uskin, a highly knowledgeable art critic, demonstrates both his gifts of articulation and diction and his overwhelming awe at the abilities of nature in "Of Truth of Colour." Ruskin speaks with wonder and admiration about nature, a tone he resists when referring to the capabilities of humans, even when praising the artist Turner. Personifying nature as a spontaneous, immense, excitable woman, Ruskin establishes a disconnect between art that imitates nature and nature itself; it should be the artist's goal to attempt to portray nature's colors as they truly exist — recognizing light and shadows and variations in hues — but "no gorgeousness of the pallet" will ever match nature's power, both in its idle, ordinary effects, and especially when it surprises us with unmatched beauty. Ruskin, who characterizes nature as a type of omniscient and playful god, constantly reminds us of our limitations — a refreshingly realistic consideration often absent from academic works that maintain an emotional distance from their subject. By expressing a deep and loving appreciation of nature's "colouring fits," Ruskin proves himself to have resisted becoming affected by his own wit and intelligence; he remains aware, and even more importantly, inspired and humbled, by those phenomena beyond human capability.
Now we have been speaking hitherto of what is constant and necessary in nature, of the ordinary effects of daylight on ordinary colours, and we repeat again, that no gorgeousness of the pallet can reach even these. But it is a widely different thing when nature herself takes a colouring fit, and does something extraordinary, something really to exhibit her power. She had a thousand ways and means of rising above herself, but incomparably the noblest manifestations of her capability of colour are in the sunsets among the high clouds. I speak especially of the moment before the sun sinks, when his light turns pure rose-colour, and when this light falls upon a zenith covered with countless cloud-forms of inconceivable delicacy, threads and flakes of vapour, which would in common daylight be pure snow-white, and which give therefore fair field to the tone of light. There is then no limit to the multitude, and no check to the intensity, of the hues assumed. The whole sky from the zenith to the horizon becomes ones molten mantling sea of colour and fire; every black bar turns into massy gold, every ripple and wave into unsullied shadowless crimson, and purple, and scarlet, and colours for which there are no words in language, and no ideas in the mind�things which can only be conceived while they are visible; the intense hollow blue of the upper sky melting through it all, showing here deep, and pure, and lightless; there, modulated by the filmy formless body of the transparent vapour, till it is lost imperceptibly in its crimson and gold.
In the above passage, Ruskin's excitement and passion is paralleled by his long and complex sentence structure, full of semicolons and interior phrases as divergent and inspiring as spontaneous and unrestricted thoughts. Ruskin's pure focus on visual stimuli and the emotions they create resists any sort of analysis; the scene he describes, he suggests, is not up for academic debate or any of the systems of mechanization Carlyle laments. Instead, they are pure and gorgeous in their natural capacity, and they can't be denied.
1. What do you make of the gendering of elements in the passage? Why might nature be established as female, and the sun as male?
2. In his description of the sunset, Ruskin emphasizes the purity of the colors, described as "unsullied," "shadowless," and "pure rose-colour." Why might this purity be important and something that Ruskin seeks out? How can art be considered tainted, the opposite of this pure natural scene?
3. Ruskin repeatedly describes aspects of the scene as "inconceivable," "colours for which there are no words in language." What is the effect of this device on the reading of the piece?
4. Ruskin's complete surrender at the sight of nature, an awe that leaves him searching for words, has some religious tones, with his characterization of nature as a type of god, and his emphasis on human limitations. What might he say today about the state of the environment, when so much of the Earth's land has been bulldozed and built upon? Have we lost our connection with religion?
5. In the piece, Ruskin is very clear in stating that art can never match up to natural beauty. What is his final point? Should we not bother trying to imitate the beauty we see? Or can we continue to exercise our artistic skills, but must never view our works as replacements of nature? Is there a place in the world for both art and nature?
Ruskin, John. The Genius of John Ruskin. Ed. John Rosenberg. Various editions (orginally Riverside).
Last modified 16 October 2006