No matter how strongly felt his opposition is to contemporary material values, the alternative world of experience which he is promoting and defending and demonstrating, is itself a very physical world of trees, mountains, clouds, paintings. — Michael Williams
1. Quantification of Artistic Truth and Response
he practice of quantifying observable natural phenomena and their physiological bases was common in the work of Eighteenth Century Materialist Natural Philosophers, and one major assumption which Ruskin makes in Modern Painters 1 is that aesthetic experience and its stimuli can also be quantified. This practice supports his claims for Turner's greatness and his attempt to demonstrate the unity of Turner's work.
A person of taste, for instance, derives pleasure from that which has been Providentially designed to elicit a response which Ruskin quantifies as ‘the greatest possible sum of pleasure’, and he describes the measurable effects of what is commonly called aerial perspective in a quasi-mathematical idiom: ‘proportion’, ‘quantity’, ‘difference’, ‘sum’, ‘and ‘division’ (3.150). But, in dealing with Ideas of Power in art Ruskin, prejudiced against any display of technical perfection, implicitly places artistic activity beyond any quantifiable industrial productivity and value, and argues that Power should be appreciated as process, and not as product. So ‘we’ will gain a greater sense of power from the ‘half-hewn limbs’ of Michelangelo's Twilight in the Medici Chapel than from the ‘polished limbs’ of the Apollo (3.37). He formulates the principle which this observation supports as a quasi-mathematical law: ‘The sensation of power is in proportion to the apparent inadequacy of the means to the end’ (3.37). The implication is clear — the nearer a work of art approaches to a display of technique and technical perfection, the more it obscures the effect of power invested in it. Every touch or effort must do individually less in proportion as the work approaches perfection:
The first five chalk touches bring a head into existence out of nothing. No five touches in the whole course of the work will ever do as much as these, and the difference made by each touch is more and more imperceptible as the work approaches completion. [3.37]
If the most perfect work gives the least sensation of the power which produced it, technical perfection therefore obscures the individuality of the producer, and such a notion sits easily with Ruskin's later contrasts between medieval and modern modes of production. Looked at in a broader context, there is an interesting early blend here of ‘Ruskin: The Art Critic’ and ‘Ruskin: The Social Critic’. Small wonder that he was hostile to the Italian Renaissance which privileged the artist over the artisan. What he sees as an anonymous communal project in the building of mediaeval churches decorated by anonymous artists with frescoes of the Drama of Scriptural History was eclipsed by the production of privately commissioned works to grace not places of communal worship but the private palazzi of wealthy patrons (Osborne 197-205).
The final two sentences in the passage above might well apply to nineteenth-century manufacturing activity in which the evidence of the volume and variety of human creative energies invested in factory production by any one individual directly decreased in proportion to the degree of technical finish exhibited in a product manufactured for a consumer. For Ruskin, the expression of individual power was a casualty. Is there a problem here? Do we look at the work of such a skilled painter as Turner and claim that his technical perfections obscure his individuality and that he is a lesser painter than he might otherwise be? Perhaps Ruskin’s solution to this problem is precisely his employment of the concept of quantification.
Not only can such matters as truth, power and tone, among others, be quantified as part of Ruskin's demonstration of his beliefs — the comparative status of artists can be determined through a process of quantification. Developing the notion that truth can be quantified, he claims that the real ‘truthfulness’ of a painter, for instance, is ‘in proportion to the number and variety of facts he has [so] illustrated ... The quantity of truth is in proportion to the number of such facts, and its value and instructiveness in proportion to their rarity. All really great pictures, therefore, exhibit the general habits of nature, manifested in some peculiar, rare, and beautiful way’ (3.70). Just as ‘facts’, which at this point in Ruskin's work seem to be natural phenomena which have been verified beyond any question, can, when present in different works of art in different quantities and degrees of rarity, determine comparative artistic status, so too can ‘thoughts’, which are simply the correct response, as envisaged by Ruskin, to the phenomena being represented. (This is another area of difficulty in Ruskin's propositions — a too easy assumption of a comfortable relationship between what he perceives as ‘fact’ and ‘thought’. Whether something is an objective ‘fact’ because you regard it as the correct subjective ‘thought’ in response to a particular phenomenon is debatable.)
Taking for granted that ‘facts’ are verifiable, and that ‘thoughts’ can be correct, Ruskin is prepared to value Landseer'sThe Shepherd's Chief-mourner as a work of high art, because of the thoughts which it offers to the viewer (3.88-89). But this offers a further difficulty, because ‘thoughts’, a term which seems to refer both to the artist's perception of his subject, as well as the viewer's perception of the artist's perception, clearly have the status of verifiable fact, something, like the Materialist’s substances, actually present in the painting and determining the spectator's response, rather than something negotiated in an engagement with the painting.
Here, Ruskin's employment of quantification as an aesthetic principle connects with the major developments in the science of optics during the period preceding the publication of Modern Painters 1 . In ‘Of Truth of Space’ (Part II, Sec. II, Ch. IV), he points out that the eye is ‘like any other lens’, and that therefore it needs to have its focus altered to ‘convey a distinct image of objects at different distances’. He asks the reader to undertake a simple practical task to demonstrate that the difference of focus necessary is greatest within five hundred yards, and thus verify his assertion that you cannot simultaneously see distinctly one object ten yards away, and one a quarter of a mile beyond that, but that you can simultaneously see an object a quarter of a mile away, and one which is five miles beyond that:
The consequence of this is, practically, that in a real landscape, we can see the whole of what would be called the middle distance and distance together, with facility and clearness but while we do so, we can see nothing in the foreground beyond a vague and indistinct arrangement of lines and colours; and that if, on the contrary, we look at any foreground object, so as to receive a distinct impression of it, the distance and middle distance become all disorder and mystery. And therefore, if in a painting our foreground is anything, our distance must be nothing, and vice versa for if we represent our near and distant objects as giving both at once that distinct image to the eye, which we receive in nature from each when we look at them separately; and if we distinguish them from each other by the air-tone and indistinctness dependent on positive distance, we violate one of the most essential principles of nature; we represent that as seen at once which can only be seen by two separate acts of seeing, and tell a falsehood as gross as if we had represented four sides of a cubic object visible together. [3.320-21]
Kemp points to the significance of this when he argues that “Ruskin is demanding that the image depicted must conform to the image seen — an idea which belongs entirely to the nineteenth century. Before then, the rule had been that pictures gave you something to see; now they were supposed to do your seeing for you” (110-11).
Renaissance painters had been committed to a geometric model of perception, but this was replaced in the nineteenth century by a physiological model in which optics, spearheaded in Britain by Thomas Young, shifted the emphasis away from the eye as ‘a mechanical construct’ towards the idea of it as ‘a highly individual sense’. (110-11). This helps to explain why Ruskin's earlier emphasis is on the ‘truth of mental impression’, and why he does not encourage a subjective seeing but insists (in the manner of a Materialist Natural Philosopher) on the particular truth or truths being actually present in the object or scene itself. A Materialist sought, for instance, to explain the phenomenon of animal heat by assuming that there were corporeal substances present in the body which were responsible for bodily temperature, and assumed that the greater the amount of such substances present, the greater the animal heat that would be generated. (Schofield 208.)
Ruskin adopts the same approach to scenes which Turner had already depicted and which Ruskin saw during his Italian tour of 1845. There is a characteristic example in a letter to his father from the 14th. September, 1845 (Shapiro 202). He is writing from Venice, and the first half of the letter is a series of bitter comments on the deleterious effects of the modernisers on the city's architecture. But he finds a consolation amid all the destruction — ‘the finding, among the wrecks of Venice, authority for all that Turner has done of her’. Apart from Turner's skill in using ‘every atom of material’, Ruskin notes an interesting and telling particular instance — a fishing boat with a ‘painted’ sail, which he describes most enthusiastically as ‘the most gorgeous orange and red, in everything, form, colour, & feeling, the very counterpart of the Sol di Venezia — it is impossible that any could be more rigidly exact than the painting, even to the height of the sail above the desk’.
Ruskin is insisting that the truths of the scene, including ‘every atom of material’, are present in the canvas as verifiable thoughts or facts. By quantifying these, he defines the comparative greatness of a work of art. Calling into play his characteristic down-grading of any display of technical finish, he can assert that
The picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and a better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed… (the greatest art) …conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas’…[and an idea is]… ‘great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received. [3.11]
His definition of the greatest artist as he who displays, in the sum of his works, the ‘greatest number of the greatest ideas’ which are themselves the ‘facts’ and ‘thoughts’ actually present in the canvas, reveals how much his work owes to the assumptions of the Materialist Natural Philosophers (as noted above) for whom physiological phenomena were determined by the amount of quality-bearing substances present in a body.
Whereas quantification can apparently demonstrate comparative, as well as undisputed, greatness, it can also reveal deficiencies. Ruskin's strictures on Gainsborough and Constable's practice are presented as ‘deductions’ (3.98-99) and the inferiority of the Old Masters to Nature and the Modern Painters is carefully quantified. Where, for instance, Claude and Poussin present ‘three’ masses of cloud similar to each other, Nature presents ‘fifty ... made up each of millions of minor thoughts’ (again that unacknowledged sliding from facts to thoughts), and Turner, operating as a Vitalist Natural Philosopher, gives precisely ‘the exhaustless living energy with which the universe is filled’ (3.249-51).
How eclectic Ruskin can be is demonstrated by the way in which he can call into service the Vitalist assumption that scientific explanations of natural phenomena are to be sought in an energy which is not only ‘inexhaustible’, but also inexplicable since it is classified as arcana (Schofield.206-209). The Old Masters ’libel the Creation which they represent in their accumulated multitude of pure, broad, bold falsehoods which are admissible, in pictures meant only to deceive’ (3.80). Even where they are not dealing necessarily in falsehoods, they do not stand the test of Ruskin's application of the principle of quantification, because they ’are prodigals, and foolish prodigals in art; they lavish their whole means to get one truth, and leave themselves powerless when they should seize a thousand’ (3.152). By contrast, Turner, in sacrificing richness of effect as found in the work of the Old Masters, ‘gains’ a thousand more ‘essential truths’ (3.158).
Even Modern Painters are not immune from Ruskin's quantification procedures. Copley Fielding is praised for having produced ’some of the most perfect and faultless passages of mist and rain-cloud which art has ever seen’, but instead of being content to produce only five such studies, he has spoiled it all by painting five hundred, a suggestion of a mass-production of similar products, by contrast with Turner's production of a ‘thousand’ individual, but connected, truths’. (3.265).
Without any sense of irony, Ruskin is quite prepared to tum the quantification principle around and use it for a different purpose — to defend great art against it. In the chapter ‘On the Truth of Chiaroscuro’, he attacks others for writing of ‘deep shadow as a thing that may be given in quantity’ and derides the manufacture of ‘agreeable patterns in the shape of pyramids, and crosses, and zig-zags, into which arms and legs are to be persuaded, and passion and emotion arranged, for the promotion and encouragement of the cant of criticism’ (3.191). Similarly (with an explicit reference to contemporary industrial processes) he attacks works with great names attached to them, in which ‘the sky is a sheer piece of plumber's and glazier's work, and should be valued per yard, with extra heavy charge for ultramarine’ (3.177).
The Problem of Unity
Relating the accumulation of natural facts and the ‘thoughts’ which they inspire is a problem created by his own particular approach to the myriad natural details which are the subject of landscape painting, and one which had exercised Natural Philosophers for several centuries: as you observe and accumulate masses of data about the world of observable phenomena, you categorise, classify and catalogue the data; but you have then to make sense of the data not only by deducing or inferring specific causes for specific effects, but also by constructing verifiable laws. These activities can then take place within a more ambitious enterprise — to construct comprehensive explanations for everything which is being observed. The difficulty is not in the accumulation and classification of the data — taxonomy is comparatively easy. The difficulties occur in questions concerning the desired unity of the external world, its myriad details, coherence in its interpretation, and, for Ruskin, arriving at an interpretation which has correctly identified what is verifiably present in an artistic work.
Commenting on Turner's work in Modern Painters 1 , such unity and coherence are for Ruskin a major assumption. He refers, for instance, to’ the unity and multiplicity which are in nature’ (3.319), and claims that a picture is complete only when it has ‘both the general wholeness and the effect of nature, and the inexhaustible perfection of nature's details’ (3.446). But there is a problem here — Turner produces this many works, and if each painting, viewed separately, has its own individual unity but is to be viewed not as a discrete production, but as a constituent element in a coherent whole, where is the principle of coherence, particularly important to someone like Ruskin who views the external world as the production of a Supreme Being, and great landscape art as a truthful representation of that world? As a believer, he takes consistency and order for granted, but as the author of Modern Painters 1 he has committed himself to demonstrate what he assumes — that Turner's work has a proper ‘unity’ and that responding to that unity positively is a response to an inherent, providentially designed order.
J. C. Sherburne suggests that because Ruskin is determined to see how all things relate to each other, his ‘Unity’ might be more appropriately described as ‘Organicism’. That term points to Ruskin's relationship to a well-established Romantic tradition, as well as Sherburne's acceptance of a well-established tradition in Ruskinian criticism. Indeed, he claims that Carlyle's Tree metaphor ‘captures the essence of Ruskin's attempt to relate the chief counters of his discussion — nature, art, society, man’ (1-12). He also points to Ruskin's indebtedness to his religious inheritance, and the key position of Richard Hooker in Ruskin's thought. ‘Organic’, he claims, is never, for Ruskin a purely physical relationship, but has always a spiritual dimension. However, as he points out, the most important word in the vocabulary of Organicism is ‘Purity’, and this leads him to acknowledge, but only partially, the importance of Ruskin's early engagement in the Romantic resistance to the ‘Mechanico-corpuscular Philosophy’ (9).This needs to be qualified because Ruskin claims that the phenomenon of Purity has a Materialistic basis, in the same way that a Materialist Natural Philosopher regarded the amount of Animal Heat present in a body as the total sum of the necessary quality bearing substances that were present.
The concept of Unity (and such concepts as Purity) owe much to particular literary and religious traditions, but also owe much to the traditions of the conservative Natural Philosophy which are exemplified in The Bridgewater Treatises and which have affinities with Ruskin's early Christian beliefs, and which influence his writings. For example, he comments, in a letter of 27 November 1843 to the Rev. W.L. Brown on the myriad facts and lessons which the landscape painter seeks to interpret, and their relationship to the great ‘system’ of which each painting is a part. He writes of unity as a ‘sine qua non’ in art, which he defines as ‘a binding together of objects’ derived from ‘the habit of the artist to regard his works not as individually perfect, but as each, part of a great system illustrative of each other’. Some painters choose to specialise in their subject-matter. Dutch painters, for instance, choose to paint cocks and hens, and nothing else. By contrast with them, Turner ‘conceives it to be more fitting for man to receive all nature's lessons — those which he likes and those which he doesn't — than to choose for himself and repeat one for ever… chooses a subject once in order that he may know his subject thoroughly’. Ruskin takes his claim for Turner further: ‘I am aware of nothing in nature that Turner has not earnestly painted. You cannot name any object, element, or effect — you can name no time, no season, no incident of weather — of which I cannot name you a study, not accidentally or incidentally made, but earnestly, and with reference to itself alone, and most laboriously’. This a very comprehensive claim, and, in this, Turner paints according to Nature's own laws, for, whether ‘she’ exhibits ‘rock character’, ‘tree character’, or ‘pastoral character’, all her details are thrown in with reference to the particular influence or spirit of the place. (36.34-35). But this is to be expected, for as Patricia Ball points out,
to the early Victorian the criterion of accurate visual perception was paramount, encouraged in art and science alike ... Ruskin belonged to his age in this respect ... What he looked at so scrupulously himself: he realised Turner had seen with clarity also. Nature and Turner's pictures confirmed each other to Ruskin's eye’ [60 – 61]
His diaries in 1841 display the intimate association always ready in his mind. On an Italian journey he notes of the scenery near Naples that ‘it was a Turner’; and of the sea, ‘with the infinite delicacy of multitudinous touches of light’; one cannot look at it ‘without remembering Turner’; a view along the road makes him ‘quite sick with delight’, and it is ‘as bright as a first-rate Turner’. Nature can surpass the painter — the light in St. Mark's square on 12 May is ‘such as Turner in his maddest moments never came up to’ but the effects of nature and his art are always comparable to Ruskin's responsive gaze. The sky shows ‘Turner clouds’, or ‘minute Turner detail in subdued white and melting blue’, and flashes of lightning are ‘Turner's own’.
The local and the particular are Romantic criteria, but the belief in the inherent unity evident in the world of natural phenomena features strongly in the empirical, fact-finding Natural Philosophies, and is present also in Ruskin's work This makes him suspicious of an artificially structured unity in composition. The artificialities of Claudian composition in the Grand Style are rejected in favour of composition which ‘cleaves’, in the words of Sir Francis Bacon ‘to the very marrow of things’ (Bacon 119).
To some extent, Turner works in the letter to the Rev. Brown as a clearing-house of natural facts in much the same way as Ruskin had hoped the Meteorological Society would work, and he himself worked in his diaries. The ‘system’ is the overall context in which the detailed appreciation and recording of local scenes takes place; but Ruskin's obvious and easily conjugated indebtedness to the Romantic literary movement should not be allowed to obscure the place in his aesthetic theory and criticism of both Materialist and Vitalist Natural Philosophies.
This letter to Brown contains a suggestion that Turner's achievement fulfils demands which are only partially ‘aesthetic’. The Meteorological Society will bring together a host of observations from all over the world; Turner's work brings together ‘a mass of various impressions which may all work together as a great whole, fully detailed in every part’ (36.34). Turner does not specialise, nor does the Natural Philosopher described in Meteorology. Both see all that nature has to offer, and both record the lessons faithfully. The patient fieldwork of the diaries and the detailed classifications of the first two volumes of Modern Painters can be regarded as Ruskin's version of the multiplicity of phenomena, for which he creates an orderly arrangement by classifying them in a taxonomic manner: ‘Truths of Colour’, ‘Truths of Earth’, ‘Truths of Sky’.
However, the precise manner in which the details work together ‘as a great whole, fully detailed in every part’, especially in a painter's complete output, needs further examination. For instance, if each painting is done with ‘reference to itself alone’, this might imply that ‘unity’ is a mystifying term obscuring an inability to articulate the ‘system’ in the inter-relationships of its separate and fully detailed parts.
In Modern Painters I Ruskin's employment of an accounting vocabulary (‘sum’. ‘deduction’, ‘quantities’, ‘proportion’) to assert greatness, or lack of it, in art; and the strong distaste for allowing any kind of art to descend into what, for him, is a vulgar utilitarianism, are not elements in an explicitly articulated coherent theory. Rather he maintains a very self-conscious stance towards experience, asserting what he sees to be a finer order of truth and utility against a disdained modern materialism which deals exclusively in the tangible world of raw materials and manufactured goods; but the way in which he presents this finer order of truth suggests his inability to escape from the physicality of what he is dealing with. For, no matter how strongly felt his opposition is to contemporary material values, the alternative world of experience which he is promoting and defending and demonstrating, is itself a very physical world of trees, mountains, clouds, paintings. The difference is, of course, that he claims that the world with which he deals is numinous. As a result, when dealing with the deepest values of that world, he is forced to move away from its physicality and to rework his accounting procedures.
For instance although the greatest painting might be the one which offers the greatest number of facts or thoughts, the notion that this is merely a gross (industrial?) accumulation is avoided by Ruskin's notions that no one natural truth is the same as another (i.e. they are not mass-produced). Each new ‘fact’ or ‘thought’ represented by a painter is a further revelation of Providential Design. Natural truths, in a formula which implicitly challenges the actual social order with its dynamic industrial and social change and monotonous mass production, compose ‘one eternal change — one infinite variety’. And it is infinity which is the key concept in Modern Painters 1, but as a phenomenon it is surely beyond quantification. Despite his confident assertions, the question is problematic.
By contrast, Repetition, which Ruskin opposes to Infinity, exists as a mechanical reproduction of the same thoughts and facts: ‘What should we think of a poet who should keep all his life repeating the same thought in different words? And why should we be more lenient to the parrot painter, who has learned one lesson from the page of nature, and keeps stammering it out in eternal repetition without turning the leaf?’ But is Ruskin's presentation of Turner's practice, while it suggests a richer and more varied experience than the repetitive artists whom Ruskin berates, an exemplification of the key concept of Infinity?
He argues that, in forming a judgement about the truth of a painting, the first step is to look for ‘the expression of infinity always and everywhere, in all parts and division of parts’. The major difference between the painter who expresses Infinity and the painter who merely repeats the same truth, is that the former has gone to nature, and the latter is trusting to himself. Turner does not trust to himself. He has gone to nature, and never repeats himself: ’One picture is allotted to one truth; the statement is perfectly and gloriously made, and he passes on to speak of a fresh portion of God's revelation’ (3.67).
No matter how perfect or glorious the statement however, there has to be something oddly mechanical about this careful allotment of one picture to one truth, and in ‘passing on’, Ruskin seems to see Turner as behaving in the excursive mode of a tourist, an image consistent with Ruskin's invitations to his readers not only to look at, read, and interpret a landscape painting but also to walk through it. Elizabeth K. Helsinger develops the significance of this, pointing out that Ruskin
developed from the middle-class tourist's and reader's characteristic experience of scenery — as a succession of unfolding views offering opportunities for close study of details — a programme for the perceptual reform of his audience. In place of awed confrontation with a romantic sublime Ruskin urged the value of progressive discovery. The tourist's way of looking at landscapes becomes the avenue to reforming contemporary culture. 
And Ruskin, commenting on Turner's influence on Copley Fielding's ‘brown moorland foregrounds’, writes that the ‘spectator’ is ’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’ (3.334). Similarly, commenting on Turner's The Fall of the Trees he writes that:
The articulation of such a passage as the nearest bank ... might serve us for a day’s study 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 how, 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. [3.49]
This progression from truth to truth is a formalisation of the act of walking through a non-urbanised, non-industrialised environment.
How perfect is any one single painting by Turner, and how does a critical viewer assess the expression of infinity? Discussing the ‘Truth of Colour’ Ruskin analyses the variation in tones in a mass of mountain seen against the light. The natural unity is this: that ‘every bush, every stone, every tuft of moss has its voice in the matter, and joins with individual character in the universal will’. Ruskin assures the reader that in painting such a scene, the Old Master would have offered a ‘transparent, agreeable, but monotonous grey’. But Turner only would give ‘the uncertainty, the palpitating, perpetual change; the subjection of all to a great influence, without one part or portion being lost or merged in it; the unity of action with infinity of agent’ (3.178).
In this, and similar statements, potentially antagonistic elements in Ruskin’s particular ideological formation relate comfortably. His bourgeois emphasis on the individual and the particular having each ‘its voice in the matter’ sits unproblematically with his Romantic and paternalistic emphases on the organicist view of nature in ‘a great influence’ and ‘the universal will’. As long as the myriad individual details are indeed subject to a central control, there is no problem. However the relationship between multiple individual details and overall unity is not always so apparently easy.
Undoubtedly, in his depiction of objects, and in his presentation of fore-, middle-, back-, and far back-grounds, Turner uses ‘indistinctness’ in a radically new way, and Ruskin recognises this. He argues that the Old Masters give measurable extensions ‘from sky to foliage, or from clouds to hills’, and give these ‘their precise pitch of difference in shade’. But Turner is operating quite differently. To create the effect of extensive space, he fills his canvas with light and shade and colour, with ‘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’ (3.262-68). Ruskin duly quantifies the results when he claims that Turner gives ‘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’.He also quantifies the difference between Turner and the Old Masters, for, where they express ‘one distance’, he expresses ‘a hundred’; where they say ‘furlongs’, he says leagues’. Finally, where the Old Masters offer spatial relationships ‘like the scenes of a theatre’, Turner gives the imperceptible, multitudinous symmetrical retirement of nature’. But, if his aim is to demonstrate that the ‘multitudinous’ and the ‘symmetrical’ are actually present in Turner’s representation of the natural phenomena, these cannot be ‘imperceptible’, unless, of course, Ruskin’s use of that adjective concedes Turner’s ‘indistinctness’ but redeems it from conventional criticism by presenting as one of the ways in which Turner presents the numinosity of God-given natural phenomena.
Ruskin is, of course, defending Turner against a frequent contemporary criticism of the painter's methods that he paints against the grain by blurring his fore-grounds as well as his middle — and back grounds. Helsinger offers such an interpretation of Ruskin's comments on Turner, pointing out that Ruskin justifies Turner's use of indistinctness on the basis of selective focus — you simply cannot see everything in focus simultaneously (192). For Ruskin, Turner achieves a greater effect of extended space by blurring both his fore-grounds and far back-grounds without reducing the amount of detail being suggested. She also points out that, for Ruskin, this avoidance of any loss of suggested detail is ‘a central part of Turner’s technique of representing space’ (192). She further argues that, by contrast with the Old Masters, Turner’s depiction of objects may be less distinct, but that he is ‘more precise in his visual indication of them’. This leads her to offer three important observations.
Firstly, Turner makes greater co-operative demands on the viewer because of his greater suggestiveness in his use of line, light, and colour’. Secondly, although he does not depict objects with a high degree of definition, this does not mean that he leaves any room for free association. His fore- and back-grounds remain, in Ruskin’s description, ‘full’ since ‘throughout the picture, the expression of space and size is dependent on obscurity, united with, or rather resultant from, exceeding fullness. 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). Thirdly, in dealing with ’indistinctness’, we are dealing with ‘a visual version of the familiar romantic interest in the ‘unfinished’ or ‘incomplete’, but Ruskin's version of ‘romantic incompleteness ... places particular emphasis on the precise directions for imaginative activity which paintings and texts can provide' (192). As an example, she instances Ruskin's comments on Turner’sMercury and Argus. The passage below occurs in the ‘Truth of Space’ where Ruskin is writing about how such a truth is dependent on the power of the eye, and he instances Turner's representations of distances in the painting and argues that they are:
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; 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 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. 210]
How precise are the directions which this passage is giving? Perhaps the relationship between the multiple details of a painting and its overall unity is not being demonstrated but obfuscated in the extravagant and contradictory claims which Ruskin is making. To make a simple point — if the detail is too abundant for the eye, and too various for the mind, by what authority, other than his personal status as a ‘spectator of experience and knowledge’, on both of which qualifications he has already placed a severe limitation, is Ruskin stating so confidently that every detail suggests more than it represents, and that every one of the millions of lines has meaning?
Even more troublesome is the example which Ruskin advances to support the argument in the paragraph quoted above. He suggests that the truth of the system of drawing which he is describing might be better understood by considering the possibilities in the drawing of ‘the distant character of rich architecture’. The example he gives is Westminster Abbey seen from the top of Highgate Hill on a clear summer's morning at five o'clock. The visual problem is that, at such a distance, the eye cannot distinguish the many vertical lines of the building, and any attempt to do so is self-defeating but if you look at the building ‘generally’, there is an impression of symmetry and arrangement. So far, there is no problem with Ruskin's argument, but when he comes to speculate on how Turner, as opposed to an Old Master, would represent such a scene, he swiftly dismisses any potential efforts of an Old Master as undoubtedly ‘broad caricature of the delicate building felt at once to be false, ridiculous and offensive’. Turner, however, (and as a speculation, is this extravagant praise actually any fairer to him than the ridicule is to the Old Master?), and Turner only, ‘would follow and render on canvas that mystery of decided line, that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible but inextricable richness, which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth’ (3.210-11).
The latter part of this conjecture presents no problems — what you see of the Abbey at the distance proposed is what you see — an overall impression in which distance forbids the discrimination of fine detail. This simple observation, with which Ruskin begins his speculation, robs the word ‘inextricable’ of the rhetorical force with which he seeks to invest it by appending it to the word ‘unintelligible’, because he has already signalled to us the impossibility created by distance of extricating the detail of the Abbey’s rich surface detail. But then how can the material detail of one canvas be both ‘distinct, sharp, visible’ — and ‘inextricable’ and ‘unintelligible? Equally, how can such richness be ‘unintelligible’, when we know that all that prevents us from having intelligence of it is the distance from which we are looking at it? And what is the ‘mystery of decided line’?
This is definitely not bad writing. The difficulties which it presents originate from the enterprise which is Modern Painters 1. On the one hand, Ruskin is committed to demonstrating Turner's greatness as a landscape artist — something that cannot be taken for granted by his contemporary readers. However, he does take for granted in his readers a particular view of nature as a divinely ordained multiplicity of phenomena to which the very best instincts of human beings have been providentially adapted.
Divinely created external phenomena always come first, and human response, constituting human ‘nobleness’, comes second. But Providence in the very conservative Protestant religious traditions in which Ruskin was carefully educated by his mother, is essentially and ultimately arcana, unknowable, and its mystery is not for demonstration. How therefore can an artistic enterprise which, according to Ruskin, is dedicated to representing the myriad truths of that ultimately mysterious creation be demonstrated to have succeeded in its aims?
Part of Ruskin's answer to this question is to offset the Materialistic quantifying vocabulary which he employs throughout Modern Painters 1 with a vocabulary which refers to a metaphysical dimension which defies accounting and explanation. This was the established procedure of the Vitalist Natural Philosophers (see above: p.7), who invoke immanent causes for natural phenomena not accountable to scientific verification: ‘to living bodies belong many additional powers, the operations of which can never be accounted for by the laws of lifeless matter (Gunther.284. and Schofield.191). Similar ideas also appear in the work of Romantic poets with which Ruskin was familiar. Wordsworth, for instance, refers in ‘Tintern Abbey’ to:
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose welling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. [ll. 96-103]
According to Ruskin, the Old Masters never approach any idea of nature as a great system but simply take from the natural world whatever images suit their purpose at any particular moment. It is not until the emergence of the modern school of landscape painting that an attempt is made to give an ‘an entire statement of truth’, to reveal, in fact; the links of what Ruskin calls ‘this mighty chain’ of the truth The judgement on the Old Masters is, perhaps, dubious, but the advice which he offers to the reader regarding the productions of contemporary landscape art is very interesting:
That then which I would have the reader inquire respecting every work of art of undetermined merit submitted to his judgement, is, not whether it be a work of especial grandeur, importance, or power, but whether it have any virtue or substance as a link in this chain of truth whether it have recorded or interpreted anything before unknown; whether it have added one single stone to our heaven-pointing pyramid, cut away one dark bough, or levelled one rugged hillock in our path. [3.82-85]
This is, undoubtedly, one element of Ruskin's concept of infinity made clear in a very material way — landscape art; exemplified of course in Turner’s practice, as a continual revelation of the natural world, an ideal not very far from Joseph Priestley’s call for the ‘complete discovery of the face of the earth’ (1767.xvii), and it reflects Ruskin's hopes for a system of world-wide observers who would send their findings back to the Meteorological Society. Ruskin's general thesis in Modern Painters I, as with so many of his comments on Turner and modern landscape painting, comes close to suggesting that art exists in one respect as a branch of Natural Philosophy. But an art which constantly adds to the sum of knowledge is, like any Natural Philosophy which does so, faced with the age-old problem of interpreting the data so being accumulated, and, given Ruskin's insistence on coherence and unity, he is faced with the problem of demonstrating precisely that.
If there are difficulties in Ruskin's attempts to account for coherence in single paintings by Turner — there are difficulties in his attempts to demonstrate coherence in the complete oeuvre. Echoing the letter to the Rev. W.L. Brown, he claims that in Modern Painters I he has shown ‘the perfect system of all truth ... formed by Turner's works’, and that the painter ‘is the only man who has ever given an entire transcript of the whole system of nature, and is, in this point of view, the only perfect landscape painter whom the world has ever seen’ (3.441).
The claims are excessive, but that is not what is at point here. Rather, what disables Ruskin's argument is this: he devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to the careful classification of the observable phenomena which are the subject of landscape painting, to demonstrate the truth of Turner’s representation of them. If you accept the detailed cataloguing section by section, and the detailed reference to individual paintings, then at least Ruskin has indeed made a convincing claim for Turner having achieved a fairly comprehensive representation of natural phenomena. Unfortunately, he pushes his argument beyond what is strictly observable, beyond the level of the knowable.In ‘Of the Region of the Rain-cloud’, he comments on the transparent vapour in Turner's Long Ship's Lighthouse, Land's End. His reading rests on the relationship between the painting’s multiplicity of detail and its unifying principle, in this case ‘the independent passion, the tumultuous separate existence of every wreath of writhing vapour’, and the ‘one omnipotence of storm’. But Ruskin's comment on why this painting is representative of the way in which Turner's achievements mark him off from the rest creates difficulties: ‘It is this untraceable, unconnected, yet perpetual form, this fullness of character absorbed in universal energy, which distinguish nature and Turner from all their imitators’ (3.269).
‘Fullness of character’ and ‘universal energy’ point precisely to that contradiction within Ruskin's ideological stance which it would be convenient to refer to as a tension between bourgeois individualism and Romantic organicism, a tension resolved for Ruskin in the subjection of individual detail to a centre of overall and undisputed (and unelected) control. But the importation of the ‘untraceable’ and the ‘unconnected’ confuses matters and leaves Ruskin grasping for a metaphysical significance which he cannot demonstrate, but must assert.
The problem occurs early in Modern Painters 1 when he is discussing ‘Ideas of Power’. In writing about execution, he makes what is a reasonable point — execution is at its most effective when it produces meaning without drawing attention to itself; execution which draws attention to itself at the expense of meaning can be condemned as ostentation or pretension. But what follows is hardly reasonable: ‘Nature is always mysterious and secret in her use of means; and art is always likest her when it is most inexplicable. That execution which is least comprehensible, and which therefore defies imitation (other qualities being supposed alike), is the best’ (3.40).
First, he seems to be contradicting what he has asserted four pages earlier regarding artistic execution. There he argues that it takes only the ‘first five chalk touches’ to bring ‘a head into existence out of nothing’, but that, as the work starts to move towards technical perfection, the sensation of the amount of power which has been invested in the productive process is more and more obscured. This notion has clear relationships with his assertion that 'the picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed’ (3.11). As I have already suggested, both clearly relate to his later condemnations of modern manufacturing processes which sacrifice the work of the hand to the work of the machine. There is nothing mysterious, or inexplicable, or incomprehensible there. But here Ruskin is seeking another strategy which will, implicitly, mark off the world of Nature and Art from contemporary manufacturing. Certainly, if Nature is ‘always mysterious and secret in her use of means’, then you are as far as you can get from a cheap process for refining sugar which, despite any secrecy or mystery generated by industrial patents, is a process available for rational explanation. Similarly, if artistic execution ‘defies imitation’, then it is far removed from the activity of mass production. But by the time Ruskin comes to write about the ‘Truth of Chiaroscuro’, he seems to have forgotten the principle of the mystery and secrecy in Nature's operations which has been so carefully enunciated. He directs the reader's attention to the ways in which nature arranges light and shade. His discussion leads into an attack on other writers on art who have noticed the ‘great principle of nature in this respect’. But then, he offers this comment in which nature's means are by no means ‘mysterious’, ‘secret’ or ‘inexplicable’:
I believe I shall be perfectly well able to prove, in following parts of the work, that ‘mere natural light and shade’ is the only fit and faithful attendant of the highest art; and that all tricks, all visible intended arrangement, all extended shadows and narrow lights, everything, in fact, in the least degree artificial, or tending to make the mind dwell upon light and shade as such, is an injury, instead of an aid, to conceptions of high ideal dignity. I believe I shall be able also to show, that nature manages her chiaroscuro a great deal more neatly and cleverly than people fancy that ‘mere natural light and shade’ is a very much finer thing than most artists can put together, and that none think that they can improve upon it but those who never understood it’ (3.192).
Apart from a further claim to special ‘experience and knowledge’ there is here a clear contradiction between the very material natural truths which Ruskin is classifying and the metaphysical dimensions and purpose which he asserts to be manifest in the observable phenomena; just as there is a contradiction, in Ruskin's comments, between Turner’s very material representation of those unending natural truths and his representations of nature's infinity and perpetual variation. Ruskin's careful, even laborious, categorisation of the truths of the natural world produces that world in its unquestionable solidity, but yokes to it a subjectivity of belief and response which not only insistently offers itself as dealing in the inexplicable and mysterious, but also claims that it is dealing in divinely sanctioned and objectively verifiable qualities and truths.Whereas, in fact, Ruskin's references to the inexplicable and the mysterious are meant to redeem his, and Turner's, illuminating observations from the merely physical by assigning them to a higher order of meaning, the overall effect of Modern Painters I is the exact reverse. It is the unremitting physicality of the observed phenomena which calls into question their paradoxically mysterious and opaque numinosity. The more insistent that Ruskin is on elevating observable but numinous data to a metaphysics capable of explaining the phenomena of ‘infinity and perpetual variation’, the less and less convincing are the metaphysics.
He produces the detail of the natural world carefully catalogued in its solidity, individuality and particularity; but the inexplicable and mysterious metaphysical world of significance which he invokes eclipses the particularity of the natural phenomena which he so values, by subjecting it to overall centres of control, a metaphysical, organicist paternalism which in one form and another, does not disappear from his work. Where Ruskin seeks to raise the world of observable phenomena and its greatest interpreter to the status of an indisputably cosmic vision, in fact he confounds his own enterprise in the mystification (‘infinity’, ‘perpetual variation') of the careful and finite material accounting in which the negotiations of the text are essentially grounded.
However, his assertions concerning the unity of art, the particularity of the lessons which it offers, the preference of process and technical imperfections over finished products repeating the same lessons over and over, and his preference of thought over mere grammar, is part of a brave, but ultimately unsuccessful enterprise in seeking to rescue artistic products from the unremitting commercialism and industrial production of his day (and ours).
Bacon, Francis. Distributio Operis in Selections from the works of Lord Bacon. Dublin: T. W. Moffett & Dublin University Press, 1847.
Ball, Patricia: The Science of Aspects: The Changing Role of Fact in the work of Coleridge, Ruskin and Hopkins. London: Athlone Press, 1971.
The Bridgewater Treatises On the Power Wisdom and Goodness of God As Manifested in the Creation. First published collectively in Bohn's Scientific Library 1833 to 1840.
Gillispie C. C. The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the History of Scientific Ideas . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.
Gillispie C. C. Genesis and Geology: A Study in the relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790-1850. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Helsinger, Elizabeth, K. Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder . Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1982. [complete text in the Victorian Web]
Kemp, Wolfgang. The Desire of My Eyes – The Life and Work of John Ruskin . London: Harper Collins, 1991.
Landow, George, P. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Osborne, R: Civilisation. A New History of the Western World. Pimlico, 2006.
Priestley, Joseph. History of Electricity. London, 1767.
Ritterbush, P. C. Overtures to Biology: The Speculations of Eighteenth-Century Naturalists. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.
Ruskin. The Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. Library edition. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.
Schofield, R. E. Mechanism and Materialism: British Natural Philosophy in An Age of Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Shapiro, Harold I. Ruskin in Italy: Letters to His Parents 1845. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Sherburne, J. C. John Ruskin, or the Ambiguities of Abundance: A Study in Social Economic Criticism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Last modified 11 March 2017