In Volume II of his Modern Painters Ruskin discusses, 'the true ideal'. He initially argues that this involves

accepting the weaknesses, faults and wrongnesses in all things . . . it so places and harmonises them that they form a noble whole, in which the imperfection of each several part is not only harmless but absolutely essential, and yet in which whatever is good in each several part shall be completely displayed.

Ideal is not taken to mean 'perfect' in the sense of being free from any flaw, but perfectly arranged and represented most suitable artistically. Extending this discussion of composition to other art forms, Ruskin identifies the use of 'harmony and contrast' in 'all great art', using Shakespeare as an example — thus he employs musical terminology whilst comparing dramatic art with painting! (Similarly in the passage quoted above he uses both harmony and display as descriptive terms to illustrate his meaning). This impulse to compare many art forms and to draw out universal truths from the comparison can lead to these universals becoming rather slippery terms.

Ruskin posits that this idealism he identifies can also be termed 'naturalism' in the sense that the artist sees 'truth' and does not seek to render it in any way other than as he saw it — for example to reduce the contrasts, as 'meaner idealists' would do in an effort to make this 'truth' fit a false aesthetic. However if we do not try to grasp what Ruskin means by these terms a little more securely, we run the danger of entering into a linguistic quagmire. The artist sees a 'truth' existing in his imagination, yet this truth is argued to be in some sense 'real' and therefore he tries to represent it as it is. In what sense is the truth he sees in his imagination a 'real' entity? In one very puzzling sentence, Ruskin seems almost to argue for its being literally real:

For instance, Dante's centaur, Chiron, dividing his beard with his arrow before he can speak, is a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not actually seen the centaur do it. They might have composed handsome bodies of men and horses in all possible ways, through a whole life of pseudo-idealism, and yet never dreamed of any such thing. But the real living centaur actually trotted across Dante's brain, and he saw him do it.

This sentence pulls us up short, because of course Ruskin can only mean this in an imaginative sense — there was no 'real living centaur' but only a centaur of the imagination; a construction. It is as though Ruskin is trying to describe the poet as a landscape painter, simply observing visions that float into his brain (and are, in some sense, 'true' or 'real') and putting them down on paper — not copying them down, because in Volume I Ruskin speaks against copying as a degradation of art -- but somehow translating them in a purer sense onto the page.

In fact one is tempted to take issue with Ruskin's assertions here and ask why Chiron dividing his beard with an arrow before he can speak is 'a thing no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not actually seen the centaur do it'? Why could this not have occurred to Dante without his having 'seen' it? The process of seeing and the process of imagining (i.e. creating) could then be argued be one and the same — albeit one framed in an active, and one in a passive sense. Ruskin however seems to be shying away from the idea of imagining or creating as something great artists do, seeing it as something false — a 'pseudo-idealism' — to be rejected by those poets and artists who 'see' a truth without needing to create anything.

It might be argued that Dante's invention of Chiron's gesture is simply an instance of the poet's originality. However, earlier in the work Ruskin takes a dislike to the term 'originality', positing 'genuineness' as a better term. Thus he invests creativity with a moral obligation to be faithful to some form of 'truth' and not simply to go inventing things without recourse to some higher authority (whatever that might be). This higher authority is accessible only by 'the great men' and everyone taking issue with the fruits of their creation reveal themselves to be of 'mean and little minds' — i.e. anyone seeing their creation as in some way lacking simply reveals that they do not have the faculties to appreciate it, and are themselves in some way lacking. This kind of argument makes the ideal into something of a tyrannical thing — whilst it is argued to include the 'weaknesses, faults and wrongnesses in all things', it stems from an infallible source of creative inspiration granted only to the privileged few.


Does Ruskin's attempt to yoke music, poetry, drama and painting together (as stemming from a common creative process) enrich or weaken his argument?

What does Ruskin mean when he states that the artist 'sees' the thing he is to put into his work?

To what degree is Ruskin influenced by Platonic ideas of form?

Can Ruskin be arguing that art transforms the imperfect into the ideal by virtue of the fact that it is perfectly represented?

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Last modified 13 September 2007

6 May 2019