Illuminated Initial 'R'

uskin, the great Victorian critic of art and society, had an enormous influence on his age and our own. Like so many Victorians, he had astonishing energy, for while carrying on a voluminous correspondence and painting a large body of superb water-colours, he published poetry, a children's fantasy, and books and essays on geology, botany, church politics, political economy, painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, art education, myth, and aesthetics. He had great influence on both the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival and the twentieth-century functionalist reaction against all such revivalist styles in architecture and design. A great and successful propagandist for the arts, he did much both to popularize high art and to bring it to the masses. Ruskin, who strove to remove the boundaries between fine and applied arts, provided a major inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement. A brilliant theorist and practical critic of realism, he also contributed the finest nineteenth-century discussions of fantasy, the grotesque, and pictorial symbolism. A master of myth criticism, traditional iconology, and explication du texte, Ruskin also provides one of the few nineteenth-century instances of a writer concerned with compositional analyses and other formal criticism. His extraordinary range of taste, interests and sympathy allowed him to discuss with perceptive enthusiasm both Turner's more traditional works and his later proto-expressionist ones, and he similarly defended and created a taste for painting by the English Pre-Raphaelites, Italian Primitives, and sixteenth-century Venetians. Although he was a great student of the past and past traditions, he also saw the role of the critic as having primary relevance to the present. Unlike Matthew Arnold, who during one of the great ages of English [3/4] literature assured his contemporaries that they could not create major imaginative work, Ruskin perceived that they had already done so and daringly discussed Tennyson, Browning, Dickens, and others within the context of the great traditions of Western literature and art — traditions that his own writings did so much to define. In an age of great prose stylists, he was a master of many styles, perhaps the most notable of which appears in his famous passages of word-painting. Ruskin's writings on the arts influenced not only singularly earnest Victorians, such as William Morris, William Holman Hunt, J. W. Inchbold, and a host-of others, but also very different men like Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. His writings on design and truth to materials had an immense influence on British, European, and American architecture and industrial design. One finds the impress of his thought in many unexpected places — in, for example, the novels and travel writings of D. H. Lawrence, works that reveal the influence of both Ruskin's art and his social criticism as well as his word-painting. For all the attention he paid to individual works of art and their traditions, which concentration makes Ruskin the preeminent art and literary critic of the Victorian age, he also urged that we must perceive art within its social, economic, and political contexts. Indeed, as Arnold Hauser points out in The Social History of Art (1952):

There has never been such a clear awareness of the organic relationship between art and life as since Ruskin. He was indubitably the first to interpret the decline of art and taste as the sign of general cultural crisis, and to express the basic, and even today not sufficiently appreciated, principle that the conditions under which men live must first be changed, if their sense of beauty and their comprehension of art are to be awakened . . . Ruskin was also the first person in England to emphasize the fact that art is a public concern and that no nation can neglect it without endangering its social existence. He was, finally, the first to proclaim the [4/5] gospel that art is not the privilege of artists, connoisseurs and the educated classes, but is part of every man's inheritance and estate . . . Ruskin attributed the decay of art to the fact that the modern factory, with its mechanical mode of production and division of labour, prevents a genuine relationship between the worker and his work, that is to say, it crushes out the spiritual element and estranges the producer from the product of his hands . . . [He] recalled his contemporaries to the charms of solid, careful craftsmanship as opposed to the spurious materials, senseless forms and crude, cheap execution of Victorian products. His influence was extraordinary, almost beyond description . . . The purposefulness and solidity of modern architecture and industrial art are very largely the result of Ruskin's endeavours and doctrines.

Ruskin's awareness of the socio-political dimensions of art, architecture, and literature led to his writings on political economy, and reading these works changed the lives of men as different as William Morris and Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, a survey of the first Parliament in which the British Labour Party gained seats revealed that Ruskin's Unto Ths Last had a greater influence upon its members than Das Kapital, and recent historians have credited him with major contributions to modern theories of the Welfare State, consumerism, and economics.

Ruskin arrived on the Victorian scene with his interpretations of art and society at precisely the right time, for he challenged the standards of the art establishment when a large number of newly rich industrialists and members of the middle class began to concern themselves with cultural issues. Because he made claims for art in the language his audience was accustomed to hear the evangelical clergy employ, these claims had particular appeal to evangelicals within and without the Church of England who formed the large majority of believers during most of the Victorian age. Similarly, Ruskin's position outside the artistic establishment, like his [5/6] polemical tone, evangelical vocabulary, and Scripture citation, struck the right note with members of the rising middle class, who welcomed Ruskin's vision of an alternative form of high culture superior to that possessed by the aristocracy and older artistic establishment.

Ruskin also came forward at a particularly interesting time in the history of critical theory. Like Sir Joshua Reynolds and many other defenders of the art of painting in the West, he tried to gain prestige for visual art by coupling it with her more honoured sister, literature. Unlike most advocates of sister arts theories, however, Ruskin did not argue that painting and poetry are allied arts because they both imitate reality. Rather, writing as an heir to the Romantic tradition, he urged that both are arts that express the emotions and imaginations of the artist. According to the Romantic conception of the poet which Ruskin learnt from Wordsworth, the poet sensitively experiences the world of man and nature and then expresses this emotional reaction to create his art. When Ruskin thus yoked a Romantic view of poetry with a Neoclassical conception of painting in creating his sister-arts theory, he characteristically refused to relinquish any aspect of the arts. Like the Neoclassical theorist, he concerned himself with the effects of art upon the audience; and like the Romantic theorist, who concentrated upon the artist's emotions and imagination, he emphasized the sincerity, originality, and intensity of great art and literature. Ruskin's Victorian aesthetic thus maintains an equal emphasis upon subjective and objective, Neoclassical and Romantic. Such richness, such eclecticism, and such willingness to confront difficult problems rather than settle for easy, more elegant solutions all characterize Ruskin's thought.

A particularly useful way into the thirty-nine massive volumes that constitute the Library Edition of Ruskin's works is provided by the recognition that throughout his career he wrote as an interpreter, an exegete. For Ruskin the act of interpretation, which leads into many fields of human experience, produces readings not only of paintings, poems, [6/7] and buildings but also of contemporary phenomena, such as storm clouds and the discontent of the working classes. Whether explaining Turner's art in Modern Painters, the significance of an iron pub railing in The Crown of Wild Olive, or the nature of true wealth in Unto This Last, he interprets the nature and meaning of matters that he believed the British public needed to understand. Before we look at the way Ruskin's interpretative projects form and inform his entire career, we should glance briefly at a few of his major works, for it is in the context of their varying purposes and procedures that his drive to interpret took shape and gradually evolved.

Examples of Ruskin's own landscape drawings: (left) Rheinfelden; (right): Study of Trees at Sens. [Click
on thumnails for larger pictures and other information.]

Modern Painters, Volume I (1843), the first of these major works, opens with a brief explanation of his conceptions of power, imitation, truth, beauty, and relation in art, after which it proceeds to defend Turner against reviewers" charges that his paintings were "unlike nature." Summoning work after work of the old masters, he shows that this modern painter has a wider, as well as a more exact, knowledge of visible fact than any of his predecessors. He takes his opponents on their own ground and therefore demonstrates "by thorough investigation of actual facts, that Turner is like nature, and paints more of nature than any man who ever lived" (3.52). Ruskin discusses general truths, by which he means tone, colour, chiaroscuro, and perspective, and then evinces the range and accuracy of Turner's representations of plants, trees, sky, earth, and water. Moving beyond its polemical origin, Modern Painters thus becomes a tour through nature and art conducted by a man whose eyes see and whose mind understands the phenomena of an infinitely rich natural world.

Study of Thistle at Crossmount. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

The second volume of Modern Painters (1846) contains both Ruskin's theories of imagination and his theocentric system of aesthetics by which he explains the nature of beauty and demonstrates its importance in human life. He combines a Coleridgean theory of imagination (which he seems to have derived indirectly by way of Leigh Hunt) with evangelical conceptions of biblical prophecy and divine inspiration. Beauty "is either the record of conscience, written in things external, [7/8] or it is a symbolizing of Divine attributes in matter, or it is the felicity of living things, or the perfect fulfillment of their duties and functions. In all cases it is something Divine" (4.210). All beauty, if properly regarded, is theophany, the revelation of God. Contemplating beauty, like contemplating the Bible, God's other revelation, is a moral and religious act.

Like much of his writing on the arts, his theories of the beautiful embody a sister-arts aesthetic and as such draw upon both Neoclassical and Romantic positions. Thus his theories of Typical (or symbolic) Beauty, which emphasize objectively existing qualities in the beautiful object, derive from Neoclassical and earlier notions that beauty is created by unity amid variety, symmetry, proportion, and other forms of chiefly visual order. In creating this Apollonian, classical aesthetic of order, Ruskin draws upon Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and the writings of Addison, Pope, Johnson, and Reynolds. In contrast, his notion of Vital Beauty, the beauty of living things, emphasizes subjective states and feelings in the spectator and derives from the Romantic poets, chiefly Wordsworth, and those eighteenth-century philosophers whose ideas of sympathy and sympathetic imagination prepared the way for Romanticism; that is, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Dugald Stewart. Ruskin, in other words, creates a Victorian aesthetic by fusing Neoclassical, Romantic, and Christian conceptions of man and his world.

Before completing Modern Painters, Ruskin wrote The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), another work with a heavily evangelical flavour. Despite Ruskin's turn from painting to what he termed "the distinctly political art of architecture," The Seven Lamps has more in common with the second volume of Modern Painters than with any of his other works. Like the first two volumes of Modern Painters to which it directs the reader, The Seven Lamps of Architecture urges that beauty and design "are not beautiful because they are copied from nature; only it is out of the power of man to conceive beauty without her aid" (8.141). Furthermore, he set out to win evangelical approval of the Gothic, which was [8/9] generally associated with High Church Anglicans and Roman Catholics — with the Camden and Ecclesiological Societies and with Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Ruskin draws upon commonplace evangelical typological interpretations of the Book of Leviticus to convince his Protestant audience that God intended man to lavish time, energy, and money upon church architecture. He similarly sounds the note of the evangelical sermon when he pleads for truth to materials in architectural construction. This note has had enormous effect on the modern world. Although Ruskin was not the only Victorian to emphasize truth to materials, he received a far wider hearing for his ideas than contemporaries who addressed their ideas only to the architectural fraternity, and architects and architectural historians alike credit him with providing the initial inspiration of much twentieth-century architecture and design.

Although self-consciously relating his comments on architecture to those expressed in his earlier volumes, Ruskin none the less sounds a new note by emphasizing the importance of communal art and creation. Furthermore, he also wants to grant the individual workman the position, independence, and pleasures of the Romantic artist. Therefore, when one considers the vitality of architecture, "the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment — was the carver happy while he was about it?" (8.218) These last two points again have done much to shape our art and design in the twentieth century, for they have influenced our cities, homes, furnishings, and utensils the things we see and touch in everyday life. This emphasis, which inspired William Morris, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the Bauhaus, has, like Ruskin's drawing treatises and other similar writings, also shaped our conceptions of education, leisure activity, and the status of the craftsman.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture has shaped our surroundings in yet another important way. Since Ruskin believed both that architecture is an inheritance one generation [9/10] passes on to another and also that it is the embodiment of the society that built it, he tried to convince his readers to build solidly for future generations. These beliefs, like his protests throughout his work against the destruction of old buildings, stimulated the founding of English and foreign societies for architectural preservation; similarly, his conviction that those alive today are stewards, rather than owners, of works of art was a major source of the museum movement.

After completing the The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin turned to The Stones of Venice, which combines the study of architecture with a cultural history, religious polemic, and political tract. Like The Seven Lamps, The Stones of Venice discusses land defends) Gothic architecture, but it moves beyond the earlier work's abstract treatment both because it devotes considerable space to the details of architectural construction and also because it places architecture within its social, political, and moral, as well as its religious context. Indeed, as Ruskin explains in its opening pages, he pays such close attention to this once powerful city because the "arts of Venice" provide firm evidence "that the decline of her political prosperity was exactly coincident with that of domestic and individual religion" (9.231), and it is this lesson he wishes to bring home to his Victorian audience. The first volume opens, therefore, with Ruskin sounding the prophet's note as he underlines the connections between cursed nations of the past and contemporary England:

Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruin; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction . . . I would endeavour to . . . record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice. (9.17) [10/11]

He states his goals for the entire work in this first chapter, after which he uses the volume's remaining twenty-nine to set forth a theory of architectural construction with individual chapters on the wall cornice, the capital, the roof, and so on.

Since Ruskin believes that the signs of Venetian spiritual decline appear in the city's movement from Gothic to Renaissance architectural styles, the following two volumes, The Sea Stones and The Fall (both 1853), examine the growth of the city-state and the significance of its major buildings, particularly St. Mark's and the Ducal palace. "The Nature of Gothic," which provides the ideological core of The Stones of Venice, appears in the second volume and argues that because the Gothic style permits and even demands the freedom, individuality, and spontaneity of its workers, it both represents a finer, more moral society and means of production and also results in greater architecture than does the Renaissance style, which enslaves the working man. These discussions of architectural style thus lead directly to an attack on the class system and its effects.

Ruskin, who has already begun to develop his consumerist ethic, focuses upon the dehumanizing conditions of modern work and urges that no one purchase goods, such as glass beads or Renaissance ornament, the production of which dehumanizes men. Ruskin the interpreter of art and Ruskin the interpreter of society here merge — or, rather, appear as one man with the same project — when he points out that his readers never have "the idea of reading a building as we would read Milton or Dante, and getting the same kind of delight out of the stones as out of the stanzas" (10.206), because architecture produced in the dehumanizing, unmeaning contemporary way fails the people who use it just as it fails those who build it. In other words, a society that enslaves its workers in demeaning, dehumanizing work finds itself demeaned and dehumanized by the buildings they produce. These buildings, which stand as an emblematic self-indictment of the spiritual poverty at the society's core, further harm its members, rich or poor, by starving their imaginations and sensibility — faculties that Ruskin believes [11/12] lie at the heart of a healthy, happy, full human life.

When he resumed Modern Painters (1856) with the publication of Volumes III and IV, Ruskin had to solve problems raised by his earlier inclusion of Italian Renaissance art. Volume III, the central volume and probably the richest of the five, again advances a Romantic theory of painting, and all the concerns of Romanticism are here — the nature of the artist, the importance of external nature, and the role of imagination, emotion, and detail in art. The first section defines the nature of great art in order to remove apparent contradictions between the first and the second volumes which he had created by praising Giotto and Fra Angelico in Volume II. In particular, his praise of Italian Primitives seems inconsistent with his earlier demands that paintings should display a detailed knowledge of external nature. Ruskin solves the difficulty by explaining that he divides "the art of Christian times into two great masses — Symbolic and Imitative" (5.262), and he explains that his demands for accurate representation of the external world refer only to imitative art.

Ruskin then examines the nature of greatness in art and dismisses Reynolds's Neoclassical theory that a grand style is based on the imitation of la belle nature, or nature idealized according to certain rules. Writing with a Romantic distrust of prescriptive rules, he offers a formula for greatness that is essentially a psychological portrait of the artist since it is based on four elements: noble subject (which the artist must instinctively love}, love of beauty, sincerity, and imaginative treatment. His discussion of the rise of landscape painting, Ruskin's second major concern in this volume, was also demanded by his somewhat unexpected inclusion of Italian art. Having begun a defence of Turner, a master of landscape, he had been diverted to other forms of painting; in order to make his way back to Turner, Ruskin felt obliged to inform his reader why landscape art had arisen at all. Classical, medieval, and modern attitudes towards external nature are considered in order to explain the origin of landscape feeling, which he argues is a [12/13] peculiarly modern development and one part of a more general "romantic love of beauty, forced to seek in history, and in external nature, the satisfaction it cannot find in ordinary life" (5.326).

In this context Ruskin introduces his famous critical concept of the Pathetic (or emotional) Fallacy, the presence of which separates Romantic and later work from the creations of Homer and Dante. According to Ruskin, the modern poet's expressionistic distortions of reality successfully communicate a subjective or phenomenological view of the world at the expense of that balanced world-view which characterizes writers of the absolute first rank. As he points out, poets and novelists who employ the emotional distortions of the Pathetic Fallacy to dramatize the mental states and experiences of a character or first-person narrator make proper use of this technique, but when an author speaking in his own person presents a distorted view of the world, he produces an essentially unbalanced land characteristically Romantic literature.

The fourth volume, published the same year as the third, opens with a discussion of the Turnerian picturesque and of the picturesque in general, which are the aesthetic categories specifically related to the growth of landscape art. After sections on the geology of mountain form, the volume closes with an examination of the influence of a mountain environment on the lives of men.

The fifth volume (1860) begins with sections on the beauty of leaves and clouds that are second journeys through ground covered in the first volume. Next follows a discussion of formal relation, or composition. "Composition may best be defined as the help of everything in the picture by everything else" (7.205). This notion of help is central to Ruskin's theory of art, as it was to be in his theories of political economy, and he dwells on it at length, telling the reader that the "highest and first law of the universe - and the other name of life, is, therefore, 'help'" (7.207). Composition, then, is the creation of an organic interrelationship between the formal elements of a work of art. [13/14] Ruskin then demonstrates, by brilliant analyses of Turner's pictorial compositions, that this artist was a master of this aspect of pictorial art.

The relation of art to life, one of Ruskin's most important interests throughout Modern Painters and his works on architecture, provides the heart of his section "Invention Spiritual." He suggests that he has begun to shift his primary attention from the problems of art to those of society when the following chapters relate art to the lack of human hope that Ruskin believes to be a consequence of the Reformation. According to him, after the Reformation when men first lost their firm belief in an afterlife, they could not attain peace of mind or die hopefully, and he discusses four pairs of major artists to show the effect of belief or its lack upon their art Salvator and Dürer, Claude and Poussin, Wouverman and Fra Angelico, and Giorgione and Turner. After Ruskin has shown the environment in which Turner's mind took form, he devotes a chapter each to detailed interpretation of two works that represent the faith of the artist and his England. These paintings, Apollo and Python and The Garden of the Hesperides, reveal Turner's fascination with the destruction of beauty and his consequent lack of hope, the cause of which lies in the nature of the age, an age that believes neither in man nor in God and which lets great men die in isolation and despair.

In his next work, Unto This Last (1862), which he completed the same year as this final volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin turned to attack the economic system that he believed produced such despairing, inhuman relations of men in society. Unto This Last, whose four chapters first appeared in 1860 as articles in the Cornhill, of which Thackeray was then editor, consolidates the political position Ruskin had been evolving during the previous decade and sets forth the ideas he would continue to advance in Munera Pulveris (1862-3), The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), Time and Tide (1867), and Fors Clavigera (1871-84). Most contemporary readers found both Ruskin's general attitudes and his specific proposals so [14/15] outrageous that they concluded that he must have been struck mad. Today, his political proposals, like his emphases on communal responsibility, the dignity of labour, and the quality of life, have had such influence that they no longer appear particularly novel. In the beginning of Unto This Last, as in Modern Painters, Ruskin confronts the so-called experts and denies the relevance of their ideas. Whereas classical economists proceeded on the assumption that men always exist in conditions of scarcity, Ruskin, who realized that a new political economy was demanded by new conditions of production and distribution, argues that his contemporaries in fact exist in conditions of abundance and that therefore the old notions of Malthus, Ricardo, Mill, and others are simply irrelevant. According to him, then, "the real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life: and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction" (17.85).

In the following pages I propose to look at Ruskin's interpretations of art, society, and his own life. The first kind of interpretation Ruskin undertook focuses on Turner. At first he wished simply to explain Turner's art in the context of the contemporary reviewers' scurrilous attacks and, by taking these reviewers on their own terms, to show his readers how to appreciate the great and insufficiently appreciated artist in their midst. This project quickly clarified itself as a lesson in interpreting perception and then as an exercise in practising the correct, more intense way to see the art and world around one.

Ruskin, who evolved from a clever amateur into a polemical critic and art theorist, from there further developed into a Victorian sage, into, that is, a secular prophet who took all society as his province. Throughout his career he remained polemical and throughout his career he remained equally concerned to make interpretations necessary to his audience's cultural, spiritual, and moral health. These tendentious, [15/16] polemical interpretations always had a wider purpose, and they almost always included Ruskinian parables of perception that instruct the reader by example how to experience fact and meaning, form and content.

Such a drive to interpret remained a constant in Ruskin's career, despite the many changes that took place as he learned more about art and society, lost his religious faith, and met with adulation and yet incomprehension. One must not, however, overstress the degree of change or the inconsistency in his complex thought, since frequently what is at issue turns out to be more a matter of changed emphasis than an entirely new development. For example, perhaps Ruskin's most obvious and apparently radical shift of interest appears in his evolution from a critic of art to a critic of society. But even this new fervent interest in political economy turns out to be not such a radical departure as it might first appear. Not only did Ruskin never entirely cease writing about art but he also had earlier always been concerned with the effects of art upon its audience. Similarly, when Ruskin shifts increasingly from visual to visionary art, or from aesthetics to iconographical readings of art, these are shifts of emphasis announced in the opening volume of Modern Painters, where he states that he will discuss ideas of truth, beauty, and relation in explaining the art of Turner and his contemporaries. Ruskin does at last fulfil his announced plan, but he makes many detours on the way.

Throughout his complex development, however, his urge to educate his contemporaries in the crucial — and crucially related — projects of seeing and understanding their world remains a constant. Ruskinian interpretation, whether of art or society, takes many subjects for its concern. It merges subtly on the one side with seeing, with raw perception, and on the other it blends with definition, the product (and project) of intellectual analysis. As a Victorian sage, Ruskin is first and foremost an exegete, an interpreter and definer of the real, and in the early volumes of Modern Painters such a critical project takes various forms. First of all, he sets out to make us see [16/17] to see all those beautiful facts of nature which laziness and inadequate artistic conventions have prevented us from perceiving. To enable us to see with his heightened powers, Ruskin relies on his word-paintings, which communicate the experience of his intense encounter with the visual world.

At the same time that Ruskin thus provides his reader with such fables of perception, which interpret raw experience for him, he also formulates a theoretical framework for his contention that art that communicates such heightened experience marks a great advance on the work of the old masters. Here the sage's formulations of the key terms of discourse take the appropriate form of precise explanations of terms basic to the painter's and the critic's art, terms such as "colour," "tone," "beauty," "imitation," and "taste." At the same time, Ruskin, who sets out to explain the superiority of modern landscape painting to that of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters, early begins to define and interpret broad movements in art and their relation to broader cultural, political, and religious history. His discussions of the fall of a great culture in The Stones of Venice, the rise of landscape art in Modern Painters III, and the significance of the picturesque in Modern Painters IV exemplify such broader cultural interpretation. As he turns to the criticism of society, this joint concern to define key terms and interpret crucial phenomena remains constant. Therefore, from one point of view all that Ruskin does when he turns a large portion of his attention from art to society is simply to employ many of the same interests in a new area.

In the later works, however, his application of this interpretative bent often has a very different tone largely because the subjects of his interpretation appear more emotionally loaded, more dangerous, as subjects of such discussion. Furthermore, when Ruskin discussed the meaning of Gothic or the true significance of the picturesque, most of his contemporary readers did not find such issues threatening. In his early works, particularly in Modern Painters and The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he engaged himself to create a larger [17/18] appreciation, understanding, and audience for painting and architecture, and a large part of his intended audience readily gave itself into Ruskin's hands. To them his assertiveness, rhetorical flourishes, and confessed dislike of the opinion of professional critics only appealed the more. In contrast, when he began to discuss political economy, a project clearly forewarned in the 1853 discussion of "The Nature of Gothic" in The Stones of Venice, Ruskin pointedly confronted his audience and its beliefs. He not only wrote expecting a collision, he wrote increasingly to ensure one. Of course, having taken such an explicitly contentious, hostile approach to his audience's key beliefs about economic and political truths, Ruskin then skilfully deployed a wide range of rhetorical strategies that, in the face of this hostility, could win his audience's forebearance and eventual acceptance. The later applications of his exegetic skill appear in the context of subjects or concerns that are both surprising and even outrageous. Whereas the earlier matters for interpretation, individual paintings, broad cultural movements, or abstract concerns, were the obvious subjects for such an enterprise, the exegetical subjects in the later works take the reader more by surprise.

Such contentiousness, however, does not mark his autobiography, Praeterita, the last of Ruskin's works and the last that we shall examine. Although its gentle, markedly unpolemical tone sets Praeterita apart from almost all his other prose, his citations of personal experience remain a constant throughout his long career. His comparisons in the first volume of Modern Painters of his experience of La Riccia with Claude's painting of it, his experience of Tintoretto's Annunciation in the second, and his similar narration of the experience of landscape in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and of Venice and its surrounds in The Stones of Venice (1851-53) are matched by his many relations of personal experience in the works on political economy. "Traffic," for example, draws upon his encounter with an advertisement in a shop window observed while walking, and his other works present his [18/19] personal experiences of the contemporary world, occasionally in the form of citations from his letters or diaries. Praeterita, too, which grew out of autobiographical chapters in Fors Clavigera, his letters to the working men of England, draws upon his characteristic word-painting and dramatization of the experience of meaning to create a new form of self-history. At the end, Ruskin, who had proved such a brilliant interpreter of art and society, proves himself one of the greatest, if most unusual, of autobiographers. [19/20]

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Last modified 9 September 2007