turner. Lamb specifically praises Hogarth as a painter to be read: "His graphic representations are indeed hooks: they have the teeming, fruitful, suggestive meaning of words. Other pictures we look at,—his prints we read."39 This statement might not at first seem surprising. Lamb describes Hogarth as a painter who works not by creating an immediate impression but by unfolding a complex meaning through the use of multiple images and verbal and visual allusions—a plethora of detail directly or metaphorically related to the subject of the print. He notes that Hogarth's prints have in fact "no central figure or principal group . . . nothing to detain the eye from passing from part to part, where every part is alike instinct with life" even down to "the dumb rhetoric of the scenery" and extending as well to "witticisms that are expressed by words, (all artists but Hogarth have failed when they have endeavoured to combine two mediums of expression, and have introduced words into their pictures), and the unwritten numberless little allusive pleasantries that are scattered about" (p. 126). For this highly verbal art the term "reading" would be appropriate without implying anything about the imaginative activity of the viewer. Lamb, however, also praises Hogarth as a great imaginative artist—greater, even, than Hazlitt's favorite Poussin:
I think we could have no hesitation in conferring the palm of superior genius upon Hogarth, comparing this work of his [Gin Lane] with Poussin's picture [Plague at Athens]. There is more of imagination in it—that power which draws all things to one,— which makes things animate and inanimate, beings with their attributes, subjects and their accessories, take one colour, and serve to one effect (p. 110).
William Hogarth's Gin Lane. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
The crowded clutter of Hogarth's prints does not, for Lamb, preclude imaginative unity. Hogarth's prints may not exhibit visual unity, but they do possess associative unity. To read a Hogarth is not simply to decode its imagery, the exercise that Shaftesbury and other eighteenth-century critics found to detract from the unified effect of a painting; it also, for the spectator, to participate in the imaginative process embodied in the painting. It is, Lamb says, what Shakespeare meant by imaginary work, where the spectator must meet the artist in his conceptions half way; and it is peculiar to the confidence of high genius [187/188] alone to trust so much to spectators or readers" (p. 111). Lamb recognizes no difference here between the unity of Hogarth's visual composition and the unity of a literary work of associative imagination; there can be, therefore, no real difference in the manner in which spectator and reader respond to visual work like Hogarth's and to an imaginative poem. Indeed, throughout his essay Lamb compares Hogarth's work with Shakespeare's.
Hazlitt begins his lecture on Hogarth (1818) by referring with approval to Lamb's essay, particularly to his praise of Hogarth as a painter to be read. But in the course of the lecture Hazlitt completely transforms Lamb's criteria for judging Hogarth's excellence and ends by strongly qualifying Lamb's praise. Hazlitt will not call Hogarth an imaginative painter, reproves Lamb for comparing him to Shakespeare, and goes on to distinguish sharply between Hogarth and Poussin. Hogarth's cluttered prints are full of "circumstantial detail" and reference to everyday events, while the ideal art of Raphael or Poussin, using subjects far from familiar or everyday, renders them in detail sufficiently selective to produce the visual and conceptual unity necessary to stimulate the associating imagination of the viewer. "Hogarth only transcribes or transposes what was tangible and visible."43 Hazlitt drastically reduces the notion of reading, as Lamb applied it to Hogarth, until it no longer carries the romantic sense of imaginative activity produced in the reader as he follows the text. Although Hazlitt gives greater praise to Poussin than to Hogarth, he does not praise him as a painter to be read. Poussin's effect on the imagination comes not through multiplying suggestive imagery, so linked as to lead the imagination by associative steps, but through unifying, by tone and selective imagery, a single suggestive ideal subject that will act as the starting point for reverie (Hazlitt's term) or imaginative reflex (Coleridge's)—a chain of associations in the mind of the viewer.
Hazlitt, contradicting Lamb on Hogarth, maintained the distinction between poem-as-process and painting-as-stimulus even in his highest praise of Poussin's ideal art. In the early volumes of Modern Painters Ruskin rejects this distinction outright. The kind of looking Ruskin advocates as necessary for the beholder of Turner is in fact much closer to what romantic critics meant by imaginative reading of great poetry than it is to Alison's or Hazlitt's conception of how one responds to ideal painting. Like Lamb, Ruskin found a painter for [188/189] whom Hazlitt's distinction between reading and seeing did not seem to apply; Unlike Lamp, Ruskin based his case on a fully romantic painter who was not, at least in the pages of Modern Painters I, particularly literary. Where Lamb focused on the emblematic nature of Hogarth's prints, Ruskin concentrated almost exclusively on visual composition in his first discussions of Turner. In his account of The Slave Ship, as we have seen, the visual impression is neither simple nor immediately and color to color; the relation of the ship, sea, and sky to each other is visually complex. Relationship, primarily expressed through colour, does exist, but it must be traced from touch to by the eye. That process of following out visual connections not immediately comprehensible is, in Ruskin's prose description, made identical with the process of following out an imaginative train of ideas (the flight of the clouds, the torture and relief from the storm, the (bath of blood, the valley of the shadow of death, fearful dye, reckless waves, guilty ship, the ineradicable stain of crime). Thus for Ruskin the Turner painting does not convey emotion through visual unity of impression, stimulating dream or reverie. Rather it guides the mind through a temporal process of imaginative association which is inseparable from a temporal experience of tracing formal visual relationships, especially of light and color. Painting, like poetry, has become not just the occasion for mental process but also the embodiment of it.
We can see now, I think, how the impression of energy and intense visual exploration conveyed by Ruskin's description, in contrast to Hazlitt's, is directly related to his argument in Modern Painters I and III that painting is a parallel experience of equal value with literature. That Ruskin is consciously revising the romantic and associationist view of painting is strongly suggested by both the language and the content of his definitions of great art. When he talks of the importance of conveying the specific character or expression of a place, or speaks of the imagination suggesting related images that expand a simple poetial feeling, he is using Alisonian terms and an Alisonian model of mental activity.44 Ruskin's definition of great art in Modern Painters I, however, contradicts the associationist demand that painting express a single powerful idea or emotion to stimulate imaginative association in the mind of the viewer: "But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the [189/190] greatest number of the greatest ideas" (3.92). The revised definition offered in Modern Painters III uses more romantic terminology to make essentially the same point. Here Ruskin uses the single term "poetry" to define both verbal and visual art. Both are "the suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions" (5.28). The emphasis on painting and poetry as arts of imaginative association is repeated a few lines later: what is required is not just simple poetical feeling but the assembling, by the poet's imagination, of "such images as will excite these feelings" in the mind of spectator or reader (5.29). Ruskin's definitions express a conviction that painting, as much as poetry, does more than provide a mood conducive to reverie. Its images also provide the content of that reverie, conveying ideas or exciting feelings in an "exercise of imagination." The corollary to this definition is that seeing a painting will require as much continuous attention to suggestive detail as reading a romantic poem. Further, the relationships between visual details may be as difficult to predict as the logic of metaphor, the twists and turns of associative thinking in Shelley or Keats or Wordsworth. This is, of course, what Ruskin says of Turner's paintings.
hat Ruskin praises as unique about Turner's landscape painting in Modern Painters, I nicely indicates the visual grounds he found in Turner for extending the concept of active response from poetry to painting. In some of his most acute comments on Turner, Ruskin calls particular attention to his use of tone, color, and light to depict space.45 Ruskin argues that Turner's conception of space is fundamentally different from that of the great landscape painters of the seventeenth century, Claude and Poussin. Turner's space requires an active viewing that is a form of associative thinking, as the space of his predecessors, according to Ruskin, does not. Space is represented by Turner not as possessing measurable extension, providing the means of estimating the size, position, and relationship of three-dimensional figures, but as filled with precisely significant light and color resolved into figure and distance by the activity of the spectator's eye and mind. Ruskin points out that the classical system expresses extension and relationship of objects in space by three means: linear perspective, which enables the viewer to tell at a glance the relationship of objects by [190/191] locating them at a given point in a preconceived space; tonal or color gradation, particularly tonal contrast; and aerial perspective, the gradual blurring of line and elimination of detail from foreground to background which expresses intervening space. Turner's space, expressed in very different ways, makes greater demands on the spectator's powers of visual discrimination and associative combination.
Linear perspective, as conceived in the Renaissance, is relatively less important for Turner than aerial perspective, winch requires closer visual attention. Tonal contrast is also less important than gradation. Turner, Ruskin points out, extends the tonal scale upward; the result is not just the more dramatic contrasts of light and dark then available, but the wider range of intermediate gradation. Through these intermediate gradations, Ruskin argues, the impression of space is most effectively conveyed.
[The old masters] chose those steps of distance which are the most conspicuous and noticeable, that for instance from sky to foliage, or from clouds to hills; and they gave these their precise pitch of difference in shade with exquisite accuracy of imitation. Their means were then exhausted, and they were obliged to leave their trees flat masses of mere filled-up outline, and to omit the truths of space in every individual part of their picture by the thousand . . . Turner starts from the beginning with a totally different principle. He boldly takes pure white ... for his highest light, and lampblack for his deepest shade; and between these he makes every degree of shade indicative of a separate degree of distance, giving each step of approach, not the exact difference in pitch which it would have in nature, but a difference bearing the same proportion to that which his sum of possible shade bears to the sum of nature's shade . . . Hence where the old masters expressed one distance, he expresses a hundred, and where they said furlongs, he says leagues . . . the very means by which the old masters attained the apparent accuracy of tone which is so satisfying to the eye, compelled them to give up all idea of real relations of retirement, and to represent a few successive and marked stages of distance, like the scenes of a theatre, instead of the imperceptible, multitudinous, symmetrical retirement of nature. [3.262-63]
Turner also uses indistinctness in a radically different fashion. As critics had been objecting for forty years, Turner tended to blur his foregrounds as much as or more than his middle and backgrounds—a practice just the reverse of normal procedure. Ruskin argues for the [191/192] effect of this procedure by pointing to the fact of selective focus: if the background is in focus, the foreground cannot be. Turner's habit of throwing the foreground out of focus tends to pull the viewer farther into the painting and so to enhance the experience of depth and distance. "The spectator was compelled to go forward into the waste of hills; there, where the sun broke wide upon the moor, he must walk and wander; he could not stumble and hesitate over the near rocks, nor stop to botanize on the first inches of his path" (3.324).46 Turner gets greater suggestion of extensive space by giving less distinctness in both his fore- and his far backgrounds, without diminishing the amount of detail suggested. Ruskin insists on this point as a central part of Turner's technique of representing space. Compared to previous landscape painters. Turner is both less distinct in his depiction of objects and more precise in his visual indication of them—making, consequently, greater demands on his viewers. That is, Turner uses line, light, and color more suggestively. He does not realize objects with a high degree of definition, but neither does he leave the viewer free to associate at will from empty spaces in his painting. Fore- and backgrounds may be equally indistinct, but both remain "full." There are no empty spaces in Turner's paintings. "Hence, throughout the picture, the expression of space and size is dependent on obscurity, united with, or rather resultant from, exceeding fulness. We destroy both space and size, either by the vacancy which affords us no measure of space, or by the distinctness which gives us a false one" (3.339).
Ruskin's account of Turner's full but indistinct space is a visual version of the familiar romantic interest in the unfinished or incomplete; in both cases, readers and viewers are called upon to participate in creation. Ruskin's version of romantic incompleteness, however, places particular emphasis on the precise directions for imaginative activity which paintings and texts can provide. He does not praise the suggestiveness of vaguely depicted space that appears to be, in fact, simply empty. His praise of Turner's Mercury and Argus, for example, dwells on the abundance, variety, and precision of every indefinite stroke of the brush:
Abundant beyond the power of the eye to embrace or follow, vast and various beyond the power of the mind to comprehend, there is yet not one atom in its whole extent and mass which does not suggest more than it represents; [192/193] nor does it suggest vaguely, but in such a manner as to prove that the conception of each individual inch of that distance is absolutely clear and complete in the master's mind, a separate picture fully worked out: but yet, clearly and fully as the idea is formed, just so much of it is given, and no more, as nature would have allowed us to feel or see; just so much as would enable a spectator of experience and knowledge to understand almost every minute fragment of separate detail, but appears, to the unpractised and careless eye, just what a distance of nature's own would appear, an unintelligible mass. Not one line out of the millions there is without meaning, yet there is not one which is not affected and disguised by the dazzle and indecision of distance. No form is made out, and yet no form is unknown. (3.335)
As this passage makes clear, Ruskin defended Turner's suggestive representation of space not as a purely artistic device but as a closer approximation to the facts of normal perception. Turner, he claims, departs radically from ideas of space perception that had been the norm since the Renaissance to move closer to the truths of space and light and color as they appear to the human eye. Turner's lectures on perspective (the notes for which Ruskin had not seen in 1843), together with the evidence of his paintings, suggest that Ruskin's claim is consonant with Turner's own view of what he was doing— although in 1843 Ruskin's polemical intentions, his ahistorical approach, and his concentration on Turner's work of the late thirties and forties made him exaggerate the break with Claude and Poussin. Linear perspective, the triumphant rationalization of vision achieved in the Renaissance, does seem to have been considered by Turner as well as Ruskin as an inadequate representation of visual experience. Turner was not only more interested in aerial perspective, as Ruskin points out; he was also attracted by the mimetic and expressive possibilities of an elliptical field of bifocal vision with more than one vanishing point, where complicated patterns of curves or vortices not only suggest motion in air and water but also encourage movements of the eyes which Turner may have regarded as a neglected aspect of normal perception.47 He was attracted too by the doubling or echoing of objects (noted by Ruskin, 13.73-74; 15.167-169), perhaps because it seemed characteristic of bifocal vision. These picture structures contrast with the simple avenues of recession through an orderly succession of planes that indicate continuous, consistent space in a Claude—an illusion based on our acceptance of fixed, single-point perspective [191/192] as an equivalent to normal vision. Turner seems to have been increasingly unwilling to accept that convention, judging from his experiments with vortical compositions. Ruskin does not call explicit attention to the elliptical and vortical structures in Turner's paintings, but his own descriptions trace out similar visual movements in his explorations of paintings or actual landscapes. Some of the tremendous energy of motion in Turner's vortex paintings is reflected in the verbal energy and movement of Ruskin's prose descriptions. For both painter and critic, the energy of motion may have been intended as an accurate imitation of perception itself.
Turner's departure from tradition in the organization and representation of space, especially in some of his later work, could in itself account for much of that increased energy of perception which sets Ruskin apart from Hazlitt. Where the indications of distance and spatial relationships are unfamiliar, the painting as a depiction of natural space may simply give an impression of confusion, as Turner's critics again and again testify. The kind of point-by-point interpretation that Rusk in employs was probably necessary to make Turner's light and color comprehensible as spatial representation. But I don't think it is simply the problem of unfamiliarity that leads Ruskin to advocate careful visual readings as opposed to immediate impressions for the spectator of Turner's paintings. The conception of visual space ascribed by Ruskin to Turner seems to imply a different kind of seeing—one that is both excursive, in the sense traced in Chapter 3, and associative, in the sense prescribed by Alison and the romantic critics for the reading of poems.
It may help to explain how Turner's depiction of space could evoke excursive seeing and associative reading if we begin by noting some connections between Turner's practice and George Berkeley's New Theory of Vision (1709), with which Turner was certainly familiar.48 Berkeley reasserted the medieval belief that we see only light and color, contradicting Locke's argument that figure and extension are primary qualities of objects, and color only secondary. This much of Berkeley's theory had begun to have a considerable impact on art theory by the early nineteenth century. Uvedale Price attributed a similar position to Payne Knight in 1801; Goethe reannounced the fact in his "Theory of Color," which Turner read and commented on extensively after it was translated into English by Eastlake in 1840.49 Berkeley's [194/195] explanation of how, if all we see is light and color, we think we see figure, distance, and so forth, is of particular interest. Berkeley argues that light and color suggest, represent, or signify these tangible qualities, as words signify ideas. We see figure, distance, or direction only through our common and accumulated experience that particular patterns of light and color correspond to tangible experiences of figures in particular spatial locations. The most immediate of these tangible experiences associated with visual experience, according to Berkeley, is that of the movements of the eyes themselves as they explore the visual field, shift focus, and so forth. Turner might be said to employ Berkeley's new theory of vision in several ways: in his increasing emphasis on light and color as the primary visual effects of painting, and in his interest in the eye movements generated by light and color as the means to express the structure of space and spatial relationships. Though there is no evidence that Ruskin read Berkeley's New Theory of Vision (he knew and strongly disagreed with others of Berkeley's works),50 he certainly responded to these elements in Turner's practice, particularly the visual experience of space as that of the eve moving through a field of light and color. Furthermore, there are two points in Berkeley's New Theory which, from what we know of Turner, would have been likely to interest him and which recur in Ruskin's criticism. Berkeley presents his notion of how distance and direction are perceived as an explicit criticism of the Renaissance system of linear perspective; he also describes light and color as a conventional language (his term) based on associative connections between signfier and signified.51 Berkeley's insistence that light and color constitute a language would make "reading" an appropriate term for seeing, although Berkeley would argue that we are not conscious that seeing is reading. His belief that vision is not a real language (whose words are things) further implies that reading involves something like the continuous process of association through suggestion which was to constitute the romantic notion of response to poetry. According to Berkeley's argument, if we believe that we see figure and space directly, then visual images will appear to be more or less direct presentations of 'real" things. Positing that we see only light and color, for Berkeley, makes visual imagery not a presentation of any objective reality, but imply a language for expressing, through one order of mental and sensory experience (sight), another order of mental and sensory experience [195/196] (touch). Thus visual signs become indeed analogous to verbal signs and not, as most later eighteenth-century writers who did not follow Berkeley held, an imitation of reality that could not closely reflect mental process. Neither Ruskin nor Turner, of course, would have accepted Berkeley's claim that visual language was not true to our perceptions of nature, but they do seem to have believed that visual language was quite capable of reflecting the same mental processes displayed in romantic poetry. And both men, like Berkeley, were interested in new ideas of space perception which helped to make explicit the function of visual imagery in painting as a suggestive language. Like Berkeley, Ruskin attaches an attack on Renaissance conceptions of space to his defense of the new Turnerian version of spatial perception. In The Stones of Venice Ruskin censures Renaissance pride in perspective, denying that rationalization of space can provide truth of aspect — phenomena as they appear to a human perceiver. The artist must rely on his eyes. The contrast here is between a space that is rational and scientific, and one that exhibits no consistency of relationships such as might be expressed by mathematical formulas (11.57-58, 71, II5, 117). In Modern Painters I Ruskin describes a Renaissance space that is empty and impoverished, composed of "dead spaces of absolute vacuity" or of figures rendered with false distinctness, "staring defiance at the mystery of nature" (3.334). Turner's space is not impoverished but rich, not empty but full, not overdistinct but mysterious (3.246,341). All of these qualities are characteristics of the imagination (or the imaginative poem) as described by associative literary critics. Similarly, Ruskin's criticism of the pre-Turnerian landscapists is parallel to Alison's or Hazlitt's discussions of painting in general, as distinguished from poetry. Though Hazlitt finds Poussin's Orion poetic, he sees light and color as bringing suggestive atmosphere to what is essentially an art of figure and extension, of things governed by rational spatial relationships, not of ideas or mental images joined by the strong "chemistry" of the associating imagination (4.234-235; a phrase of Ruskin's adopted from that line of associationist psychology which literary critics found most congenial).
The climax to Ruskin's associationist criticism of Renaissance space comes in his parody of Claude's II Mulino (The Marriage of Rebecca and Isaac) in the second preface to Modern Painters I. Ruskin ridicules the [196/197] belief that painting can be ideal if it relies solely on orderly spatial arrangements and ignores or violates associative connections.
The foreground is a piece of very lovely and perfect forest scenery, with a dance of peasants by a brook-side; quite enough subject to form, in the hands of a master, an impressive and complete picture. On the other side of the brook, however, we have a piece of pastoral life; a man with some bulls and goats tumbling head foremost into the water, owing to some sudden paralytic affection of all their legs. Even this group is one too many; the sheplerd had no business to drive his flock so near the dancers, and the dancers will certainly frighten the cattle. But when we look farther into the picture, their feelings receive a sudden and violent shock, by the unexpected apicarance, amidst things pastoral and musical, of the military; a number of Roman soldiers riding in on hobbyhorses, with a leader on foot, apparently encouraging them to make an immediate and decisive charge on the musicians . . . This is, I believe, a fair example of what is commonly called an ideal" landscape; ie. a group of the artist's studies from Nature, individually noiled, selected with such opposition of character as may insure their neutralizing each other's effect, and united with sufficient unnaturalness and violence of association to insure their producing a general sensation of the impossible. [3.41-42]
He also attacks Claude for simplifying and clarifying figures so as to ring out formal relations at the expense of truth of expression or character:
The descending slopes of the city of Rome, towards the pyramid of Caius Cestius [Claude's setting], supply not only lines of the most exquisite variety and beauty, but matter for contemplation and reflection in every fragment of their buildings. This passage has been idealized by Claude into a set of similar round towers, respecting which no idea can be formed but that they are uninhabitable, and to which no interest can be attached, beyond the difficulty of conjecturing what they could have been built for. [3.44]
The simplifications justified by the criterion of visual unity are mocked by Ruskin, not only because they are untrue but also because theoats destroy the interest such a scene can have for the imaginative and sympathetic spectator: "It cannot, I think, be expected, that landscapes like this should have any effect on the human heart, except to harden [197/198] or to degrade it" (3.44). The true ideal unity is a unity of thought achieved by including all the "lines of the most exquisite variety and beauty" which provide "matter for contemplation and reflection" and so combining them that each painting is "founded on a new idea . . . developing a totally distinct train of thought" (3.48). Ruskin is claiming both that Claude is false to nature and that his compositions do not exhibit the kinds of connections between ideas which characterize imaginative perception in thinking or seeing.
Ruskin may have exaggerated the differences between Turner and
Claude, but that exaggeration allowed him to proclaim the possibility
of painting where the sensory profusion resulting from visual truth to
nature directly contributes to imaginative effect. The emphasis on
Turner's unique representation of space in
Ruskin's argument for associative unity in painting is developed more fully in Modern Painters II (in the chapters on imagination) and in Modern Painters III, where he describes imaginative perception as the "clustering" of ideas around a visual object. His chapter on "Turnerian Topography" in Modern Painters IV is an expanded explanation of Turner's spatial composition in terms of this model of imaginative sight. Similarly, the description of the beholder's imagination in Modern Painters III is a more explicit version of the manner of seeing already assumed in Modern Painters I. To rephrase Ruskin's perceptions in Modern Painters I in the terminology of Modern Painters III and IV, [198/199] we see Turner's landscapes rightly we will be exercising imaginative sight—that process of associative thinking which, Ruskin claimed was not separate from sight, as Wordsworth and Scott (or Alison and Hazlitt) believed, but indissolubly part of seeing. For Turner this sight would be instantaneous, the clustering of images. For the spectator, as for the reader, the process is more gradual: we must let our imaginations be guided from image to image and idea to idea by a painting or poem. For spectator or reader, imaginative sight is something more like the traditional train of associated ideas—though "train" was not a word that Ruskin, by the time of Modern Painters III, would use to describe the leisurely and unpredictable traveling of the excursive eye and mind. The Ruskinian sublime and the Ruskinian picturesque can also be seen as later attempts to work out, more elaborately, aspects of the kind of imaginative sight posited in Modern Painters I. Both grotesque and picturesque are also, as I have already argued, dependent on the excursive eye and mind of the spectator. The associative imagination and the excursive eye are consistently joined in the mode of seeing that Ruskin advocates.
Perception fascinated Ruskin, as it did his predecessors, Alison an4 Coleridge. Each understood perception not as the passive reception of sense impressions but as the active mental interpretation of that information. Insisting that all seeing is just such active perception, Ruskin extended to art what the associationist psychologists and romantic critics liad claimed for literature: its power to engage, embody, and guide the whole mind, including the imagination. Excursive sight and associative reading were not Ruskin's inventions—they come out of the landscape experience, the psychology, and the literature of the previous century—but he brought them together and applied them where they had not been thought relevant. In so doing he effectively raised the status of the viewer of landscapes or paintings. He also presented seeing as a far more demanding activity than his predecessors had assumed. In his five-volume response to England's greatest romantic painter, Ruskin created the romantic spectator of painting.
There is historical irony in Ruskin's achievement. Claude and Poussin, after all, were a major source of inspiration for the eighteenth-century English landscape garden and hence for an approach to landscape reflected in gardens, on travels, and in poetry. The paintings were [199/200] equally important for early poetic gardens and meditative-descriptive poems full of emblematic devices, and for later ones where excursive approaches to landscape were combined with explicitly associationist demands for expressive scenery. Ruskin was, in a way, only bringing back to landscape painting what the English had derived from it: an excursive, associative mode of imaginative visual experience. If romantic critics treated painting as a relation who had outlived her usefulness to poetry, Ruskin reinstated her as the landscape movement's best child.
Best—but also last. Ruskin's closing of the cycle of influence carries an ominous suggestion of finality, a finality recognized and resisted in his own writing from the late fifties. By the time his audience has learned how to see and read landscapes, the colors of Turner's paintings will be irrevocably faded, English gardens converted to coalfields, distances filled with soot and smoke instead of light and color, and leisurely travel supplanted by steam and speed. (Turner might grasp the last with imaginative sight, but not the ordinary beholder.) In Pre-Raphaelite painting, truth to nature and truth to imagination are certainly not achieved through truth of space. By the mid-fifties, real and painted landscapes suited to the romantic spectator were increasingly difficult to find.
But Ruskin's ideas about perception did not disappear with the landscapes he loved. His insistence on active imaginative seeing even for the consumer is ultimately the strongest link between his art and social criticism. Seeing as he describes it is indeed an activity of the whole mind, as that mind was conceived by contemporary psychology. One can see how, if healthy perception typifies human mental activity, Ruskin could conclude that unfeeling or inaccurate response to the visual arts—to Venice, to Turner, to the Pre-Raphaelites— might be the sign of a culture-wide loss of mental and emotional health. Disease is one of Ruskin's pervasive metaphors for social as well as perceptual flaws. His remedies for cultural ill health in the second half of his career were often social and economic, but his criticism continued to address the failures of perception which seemed both symptom and cause of the disease. Reading was a major concern of this later perceptual criticism. By precept and example, Ruskin sought to teach his audience to read explicit symbolism in visual art, and to understand how that symbolism affected verbal language, including his own.
Last modified 18 February 2013