Prologue: Antecedents in Edmund Burke and Sir Isaac Newton

Not surprisingly in an age dominated by the spectacular achievements of Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into The Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful is authentically Newtonian in rejecting any possibility of finding ultimate causes, and limiting the enquiry to efficient causes. His aim is to discover ‘what affections of the mind produce certain emotions of the body’ and ‘what distinct feelings and qualities of body shall produce certain determinate passions in the mind and no others’. This will aid ‘the distinct knowledge of our passions’ (p.129).

Burke catalogues the regular manifestations of Beauty, presenting physiological phenomena as their efficient causes so freeing himself from subjective considerations such as Custom, and moving into the ‘objective’ world of the Natural Philosopher. Aesthetic experiences then are amenable to mechanical explanations. But Burke is subscribing to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by transforming a working abstraction into an experiential constant (150). No matter that there may be exceptions, his conclusions are the ‘concurrence of many experiments’, and should therefore be retained according to the judicious rule laid down by Newton in the third book of his Optics’ (150).

Newton himself presents the ‘rule’ or program for the ‘Investigation of difficult Things’ at the end of the Optics, and Burke follows this program for much of his argument. However, when he applies Newton’s method of ‘Synthesis’, he moves beyond the theoretical limits of Newton's program. Newton's own statement of general conclusions is usually tentative, but Burke transforms his major proposition that ‘beauty operates by relaxing the solids of the whole system’ into a fundamental supposition by suggesting that some secondary propositions are, or could be, verified objective truth (150-51).

Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842): ‘Providential Embryology’

Like Edmund Burke, Sir Charles Bell, a physician, tries to construct an aesthetic theory based on principles derived from branches of Natural Philosophy, particularly Anatomy and Physiology, and so make of Aesthetics an objective science. Bell’s discoveries in the nervous system contributed to the development of modern physiology, and he wrote, among other works, the fourth Bridgewater Treatise, The Hand, Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments As Evincing Design (1833), and a volume on The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression As Connected with the Fine Arts’ (1848).

Ruskin, who was familiar with Bell's work, was reading Philosophy of Expression at the end of 1844. On the 26th. December, he wrote to Henry Acland: ‘I like a great deal of what he says, only I wish he would explain himself and not leave me to guess out half’ (Shapiro 1n1.) But this was a favorable first impression, and Ruskin soon revised his opinion. He had been asked by John Murray to review Bell's volume for The Quarterly Review and took it with him on his 1845 Italian tour. However, the project came to nothing. Ruskin refused to oblige Murray by writing a favorable review because, as he confided to his father, he found the structure of the volume ‘loose’, and often ‘wrong’. Even though Murray had wanted a favorable review for the sake of Bell's widow, Ruskin simply refused to write what he didn't think (1n1; 20n2; 115n2). However, he does make an unusually high number of references to Bell in the second volume of Modern Painters.

Why should Ruskin have reservations about a natural philosopher who was associated with such writers as Whewell and Buckland in the conservative enterprise of The Bridgewater Treatises? Perhaps he is reacting to Bell’s modernizing tendencies, for Bell is amenable to new ideas, and mixes conservative commitments with interests in, and even acceptance of, mechanical explanations and the assumptions of some of the newer sciences such as uniformitarian geology. He also bases his aesthetic theorizing on accurate anatomical knowledge. Ruskin found neither geological uniformitarianism nor anatomy congenial.

Bell opens his Bridgewater Treatise, The Hand, Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments As Evincing Design, with an argument for providential design in the mechanical construction of each living entity, and providential benevolence in the disposition of its vital qualities and its adaptation to its environment:

If we select any object from the whole extent of animated nature, and contemplate it fully and in all its bearings, we shall certainly come to this conclusion: that there is design in the mechanical construction, benevolence in the endowments of the living properties, and that good on the whole is the result [1-2].

‘Mechanical construction’ and ‘living properties’, both providentially disposed, offer a simple formula for avoiding the dualism between physical and vital forces which the Natural Philosophers had observed. Mechanical constructions are for Bell, as they are for Ruskin, inferior to living properties in the scheme of creation, because ‘wonderfully and exquisitely constructed’ as physical entities may be, the living properties are necessary to ‘animate the body to the utmost exertion’ (1-2).

There is nothing here with which Ruskin would disagree in principle. The providential adaptation of human consciousness to external phenomena is a key principle for him in his theory of Typical Beauty, but here is no suggestion that that adaptation is other than static. Ruskin’s enterprise is to establish that human responses are universally ordered by Providence. However, Bell, who explicitly reject Lamarckian theories, differs radically from Ruskin, who sees adaptation as a given, fixed, and unchanging. For him, any change can come only from the corruptions produced by living in a post-lapsarian world, and such change is false.

His position can, like Bell's, be regarded as anti-Lamarckian (though implicitly so) since he opposes the notion that anything beneficial can result from the submission of a living entity to the undue influence of external circumstances: in The Seven Lamps [text], for instance, he defines human beings as having an authentic and inauthentic existence. The first asserts human authority over external circumstances: the second, as he defines it, submits to external circumstances:

But when we begin to be concerned with the energies of man, we find ourselves instantly dealing with a double creature… he has a true and false (otherwise called a living and dead, or a feigned and unfeigned) faith… a true and false hope, a true and false charity, finally, a true and false life. His true life is like that of lower organic beings, the independent force by which he moulds and governs external things; it is a force of assimilation which converts everything around him into food or into instruments; and which… never forfeits its own authority as a judging principle, as a will capable either of obeying or rebelling. His false life is, indeed, but one of the conditions of death or stupor, but it acts, even when it cannot be said to animate…is that life of custom and accident in which many of us pass much of our time in the world...that life which is overlaid by the weight of things external to it, and is moulded by them, instead of assimilating them’. [191-92]

Bell, in constructing his anti-Lamarckian thesis, provides a general context for his study of individual phenomena that is dependent not, as one might suppose in a Bridgewater Treatise, upon the conservative notion of Fixed Species, but upon what I would like to describe as ‘Providential Embryology’, a dynamic concept influenced by the implications of the newer geological arguments in his refashioning of the notions of fixity of species and of the adaptation to external circumstances in the development of a species' characteristics.

Traditional thought maintained that all existing species were simultaneously created, no new species had been created, and none had become extinct. Bell produces a thesis combining uniformitarian geology and Biblical typology: “The remains of the marine animals are found in the highest mountains… the surfaces of our fields…in the beds of rivers, huge bones are discovered…; under the solid limestone rock. The bones thus exposed become… are unexpectedly connected with the enquiry in which we are engaged.”

Bell's placing of the word ‘unexpectedly’ is, perhaps, disingenuous. He continues:

Among other important conclusions they lead to this — that there is not only a scheme or system of animal structure pervading all classes of animals which now inhabit the earth, but that the principle of this great plan of creation was in operation, and governed the formation of those animals which existed previous to the revolutions that the earth has undergone: that the excellence of form now seen in the skeleton of man, was in the scheme of animal existence long previous to the formation of man, and before the surface of the earth was prepared for him or suited to his constitution, structure, or capacities. [23-24]

In rejecting Biblical fundamentalism, Bell is arguing that blueprints for the species initially created, have providentially evolved. Fixed principles of formation replace fixed species, though Bell is loath to make too radical a break from the traditional notions which it is the purpose of the Bridgewater Treatises to defend: ‘Such changes in the organs are but variations in the system by which new matter is assimilated to the animal body, - and however remarkable they may be - they always bear a certain relation to the original type, as parts of the same great design’ (23-24).

Part of Bell's brief is to expose the futility of the opinions of French philosophers and physiologists, with the Lamarckians clearly in mind, who represented life as the mere physical result of certain combinations and actions of parts which they named ‘Organisation’ (x). Confronting their theories, he extracts their strong points, and reinterprets these in the light of his belief in a Christian Providence. For instance, he rejects geological determinism, but he accepts the influence of environmental conditions on creatures, and their adaptation to them. He takes issue with naturalists who would ‘seek to obscure the conception of a Divine author, an intelligent, designing and benevolent Being, and clinging to the greatest absurdities, will rather interpose the cold and inanimate influence of the mere ‘elements’, in a manner to extinguish all feeling of dependence in our minds, and all emotions of gratitude (144).

Here Bell argues specifically against the Lamarckians, who had maintained that a change in external circumstances was responsible for changes in the organization and structure of any given species. He concedes to them ‘surprising changes in the conformation of the same animal’, but rescues this for Paleyan theology by suggesting that such a change is caused by the internal dynamism of a creature, as providentially given, responding to providentially designed changes in external circumstances (145). He reverses the Lamarckian emphasis on environmental conditions and relies on an older, Aristotelian emphasis on the ‘embryological’ situation of a creature. This helps him to define more clearly his notion of evolutionary blueprints:

If we take the larva of a winged insect…anticipating its metamorphosis, we dissect the same larva immediately before the change, we shall find a new apparatus in progress towards perfection… a new arrangement of muscles, with new points of attachment, directed to the wings instead of the feet, is visible; and a new distribution of nerves, accommodated to the parts which are now to be put in motion is distinctly to be traced. Here is no budding and stretching forth of the organs under the influence of surrounding elements; but a change operated on all the economy, and prospective, that is, in reference to a condition which the creature has not yet attained. [147-78]

For Bell, like early Ruskin, mind and body are providentially adapted to their surroundings, and the universe which he postulates for the exercise of the mind's faculties is not a static mechanical model such as offered by Paley’s design theology, but an evolving historical reality. Such a model informs his observations on the adaptation of organic structures to the physical environment, and when he deals with the ways in which the human consciousness responds to its physical environment, he combines traditional notions of providential adaptation with newer ideas on geological development:

all these sources of enjoyment…are as certainly the result of the several changes which the earth's surface has undergone, as the displaced strata within its crust are demonstrative of these changes…these revolutions, whether…slowly accomplished or progressively, or by sudden, vast and successive convulsions, were necessary to prepare the earth for that condition which should correspond with the faculties to be given to man, and be suited to the fun exercise of his reason, as well as to his enjoyment. [32-33]

Ruskin would have had no difficulties with Bell's primary aim: to replace the Mechanists' notion of the supremacy of physico-chemical laws with the notion of a natural law, which is within the scope of descriptive science but actually beyond explanation.

Ultimately, Bell’s matural philosophy, which is very conservative and Christian, accepts newer geological notions as supporting traditional notions. It helps to shape the aesthetics of his Anatomy of Expression (1844), which has similarities with Modern Painters 1 and 2. It too operates as a display cabinet. Ruskin catalogues Natural Truths, Divine Types, and Forms of the Imagination; Bell catalogues Sources of Expression, facial muscular operations, and varieties of pain. Both writers, like Burke, are confident that their findings are universal in their application: Ruskin derives universal laws from the providentially designed workings of the natural world and providentially designed human responses to it; Bell categorizes human expression on the basis of a universal human anatomy.

This, for instance, is how Bell categorizes Fear as a human response:

In man, the expression of mere bodily fear is like that of animals, without dignity; it is the mean anticipation of pain. The eyeball is largely uncovered, the eyes are staring, and the eyebrows elevated to the utmost stretch… a spasmodic affection of the diaphragm and muscles of the chest, disturbing the breathing … a gasping in the throat with an inflation of the nostril, convulsive opening of the mouth, and dropping of the jaw;… a hollowness and convulsive motion of the cheeks, and a trembling of the lips, and muscles on the side of the neck. The lungs … distended … the breathing is short and rapid…The aspect is pale and cadaverous from the receding of the blood. The hair is lifted up by the creeping of the skin, and action of the occipito-frontalis. [150].

This passage exemplifies Bell’s grounding of emotional phenomena in anatomy and physiology. The physicality of such phenomena is his major criterion in determining the comparative quality of artistic products. He points out, for instance, that in the sculpture of antiquity, there are strictly superhuman types which are considered to be an ideal of human form. To determine the reasons for this preference, the critic needs a scientific principle: ‘that the outward forms result from the degree of development of the contained organs’ (29).

The principle that external expression depends on the degree of development of the internal organs becomes an artistic criterion for judging the treatment of figure in drawing, painting, and sculpture. He praises Michelangelo's anatomical studies, which demonstrate the utmost accuracy of knowledge while remaining true to the living reality which he depicts. Bell compares Michelangelo's anatomical drawings with the sculpture on the Medici tombs, remarking that, the drawings exhibit every point of bone, muscle, tendon, and ligament ‘marked, and perhaps a little exaggerated’, but the statuary exemplifies the principle which he has formulated (186).

Function, however, does not guarantee artistic excellence. A hierarchy of form and function determines degrees of beauty, and this hierarchical principle is exemplified in antique statuary. But there is a problem: the artists represent what is not found in nature. The solution is to interpret the Ideal beauty exemplified in antique statuary as a selection and combination of the most perfect features of examples of the same object.

He also refutes the notion that in antique statuary beauty is created not by a representation of the human, but of the divine. Winckelmann, for instance, in his History of Art had written: ‘La beauté supreme reside en Dieu. L'idée de la beauté humaine se perfectionne à raison de sa conformité et de son harmonie avec L'Être Supreme’ (As quoted by Bell, 19).

Because Bell insists on the importance to aesthetics of understanding physical arrangements which critics can directly examine and verify, he can refute neo-classical theory. All knowledge and appreciation of form can stem only from a contemplation of the physically knowable, hence his principle ’THAT BEAUTY IN THE HUMAN FORM HAS RELATION TO THE CHARACTERISTIC ORGANS OF MAN’ (52). He offers his own Bridgewater Treatise as an introduction to this subject, so closely related are art and natural philosophy.

Part of the interest offered by Bell's general thesis is that he offers it as a practicable proposal for the renewal of English art, especially through an appreciation of anatomical science. Although Bell claims that a love of the fine arts had become increasingly prevalent among the affluent classes (3), he derives no encouragement from this. Ancient art teaches that institutions have a greater influence on art than climate. For significant progress, therefore, artists must liberate themselves from the stifling practice of regarding the antique as the alone model of perfection, and relate themselves to what is of greatest importance in contemporary society (9), and there must be ‘a corresponding feeling in those who patronize art’ (10).

He derides the dream of equalling great works of antiquity raised under tyranny and false religions. ‘We must hope for excellence, in a different condition, as the fruit of a religion of love, joy, and peace. If the arts of design… stand related neither to religion, nor to the records of history, nor to the progress of empire, they must be ever, as a dead language, associated with ancient times’ (9). On this point, Bell finds in the patronage of art by the mediaeval Christian church a suitable historical model, its success being explained partly by the range of subjects which painters were required to depict: innocence, tenderness, truth, beauty, in fact, ‘the whole range and character of human expression’ (12). He has a high admiration for the Roman Church’s fostering of the arts, and, like Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, he deprecates Protestant Enthusiasm for encouraging visual poverty in places of worship (13-15).

Ruskin’s relationships with Bell and other writers

Ruskin may have refused to write a favorable review of Bell's Anatomy, but he studied the work carefully and made an unusually high number of references to it in Modern Painters 2, which refers sparingly to other writers. He refers to Winckelmann and Schiller for their views on the Laocöon as opposed to his own (3: 121); and he refutes the view which he ascribes to Schiller that a ‘sense of beauty never fathered the performance of a single duty’ (3:215). He takes issue with Burke on the question of Apparent and Constructive Proportion (3:222-25, and 231); describes Dugald Stewart's definition of the imagination as ‘meagre’ (3:222-25, and 231), and dismisses Taylor's altogether (3:229-30). He quotes with approval Reynolds on color, form and external texture (3:302), and Leigh Hunt on Addison's Cato (3:254). In support of his own arguments, he quotes Vinet's Vital Christianity on the relationships between the individual and the group (3: p. 183), and Dr. George Herbert (not to be confused with the poet) from the Journal of the Horticultural Society on the ecological situation of wild plants (3:171). There remain three other authors to whom Ruskin refers: Sir Archibald Alison (five times); Sir Charles Bell (seven times); and Fuseli (eight times).

Ruskin refers frequently to Alison and his Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1815) because Alison was a major exponent of Associationist theory. Landow argues that it was most important to refute Associationism because it denied the objective existence of beauty and restricted it to ‘the changeable and limited territories of the human mind’ (101); and all five references by Ruskin to Alison are rejections of what he has to say on the subject (3:70, 63, 77, 97, and 367-68).

However, Ruskin approvingly quotes four of Fuseli’s aphorisms and refers to his definition of ‘true invention’ as supporting his own arguments (3:286). But, although he partly approves of Fuseli's reading of Raphael's Massacre of the Innocents, he suggests that it is basically a ‘shallow and uncomprehending’ response, and accuses Fuseli of dealing with the surface of paintings (3:286).

Ruskin’s references to Bell are mixed, and guarded. Ruskin was working on Bell at Murray's request while he was preparing the text of Modern Painters 2 and this may explain the comparative frequency of the references. Perhaps the references are a substitute for a review. (Their guarded nature may be explained by Ruskin's wish not to offend Bell's widow.) Ruskin refers to Bell's Anatomy on Michelangelo twice — to the artist's ‘exaggeration’ of anatomical features and his physical strength and speed (3:285 and 310). He refers the reader to Bell's volume on ‘The Hand to compare what he himself has to say on Constructive Proportion, and quotes from the same volume to support his own views on whether some animals, being deficient, are therefore inferior (3:104, and 11-12). None of these references suggests any disagreement between Ruskin and Bell, but others are not so straightforward.

For instance, in discussing Repose, or the “Type of Divine Permanence” (Part III, Section I, chapter VII of Modern Painters 2), Ruskin suggests that this quality is exemplified in three outstanding artists, Phidias, Michelangelo, and Dante. They are closely followed by Homer and Shakespeare in whom Ruskin detects ‘less fullness and earnestness of faith’. He then suggests that from these great figures, ‘we may go down step by step among the mighty men of every age, securely and certainly observant of diminished lustre in every appearance of restlessness and effort, until the last trace of true inspiration vanishes in the tottering affectations or the tortured insanities of modern times’ (3:120). Surprisingly, he illustrates his argument from a piece of antique statuary, the Laocöon: ‘No group has exercised so pernicious an influence on art as this a subject ill-chosen, meanly conceived, and unnaturally treated, recommended to imitation by subtleties of execution and accumulation of technical knowledge’ (3:120). He adds a long note to explain his opposition to the statue which he compares to Michelangelo's The Plague of the Fiery Serpents from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Basically, he objects to the ignorance of the habits of serpents displayed in the Laocöon:

If Laocöon had had to do with real serpents, instead of pieces of tape with heads to them, he would have been held still, and not allowed to throw his arms or legs about. It is most instructive to observe the accuracy of Michael Angelo, in the rendering of these circumstances; the binding of the arms to the body, and the knotting of the whole mass of agony together, until we hear the crashing of the bones beneath the grisly sliding of the engine folds. [3:120]

To support his argument Ruskin introduces a reference to Bell's Anatomy, in which, according to Ruskin, Bell ‘has most wisely and incontrovertibly deprived the statue of all claim to expression and fortitude of mind, and shown its common and coarse intent of mere bodily exertion and agony’. Either Ruskin has misunderstood Bell's argument, or he is deliberately and, perhaps, tactfully, misrepresenting Bell's arguments as supporting his own.

Bell took issue with Payne Knight's verdict on the statue. As quoted by Bell, Payne Knight argues that in responding to the Laocoon, we do not ‘sympathise’ with the death agonies of Laocoon and his sons, because such a response would be ‘painful and disgusting’. Instead, we respond to ‘the energy and fortitude of mind which those agonies call into action and display’. Bell argues that Knight's ignorance of anatomy, ‘the structure of his own frame, and the facts most essential to just criticism in works of art’, have led him to misinterpret the sculptor's intention which was in fact ‘to represent corporeal exertion, the attitudes and struggles of the body and of the arms’. He then offers an analysis of what happens to a human frame in the grip of a serpent's coils, However, he is not damning the statue for ‘its common and coarse intent of mere bodily exertion and agony’, as Ruskin suggests, but is using it to illustrate a general principle which he wishes to promote against those ‘critics’ who ‘think it necessary to refine and go beyond Nature’. The successful representation of ‘corporeal exertion’ based ‘on an accurate anatomy and physiology is adequate for Bell, for the rule is ‘to learn her [i.e. Nature's] ways, and to be cautious of adding the slightest trait of expression, or what we conceive to be such, to the simple, and because simple, the grand character of natural action; instead of making the appeal more strongly to the senses, it is sure to weaken it’. The criticism which follows, of Michelangelo's David, can hardly have been welcome to Ruskin, as Bell accuses Michelangelo of offending against good taste by having his subject bite his lip in order ‘to convey the idea of resolution and energy’. However, Bell, as concerned as is Ruskin to fix values, regards biting the lip as ‘an action intended to restrain expression, to suppress an angry emotion which is rising in the breast ... a sign of some trifling inconvenience, never of heroism’.

Nor can Ruskin have been too pleased with Bell on The Dying Gladiator, which he introduces as ‘one of those masterpieces of antiquity which exhibits a knowledge of anatomy and of man's nature’. And it is in the statue's accurate anatomical representation that he locates its greatness:

He seeks support to his arms, not to rest them or to sustain the body, but to fix them, that their action may be transferred to the chest, and thus assist the labouring respiration. The nature of his sufferings leads to this attitude. In a man expiring from loss of blood, as the vital stream flows, the heart and lungs have the same painful feeling of want, which is produced by the obstruction to the breathing .. , And so the ancient artist has placed this statue in the posture of one who suffers the extremity of difficult respiration. [176-78)]

Interestingly, Ruskin had originally intended to contrast the Laocöon with the The Dying Gladiator, and the comment on the statue which would have appeared in Modern Painters 2 indicates some of the difficulties which Bell must have given him: ‘The dying gladiator - though the statue of a vanquished slave a mere victim of some butcher of the arena — is yet noble and exalted in its whole tone and character, for the very reason — strange as it may appear - that in its numbing clasp the right hand has already forgotten its cunning, and death has stamped upon the seared and disgraced brow the nobility of its repose’ (3:119n3).

The comment places Ruskin among the critics whom Bell condemns for seeking to ‘refine and go beyond Nature’ by adding unnecessary expression to a perfectly adequate anatomical and physiological truth. But there is more to it than this. In commenting on both statues, Ruskin draws attention to details (the inadequate representation of the ‘habits of serpents’, and the gladiator's hand and brow) in such a way as to displace attention from nakedness and anatomy, an area with which Ruskin has difficulties: ‘Generally it is well to conceal anatomical development as far as may be; even Michel Angelo's anatomy interferes with his divinity ... How far it is possible to subdue or generalize the naked form I venture not to affirm; but I believe that it is best to conceal it, as far as may be, not with light and undulating draperies, that fall in with and exhibit its principal lines, but with severe and linear draperies, such as were constantly employed before the time of Raffaele’ (3:327).

A certain Evangelical prudishness is here interfering with the judgements of the art critic. Indeed, perhaps, Ruskin’s response to nudity, especially in the case of the Laocöon, may go further than this.

Laocoön, was a Trojan priest of the god Poseidon, who kills both Laocoön’s sons after he has tried to expose the ruse of the Trojan Horse by striking it with a spear. In Sophocles’s version, he is a priest who breaks his vows of celibacy. In another version he is killed for having made love with his wife in the temple of Poseidon. Nineteenth century art criticism hardly mentions the sexual content of the myth. Nor, by any stretch of the imagination, could one possibly follow Ruskin in describing the huge clearly phallic serpents as ‘pieces of tape with heads on them’!

Without speculating about Ruskin’s sexuality, I would like to consider his attitude to the human body which, in an art critic, has to be regarded as ambivalent. He insists that it should be clothed with a severely discreet drapery, not the flowing sumptuous draperies which enhance rather than subdue the sensuousness and sensuality of the human form. And, yet when it serves his purpose, he can celebrate the human form in a quite astonishing manner:

Then, farther…ocean-work is wholly adverse to any morbid conditions of sentiment… The first thing required of us is presence of mind… We Venetians… must be able to do nearly everything that hands can turn to - rudders, and yards, and cables, all needing workmanly handling and workmanly knowledge, from captain as well as from men… All which not only takes mean pride out of us, and puts nobler pride of power in its stead; tends to induce in us great respect for the whole human body… And with this respect for the body as such, comes also the sailor’s preference of massive beauty in bodily form. The landsmen…may well please themselves with pale faces, and finely drawn eyebrows, and fantastic braiding of hair. But from the sweeping glory of the sea we learn to love another kind of beauty; broad-breasted; level-browed, like the horizon; - thighed and shouldered like the billows… bathed in cloud of golden hair [Modern Painters 5:4-5).

This is odd from a writer who expresses such reservations about ‘bodily form’, which he here characterizes in its beauty by breasts, thighs, and shoulders, and ‘golden hair’, variously ‘broad’, ‘level’, swelling fully like ‘billows’. Like Bell, Ruskin locates beauty in anatomical structures. However, there is here the crucial question of whom Ruskin is addressing and his celebration of Venetian muscularity serves a polemical purpose. This is the Venetian that was, as opposed to the contemporary Venetians, and is consistent with his presentation of the Venice that was and the city as it now is, being ruined by the vandalism caused by occupying French armies and Italian neglect and indifference. To a different audience, however, he can present another view of contemporary Venetians. Writing to his father, he offers the following comprehensive catalogue of their qualities: ‘Lazy, lousy, scurrilous, cheating, lying, thieving, hypocritical, brutal, blasphemous, obscene, cowardly, earthly, sensual, devilish’. (Shapiro 228). Clearly, while addressing a father who himself was homophobic, Ruskin can tailor his judgements to suit his audience.

Although Bell and Burke feature prominently in Modern Painters 1 and 2, it is clear that when Ruskin refers to them on specific points, he actually disagrees with them, as for instance, when he exposes what he sees as the fallacies in Burke’s arguments on Constructive Proportion. But there is an underlying disagreement which Ruskin does not fully articulate. Burke borrows from contemporary Materialist Philosophy to support his thesis that human responses to the beautiful are not subjective phenomena, but objectively verifiable as physiological effects. Bell, drawing on his own achievements as an anatomist, and his detailed knowledge of his contemporaries in the field, especially Cuvier, grounds the whole range of human expression in anatomical structure and nervous reactions. Both writers however consign the ultimate explanation for the phenomena which they are observing to divine disposition and therefore to the inexplicable, and their work, no matter how much modern scientific thinking may be present, supports a conservative Christian belief. With that the Ruskin of Modern Painters 1 and 2 would have no problem, nor with the insistence that aesthetic responses are not a subjective product of varieties of Association. But the grounding of human responses in the physical is a position to which, as an exponent of a science of appearances, he is opposed, and that opposition, especially in his presentation of the Theoretic Faculty’s ‘contemplation of things as they are’, confirms how conservative is the cultural intervention in all areas represented by Ruskin’s work.


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Conner, Patrick: Savage Ruskin. London: MacMillan, 1979.

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Newton, Isaac: Papers and Letters on Natural Philosophy: Harvard University Press: 1959.

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Last modified 13 March 2017