Decorative Initial Although much non-Ruskinian periodical reviewing and related criticism serve as a depository of information valuable to the modern student of Victorian art and culture, one must admit that as art criticism they are not very good. Not only do many of these art writers find it difficult to relate what occurs visually in a painting, but they all too frequently find themselves puzzled by pictorial symbolism as well. For formal and iconographical criticism one must go to the writings of John Ruskin, Victorian England's great critic of art and society.

Ruskin's primacy as the art critic of the Victorian years, one must emphasize, is not the result of adulatory modern scholarship or a small band of contemporary disciples. As a good Victorian, I must cite my own experience of conversion, admitting that even long after I had begun to work on this great master of nineteenth-century prose, I remained a bit skeptical about the almost incredible importance modern students of the period have claimed for him. Only after reading through hundreds of periodical essays and reviews did I realize that after mid-century it is almost impossible to turn to writings on the arts without finding a mention of Ruskin, borrowing from him, or allusion to his works. For the art critics, as for a large portion of the public, Ruskin remained the one important voice. He had a great many disciples, few of whom accepted all his criteria and judgements, but all of whom made it their business to promulgate Ruskinian notions of painting, literature, sculpture, architecture, or the decorative arts. For example, F. G. Stephens and W. M. Rossetti, both original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, draw heavily upon one side of Ruskin's art theories when they campaign for a realistic style in figure and landscape painting; while Robert St. John Tyrwhitt explicitly draws upon another when he attempts to popularize the master's iconographic and mythological [134/135] readings of art. As Tyrwhitt explained in the eighth part of his long series, "Ancilla Domini: Thoughts on Christian Art," "Much of what we have to say here only reflects the thoughts" of the author of 'Modern Painters,' but his works have been on the whole carelessly read, and he has complained that people dash at his descriptions and do not attend to his argument (Contemporary Review, 10 [1869]: 181). The aesthetician Eneas Sweetland Dallas exemplifies yet another strain in Ruskin when he builds upon his theories of imagination and unconscious creative processes.

To the question, why Ruskin had such great influence, one must reply that he was the right man at the right time, not only because he had such valuable knowledge and feeling for art, but also because his conception of the art critic as a combination of sage, satirist, and prophet exactly suited the needs of his audience. As Brownlee Brown, an astute American admirer perceived in 1857, Ruskin's situation at mid-century in relation to painting was exactly analogous to that in poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge fifty years before. Whereas the poets had composed their own critical defenses, Turner needed someone else to defend, popularize, and interpret the revolution he had achieved in Romantic landscape painting

Turner will reach the general mind through the mediation of Ruskin, who stands and struggles among the Art critics of the period a veritable champion of England. Amid these twaddlers he presents the formidable front of a man with meaning, confident of his cause, and devoted to it with all his faculty. Like one of Cromwell's troopers, he brings heart and conscience to his work, which is a modern crusade, a medley of fighting, preaching, and poetry. Strong in conviction and feeling, he is fearless of tradition." ["John Ruskin," Crayon, 4 [1857]: 330]

This apt image of Ruskin as Cromwellian campaigner does much to explain contemporary reactions to him. To the rising middle class, many of whom were evangelicals both within and without the established church, Ruskin's use of argument, method, and tone derived from the Puritan heritage of preaching and biblical interpretation made a great deal of sense; for such procedure simultaneously justified the importance of art in a manner they could appreciate while it made painting and architecture seem very much a part of their conception of things. Ruskin, in other words, is the great master of Victorian relevance. But relevance, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder, and it is the great task of liberal education to make us able to perceive it. Ruskin had the capacity to demonstrate the relevance of Turner and Tintoretto to the lives of the Liverpool artisan and the Manchester manufacturer. His defiance of tradition and recognized authority, which so infuriated conservative critics, such as those in The Art-Journal, struck just the right note for an audience in the midst of asserting its own power and place in English society.


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Last modified 8 December 2006