Decorative Initial Before we examine the effects of this alliance of painting and poetry upon Ruskin's philosophy of beauty and theories of meaning in art, it will be necessary to analyze further the nature of the romantic, or expressive, poetry which he wished to league with painting. In characterizing romantic critical theory by its emphasis upon expression, I am following M. H. Abrams, whose useful descriptions of romantic criticism will illuminate important aspects of Ruskin's ideas on art. In The Mirror and the Lamp he writes: "Almost all the major critics of the English romantic generation phrased definitions or key statements showing a parallel alignment from work to poet. Poetry is the overflow, utterance, or projection of the thought and feelings of the poet; or else (in the chief variant formulation) poetry is defined in terms of the imaginative process which modifies and synthesizes the images, thoughts, and feelings of the poet.... A work of art is essentially the internal made external, resulting from a creative process operating under the impulse of feeling, and embodying the combined product of the poet's perceptions, thoughts, and feelings."

Studies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English aesthetic theory have done much to explain the development of the critical attitudes described by Abrams. In particular, the genetic relation of theories of the sublime to romantic criticism is important to a study of Ruskin, not only because he discusses the sublime himself but because ideas derived from the sublime otherwise influence his views of art. For example, the origin of certain aspects of romantic critical theory in notions of the sublime accounts for the criteria which romantic criticism, including that of Ruskin, applies to art. The notion of reaction is at the center of theories of the sublime: the spectator, upon encountering sublimity in art or nature, reacts emotionally in much the same unconscious, natural manner as does a seed with its environment. This idea of reaction is also important to expressive theories of art, for, as we shall demonstrate from Ruskin's statements, the criteria of poetry and painting in expressive theory are those which insure that the aesthetic reaction takes place and that it is portrayed accurately.

John Ruskin, Christ Church, Oxford (left) and Amalfi (right).

In looking at these brilliant Ruskinian watercolors, both of which are here reproduced from the Library Edition, note how during his later Turnerian phase Ruskin combines his characteristic love of fine detail with a kind of kinetic, movemented, even visionary approach to painting. How does such art fulfill his own descriptions of Romantic conceptions of the sister arts? of art as dream-like prophecy? his admiration for Turner? his response to photography? Click upon each image for a larger picture and for more information about it. [Not in original print version.]

First and before all, the work of art and the man who creates it must be sincere: without sincerity we can neither trust the artist's reaction nor his presentation of it. In a late work, The Laws of Fésole (1878-1879), Ruskin wrote that "The greatest art represents everything with absolute sincerity, as far as it is able" (15.359) and in the final volume of Modern Painters we are informed that the lesson to be learned from the life of  Turner, England's greatest artist, "is broadly this, that all the power of it came of its mercy and sincerity" (7.442).

A second criterion which owes much to the eighteenth-century roots of romanticism is intensity. Theories of sublimity, which were frequently concerned with violent emotional reactions, made the intensity of an aesthetic experience a matter of concern; and intensity became even more important with the growth, in the eighteenth century, of epistemologies that conceived that emotion and imagination — not conscious intellect — grasp all that is important to man and art. As Ruskin explains, since we perceive by means of the imagination's emotional processes, the more intense our emotion, the deeper will be the imagination's glance, the surer its grasp of truth: "Wholly in proportion to the intensity of feeling which you bring to the subject you have chosen, will be the depth and justice of your perception of its character" (16.370). Elsewhere, Ruskin explains this relationship between intensity of feeling and perception in more detail: "There is reciprocal action between the intensity of moral feeling and the power of imagination; for, on the one hand, those who have keenest sympathy are those who look closest and pierce deepest, and hold securest; and on the other, those who have so pierced and seen the melancholy deeps of things are filled with the most intense passion and gentleness of sympathy" (4.257). In other words, the imagination's distinguishing quality and strength is that it sees with intensity: "The virtue of the Imagination is its reaching, by intuition and intensity of gaze (not by reasoning, but by its authoritative opening and revealing power), a more essential truth than is seen at the surface of things" (4.284). Therefore, since intensity is so closely related to the means of perceiving what is true, intensity becomes a criterion of both artistic perception and aesthetic experience.

Thirdly, the work of art should in some way be original. Originality is an appropriate criterion for a theory of art which centers on individual reactions, for if the artist and poet differ from other men because they have the ability to react with greater sensitivity to nature, then art which expresses these valued reactions will be praised because it appears unique, or even strange to the audience. Ruskin believed that true originality came not from mere novelty but from better apprehension of truth: "That virtue of originality that men so strain after is not newness, as they vainly think (there is nothing new), it is only genuineness" (4.253). But as Ruskin tells us in "A Joy For Ever" (1857), the very freshness of the artist's vision creates difficulties for "Precisely in the degree in which any painter possesses original genius, is at present the increase of moral certainty that during his early years he will have a hard battle to fight''(16.31). Since the poet and painter present truth in new and strikingly original ways, great art will rarely meet or adapt itself very much to the expectations of an audience; for, indeed, art's very purpose is to increase the audience's range of knowledge and expectations. The audience must thus be sympathetic to originality:

The highest art, being based on sensations of peculiar minds, sensations occurring to them only at particular times, and to a plurality of mankind perhaps never, and being expressive of thoughts which could only rise out of a mass of the most extended knowledge, and of dispositions modified . . . by peculiarity of intellect, can only be met and understood by persons having some sort of sympathy with the high and solitary minds which produced it. (3.135-136)

But audiences do not tend to be sympathetic, and therefore isolation and alienation are the natural conditions in which the great artist must create. So it was, we are told, with Turner:

Now the condition of mind in which Turner did all his great work was simply this: "What I do must be done rightly; but I know also that no man now living in Europe cares to understand it; and the better I do it, the less he will see the meaning of it." There never was yet, so far as I can hear or read, isolation of a great spirit so utterly desolate.... So far as in it lay, this century has caused every one of its great men, whose hearts were kindest, and whose spirits most perceptive of the work of God, to die without hope: —  Scott,  Keats, Byron,  Shelley, Turner. (7.452,455)

Since the artist is thus isolated by the very quality which makes his work valuable to his audience, it will be necessary for the artist's work to be interpreted to, and often defended from, the mass of men for whom he creates. Such was the case with Turner, and such was the reason that Modern Painters was begun in 1843.


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Last modified 25 July 2005