In "On the Truth of Color" and "On the Truth of Water" John Ruskin examines art in terms of its objective, compositional elements, commending or criticizing works for the accuracy of their depictions of nature. Truth is Ruskin's primary concern in these passages; his defense of Turner's painting, for example is largely based on Turner's use of brightness to represent sunlit scenes at the expense of customary color choices. Ruskin, at least in terms of the fundamentals of composition, rejects such considerations as subjective response or impression ("I am not talking about what is sublime, but about what is true . . . my business is to match colors, not to talk sentiment," ("Colour" 156) and conventional expectations ("But the painter who really loves nature will not . . . give you a faded and feeble image which . . . derive[s] its apparent truth from a systematized falsehood. No; he will make you understand that art cannot imitate life &,dash; that where it appears to do so, it must malign her and mock her" (181).

Ruskin's acknowledgement "that art cannot imitate life" does not undermine his concern with observation and physical principals in painting, however. Ruskin continues to separate the realistic, or objective, aspects of paintings from the conventional, or subjective aspects. The criticism that "though Turner has done enough to suggest the sea mightily and gloriously, after all it is by conventionalism still, and there remains so much that is unlike nature, that it is always possible for those who do not feel his power to justify their dislike . . . " ("Water" 325), implies that only in differing from objective accuracy can a painting open itself up to objective criticism.


1. Ruskin's discussion of art mentioned above was meant to instruct students, not necessarily to provide a criterion for good art. But, if an ideally realistic depiction were achieved, what room would be left for innovation, except in content?

2. To what extent might Ruskin's exhortation to depict nature from personal experience rather than accepted conventions have social or political ramifications, within the institutions of art or society in general?

3. Is Ruskin's dismissal of impressions meant merely as prescription for the painter, or does it suggest a broader theory of art that excludes personal, emotional response?

4. Ruskin seems to object to painters imposing moods upon their scenes by unnaturally altering the brightness or shade. Does this mean that he sees the spiritual meaning of the art work in the scene of nature itself, or does he allow for artistic intentions influencing the mood of a work without distorting nature?

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Last modified 11 September 2006

6 May 2019