'the whole visible creation is a mere perishable symbol of things eternal and true' — Works 11.83

Illuminated initial T

here is a gap of three years between the publication of the first and second volumes of Modern Painters. This pause was not part of Ruskin's original plan; when the first volume appeared in May 1843 (coinciding with the Royal Academy exhibition), he carried on writing, with the second volume in mind as the completion of his argument. But the going got harder and harder — and then the crucial tour of Italy in 1845 called for a reassessment of what he was trying to do. Modern Painters 1, in spite of the equivocations about the picturesque, is a polemic that conveys all the enthusiasm the young Ruskin felt for the natural world and for Turner. Modern Painters 2 represents Ruskin's first attempt to establish universal criteria that would demonstrate, not just the virtues of Turner, but of all great artists.

In 1846 Ruskin published a thoroughly revised version of Modern Painters 1, and a new volume which speaks in a totally different voice. The voice he adopted was that of an Evangelical preacher, the change of manner is symbolized by the decision to model his prose on that of the sixteenth-century protestant theologian Richard Hooker. As a result many of the incidental beauties of description found in Modern Painters 1 are missing, and his sentences are dry and cold. But he was writing in what he described as ‘the moulting time of my life’ (4.148n), and the period immediately following 1846 was one of deep uncertainty. There was a further gap of ten years before another volume of Modern Painters appeared. The high Evangelical tone did not suit Ruskin, and he came to regret the dogmatism, the ‘narrow enthusiasm’ (3.54) and the ‘affected language’ (18.31) which he had brought to this formal statement of his theory of art.

The volume is divided into two parts, which in outline complete the scheme for the defence of Turner. Modern Painters 1 has established that Turner saw truthfully; the next volume describes the elements of beauty that he saw, and the imaginative process through which he [54/55] conveyed it to others. Ruskin felt confident about the first issue, since the perception of beauty synthesized the modes of perception we have been concerned with: Romantic, scientific, anti-picturesque, and Evangelical — above all Evangelical. The problem of the imagination was to take a great deal longer to resolve satisfactorily, in spite of a breakthrough in 1845 as important as the breakthrough from the picturesque in 1842.

Ruskin’s manuscripts reveal that while his views on the imagination were uncertain, his ideas on the nature of beauty were firm. In the light of the moment beside the fountain of Brevent, the basis of Ruskin’s theory must be that beauty equals God. But in order to show that the beautiful is expressive of Divine qualities he had to be very careful to prove that beauty was an independent and objective reality. Its purpose was to express the nature of God, and there must be no confusion between this function and the incidental pleasure it gave to man. We could operate entirely successfully as human beings, he argues, without taking the least pleasure in what we saw. Therefore the pleasure that we do find in our surroundings must be taken as a gift from God, and not something resulting from our own nature. As a gift from God, we must seek this pleasure out, since the gift brings us nearer to God who gives it. Our delight in seeing and hearing is not a ‘means or instrument of life, but an object of life. Now, in whatever is an object of life, in whatever may be infinitely and for itself desired, we may be sure there is something of divine; for God will not make anything an object of life to His creatures, which does not point to, or partake of Himself' (4.46).

A sense of such a God-given delight could not be acquired through such subjective or accidental means as custom or association. The familiarity born of custom may deprive objects of their initial ugliness, but equally it deadens our response; either way, custom has nothing to do with our actual perception of an object, but rather with what we make of that perception. Ruskin had a more serious problem in dealing with association. As George Landow has pointed out,1 it had become a popular notion that an object is beautiful because the mind associates it with certain qualities which we find pleasant, such as utility or harmony. Archibald Alison had defended the picturesque as a form of beauty because of the associated train of thought its elements summoned up. The problem for Ruskin was that association meant that it was not the object itself that was beautiful, but what we subjectively associated with it, and what we associated with it depended on the chance connections made by our experience and the operations of our [55/56] own mind. The perception of the beautiful moved away from external nature into those dark recesses of the individual mind, where he was unwilling to look.

The problem was answered by accepting that association did exist, but as something distinctive from perception itself. ‘Rational association’ may summon up what is known about an object — its history, for instance — but that is nothing to do with beauty. ‘Accidental association,’ chance connections and memories individual to each perceiver, gives every object a personal association which often enhances them; but this, he argues, is in order to guide our conscience, and is not in itself a perception of beauty. These individual associations add interest and variety, but they cannot take into account the absolute basis on which beauty rests, external to each individual. George Landow argues convincingly that as man gradually replaced God at the centre of his world view, Ruskin had to make a greater acknowledgment of the importance of subjective association in our attitude to nature (107-08). His first position, however, which he held on to for as long as he could, was that ‘Happily for mankind, beauty and ugliness are as positive in their nature as physical pain and pleasure, as light and darkness, or as life and death’ (5.45).

What then is this beauty whose objectivity it was so essential to uphold? Ruskin briskly defined it in Modern Painters 1:

Any material object which can give us pleasure in the simple contemplation of its outward qualities without any direct and definite exertion of the intellect, I call in some way, or in some degree, beautiful. Why we receive pleasure from some forms and colours, and not from others, is no more to be asked or answered than why we like sugar and dislike wormwood. [3.109]

This firm refusal of any discussion of subjectivity distracts attention from the more complicated idea that when we perceive beauty, we do not think. Beauty, for Ruskin, is neither simply a sense-impression, nor an abstract thought (a conscious thought about something he calls an Idea of Relation). True, there must be a sense-impression for an Idea of Beauty to exist; and in a discarded draft he went so far as to say that there existed a ‘Sensual Beauty,’ ‘that quality or group of qualities in objects by which they become pleasant to the eye, considered merely as a sense' (4.365). But the beauty he was seeking to define had to be more than a mechanical response. Neither could beauty be the result of conscious reasoning, since that would contradict his argument that the perception of beauty was instinctive, an object of life created by God. [56/57]

The psychological terminology current when Ruskin was writing defined the area of the non-rational, of the feelings as opposed to thought, as the moral. When therefore he says that impressions of beauty are neither ‘sensual nor intellectual, but moral' (4.42), this is not simply tying beauty to religion. Morality is governed by the emotions, because it is through our emotions that we are able to identify ourselves with others, and so know how to behave towards them. This ‘sympathetic imagination’ made possible the identification between poet and nature, and it explained how beauty for Ruskin could be a sense of total identification with God. Beauty had to be greater than the human mind, and yet perceptible to it; our unconscious emotional response was the instinctive part of ourselves moving in sympathy with that which God had also created. The difficulty for Ruskin’s theory of beauty was that, whereas he had excluded subjectivity by denying the relevance of association, an emotional response remained a necessary part of the perception of beauty; and that emotion was inspired by God. If faith in God faltered, as Ruskin’s eventually did, then that emotion might turn out to be no more than subjective self-projection and our perception of beauty false.

When he turned to the problem of the imagination the role of the emotions again became a major difficulty. The human reaction to beauty, according to Ruskin’s theory, is a process, through which an idea of beauty is conceived, rather than the operation of a single perceptual faculty of the mind. It is a process which leads from a sense impression through to the worship of God:

it is necessary to the existence of an idea of beauty, that the sensual pleasure which may be at its basis [sense-impression] should be accompanied first with joy [emotion], then with love of the object [sympathetic identification], then with the perception of kindness in a superior intelligence [Beauty = God], finally, with thankfulness and veneration towards that intelligence itself [worship]. [4.48]

Ruskin needed some new word to describe this process, and he found it in the Greek philosophers’ term for the highest activity of man: theoria, ‘contemplation.’ To describe the location in the mind where this process takes place, he created the term ‘the theoretic faculty.’ The faculty is more than sense perception, but stops short of conscious thought, a mediator between eye and mind: ‘the mere animal consciousness of the pleasantness I call Aesthesis; but the exulting, reverent, and grateful perception of it I call Theoria. For this, and this only, is [57/58] the full comprehension and contemplation of the Beautiful as a Gift of God’ (4.47).

Armed with a term which he hoped could provide a satisfactory link between external beauty and the awareness of God, Ruskin could turn to consider the nature of the objective beauty which the theoretic faculty perceives. This beauty exists in two forms:

first, that external quality of bodies already so often spoken of, and which, whether it occur in a stone, flower, beast or in man, is absolutely identical, which . . . may be shown to be in some sort typical of the Divine attributes, and which, therefore I shall, for distinction’s sake, call Typical Beauty: and, secondarily, the appearance of felicitous fulfillment of function in living things, more especially of the joyful and right exertion of perfect life in man; and this kind of beauty I shall call Vital Beauty. [4.64]

Vital beauty carries into art the optimistic world view of natural theologians like Buckland. The theoretic faculty perceives that the whole world works in purposeful harmony through an emotional identification with the natural world (and significantly, Ruskin’s examples come from Wordsworth), ‘the kindness and unselfish fulness of heart, which receives the utmost of pleasure from the happiness of all things’ (4.148). The sense of vital beauty is an indication of the state of our moral health, since ‘he who loves not God, nor his brother, cannot love the grass beneath his feet’ (4.148). We detect and sympathize with the ‘appearance of healthy vital energy’ (4.151) in organic forms, which leads us to perceive the moral intention of the Creator in producing them. Here the influence of natural theology on Ruskin is clear: ‘There is not any organic creature but, in its history and habits, will exemplify or illustrate to us some moral excellence or deficiency, or some point of God’s providential government’ (4.156). Thus even ugly creatures can be shown to have their appointed place in creation.3

Natural theology sanctifies vital beauty; Evangelical typology sanctifies typical beauty. Ruskin’s theological view of the world asserts itself; types express the nature of God, through the material facts of the world in forms accessible to man.

What revelations have been made to humanity inspired, or caught up to heaven, of things to the heavenly region belonging, have been either by unspeakable words, or else by their very nature incommunicable, except in types and shadows; and ineffable by words belonging to earth, for, of things different from the visible, words appropriated to the visible, can convey no image. [4.108] [58/59]

These ‘types and shadows’ are those qualities in the material world to which we instinctively and non-rationally respond as the beautiful. Consciousness that these qualities express Divine attributes only comes afterwards, at a further stage of the process: ‘I have repeated again and again that the ideas of beauty are instinctive, and that it is only upon consideration, and even then in doubtful and disputable way, that they appear in their typical character' (4.87).

Ruskin lists the major forms of typical beauty that he perceives in the natural world. In all these types except one, Light (which he distinguishes as an ‘actual substance,’ and as necessary to the apprehension of the others), typical beauty expresses itself as ‘conditions and modes of being' (4.128). As such, it is close to vital beauty, which affects us through our sympathy for the condition or mode of being of plants and living animals. To each quality he attaches an aspect of the Divine being. Thus, the sense of Infinity makes us aware of the greatness of God, and the impossibility of totally comprehending him. Light in the far distance, at dawn or dusk, on the vanishing-point of the horizon, ‘is of all visible things the least material, the least finite, the farthest withdrawn from the earth prison-house, the most typical of the nature of God, the most suggestive of the glory of His dwelling-place’ (4.81). Infinity does not only exist perspectivally in space; it is present in the infinite number of curves, no two alike, which go to make up the Creation. The infinite curvature of nature necessarily means an infinite variation in the play of light, so that colour, in full light or shade, is constantly gradated in a manner that few artists, except Turner, can follow.

There is an emphasis on order in Ruskin’s typical beauty which has its origin in eighteenth-century ideas of universal order as an expression of the Divine will (Landow, p. 115). His choice of Moderation, ‘the girdle and safeguard of all the rest’ (4.139), as the type of government by law, shows a concern to limit the extravagance and violence associated with some Romantic poetry and art. His reasoning is that, in the same way as God, though all-powerful, yet acts with self-restraint, obeying his own laws, the artist must act with similar self-restraint, preferring moderated curves and gradated colours to violent and exaggerated ones. The influence of Neoclassical preferences in art shows most clearly in the identification of another type, that of repose, with Divine permanence. Repose suggests a classic monumentality, regularity and solidity; it is ‘the “I am” of the Creator opposed to the “I become” of all creatures’ (4.113), it includes its necessary contrary, energy, to vitalize the solid form, but the order it imposes lifts that energy above the fretful [59/60] ephemeral life of man, ‘raising the life of sense into the life of faith’ (4.116). Ruskin later regretted the emphasis he placed on the necessity for Repose in all art, and in doing so revealed that it was the study of Michelangelo and the ideas of Sir Joshua Reynolds that had induced it (4.117-18n).

Although even the permanence and solidity of Repose required the presence of some vitalizing energy, the concept of order comprehending change is best conveyed by the type of Unity, or Divine comprehensiveness. Unity does not consist in a single quality, but in the interconnection of objects which express God’s inherence in all things, as conveyed by the organic cooperation in man and nature. (Again, we are close to ideas of vital beauty.) It takes several forms: unity of subjection, meaning the submission of several things to a common force, as clouds are shaped by the wind; unity of origin, as in the individually various branches of a tree expressing their common source; unity of sequence, our overall recognition of a common bond between a series of things, as in melody and harmony in music; and finally, unity of membership. This is the most interesting form, for it denotes the relationship binding the ‘unity of things separately imperfect into a perfect whole’ (4.95). Such a unity can arise only out of the union of separate and different parts, and it implies that variety is therefore an essential to unity: but, Ruskin adds, only such variety as ‘is necessary to secure and extend unity’ (4.96), and he coins the phrase ‘chordal variety’ to mark the limit of permissible change.

The idea that the type of Unity involves the inter-relations of parts turns Ruskin to the problem of Proportion and Symmetry. His desire to show the objective, non-utilitarian nature of beauty causes him to reject the idea that constructive proportion, which enables something to do its work, has anything to do with beauty. Constructive proportion is functional, and therefore appeals to the mind: ‘the megatherium is absolutely as well proportioned, in the adaptation of parts to purposes, as the horse or the swan; but by no means as handsome as either’ (4.110). But apparent proportion — that is, the feeling of proportion that an object gives us — is non-functional, and therefore an idea of beauty, and vital to the sense of Unity. The relationship of infinitely variable curves which is expressed through their proportionate angles makes up their unity of sequence.

Symmetry is the type of Divine justice: ‘in all perfectly beautiful objects, there is found the opposition of one part to another, and a reciprocal balance’ (4.125). This is not the same thing as proportion: ‘Symmetry is the opposition of equal quantities to each other; proportion, [60/61] is the connection of unequal quantities with each other’ (4.125-26) Symmetry implies arrangement ‘contrary to the violence and disorganization of sin (4.123), but the relationship between the opposite quantities is dynamic, rather than static: ‘Absolute equality is not required, still less absolute similarity. A mass of subdued colour may be balanced by a point of a powerful one, and a long and latent line overpowered by a short and conspicuous one’(4.123). When Ruskin came to discuss justice in relation to society in the 1860s, the idea of dynamic symmetry remained a vital part of his argument.

Ruskin’s theory of typical beauty can be seen to depend on two potentially opposing principles: Unity and Energy. Both classical and Romantic aesthetics express a desire for totality: how that unity is achieved and what it consists of is the difference between them. In spite of the Neoclassical leanings Ruskin at times displays, Ruskin’s Unity is finally that of the Romantics, an organic unity which comprehends variety and perceives the One in an infinitely variable and changing series of forms. This can be seen in his description of Purity, or the type of Divine energy. Purity is a condition of Light, and so partakes of that all-embracing type, but it is also a condition of Life. It is only when particles of matter are together in their pure form that their energy is released. If they are mixed with impurities, or do not cooperate (and all Ruskin’s unities imply cooperation), they are incapable of ‘vital or energetic action’ (4.129). The idea foreshadows later social criticism. In his parallels with cooperation in human, animal and botanical form, Ruskin again comes near to ideas of vital beauty; this need not be seen as a confusion, but as a synthesis of the two processes by which the theoretic faculty perceives the relationship between God and nature, in the beautiful:

It is either the record of conscience, written in things external, or it is a symbolizing of Divine attributes in matter, or it is the felicity of living things, or the perfect fulfillment of their duties and functions. In all cases it is something Divine; either the approving voice of God, the glorious symbol of Him, the evidence of His kind presence, or the obedience to His will by Him induced and supported. [4.210]

The importance of the Evangelical phase in Ruskin’s career should not be underestimated. Knowing, as we do, that he eventually abandoned his early faith, it is tempting to dismiss his Evangelical theory of beauty as an early attempt to rationalize and integrate the various influences that played upon him as a young man, and then move on to the middle and later period of his life when the material is less organized, his [61/62] experience of both art and life is greater, and his insights seem more profound. This view has been encouraged by Ruskin himself, who did not publish another volume of Modern Painters for ten years, until 1856, by which time he rejected both the literary style and the Evangelical atmosphere of Modern Painters 2. In his final years, however, he came to realize the value of what he had been saying.

Evangelical typology is the source of the most important feature of Ruskin’s theory and practice: the ability to treat objects both as real and complete in themselves, and as expressions of higher things. He was a materialist and an idealist at the same time. This duality is resolved dialectically, by accepting that objects are both real and symbolic. Even when Ruskin’s faith faltered, the types of beauty continued to express higher things, for as ‘conditions and modes of being’ (4.128) they remained visual expressions of the moral qualities needed for the right ordering of human society.

Ruskin’s concern to prove that beauty has an objective existence led him to develop an aesthetic which tries to identify the abstract visual qualities in a work of art. To put it more simply, the types of beauty describe those formal qualities which are pleasing regardless of the work’s content. A work with no figurative or representational content can be discussed in terms of Ruskin’s types. The value of his religious viewpoint was that he accepted the material existence of these forms, as entities independent of man. He did not feel imprisoned in his own subjectivity. Instead he could show that there was a real link between man and nature, in the instinctive response to the visual forms objectively present in the external world. These forms gave delight, and man sought to reproduce them in art.

The connection between nature and art exists at the purely abstract level of a common repertory of visual forms. This was the basis of Ruskin’s argument for ‘natural’ ornament in architecture, by which he meant not the reproduction of certain images of high definition, with fixed meanings as oak leaf or shell, but of the forms which go to make up those images (9.266-67):

Our first constituents of ornament will therefore be abstract lines, that is to say, the most frequent contours of natural objects, transferred to architectural forms, when it is not right or possible to render such forms distinctly imitative. For instance, the line or curve of the edge of a leaf may be accurately given to the edge of a stone, without rendering the stone the least like a leaf, or suggestive of a leaf, because the lines of nature are alike in all her works; simpler or richer in combination, but the same in character. [62/63]

Ruskin illustrates the common repertory of forms with a diagram comparing the curvature of mountain glaciers, trees, plants, and shells.

Abstract Lines. John Ruskin. 1856 or 1857. This drawing served as an illustration to Volume l of The Stones of Venice (1851) to demonstrate that architectural ornament should be based on the abstract lines derived from natural shapes, a-b: the curve of glacier near Chamonix; d-c, e-g, i-k: curves in mountain ranges; h: a branch of spruce fir; 1-m, q-r, s-t, u-w: leaf shapes; n-o: the lip of a snail shell; p: a worm spiral. See 9.266-9. Ruskin points out that these curves demonstrate the type of Infinity, or Divine Incomprehensibility. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Since such forms have an objective existence, Ruskin was able to explain how irreligious men were capable of producing works of art as beautiful as those of religious men. Since the types of beauty are perceived instinctively and unconsciously, they can also be reproduced unconsciously, without the artist making the moral connection.

Ruskin did make the moral connection, and read the visual forms as symbols of the Divine. It was vital for his theories of the imagination that he should, and it is vital for our understanding of Ruskin to treat him as a symbolic writer, who yet believed in the material existence of these symbols. In this view of nature as real and symbolic two key elements stand out: Life and Light, both expressed by the type of Purity, or Divine energy. In choosing light as the highest expression of God, Ruskin has all the authority of the Bible behind him: ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1: 5). He was also in the tradition of a long line of thinkers.5 The order of the creation in Genesis is first the earth without form, then light, the dry land, life; so that light and life are inextricably connected as the two expressions of God which inform the natural world (and of course this is more than metaphor: we could not exist without light). By life he meant a sense of healthy and cooperative energy, which links the physical with the spiritual. Through the theory of typical beauty he had achieved a resolution of Romantic, scientific and Evangelical thought, and he had discovered that, if the theory were applied to painting, landscape art ‘might become an instrument of gigantic moral power, and that the demonstration of this high function, and the elevation of some careless sketch or conventional composition into the studied sermon and inspired poem, was an end worthy of my utmost labour’ (3.666).

In Modern Painters 1 Ruskin gave a celebrated piece of advice to young painters. He told them to go to nature ‘rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth’ (3.624). His theory of typical beauty reinforces that advice, by showing that it is in nature that the sources of pleasure in art are to be found. In 1851 he was delighted to discover that a group of young painters seemed to have been carrying out his principles without any personal intervention from him: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.6 The finished accuracy of Holman Hunt and Millais was exactly in tune with his own emphasis on the ‘facts’ of nature. [63/64]

Ruskin seized on the emergence of the PRB as ammunition for his attacks on the picturesque, and from his very first comment on the Pre-Raphaelites in a letter to The Times he stressed the difference between them and the picturesque school: ‘They intend to return to early days in this one point only — that, as far as in them lies, they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent, irrespective of any conventional rules of picture-making’ (12.322). Whereas the picturesque artist selected a principal subject and left the rest vague, the Pre-Raphaelite made every detail significant, and the very readability of his work made it accessible to everybody, rich or poor: ‘The old art of trick and tradition had no language but for the connoisseur; this natural art speaks to all men: around it daily circles of sympathy will enlarge; pictures will become gradually as necessary to domestic life as books’ (14.152).


Val d'Aosta. John Brett. 1858.

[Click on image to enlarge it.]

Welcome though this praise was to the group of young painters who were producing realist landscapes, Ruskin’s defence contained an important proviso. He praised them because of ‘their fidelity to a certain order of truth’; but it was not enough merely to abandon the picturesque mode of vision. The close study of the facts of nature was only a first step in the process of creation; there must be something more if the artist was to perceive the inner laws of landscape. The types of beauty ‘are not presented by any very great work of art in a form of pure transcript. They invariably receive the reflection of the mind under whose influence they have passed, and are modified or coloured by its image. This modification is the Work of Imagination’ (4.223).

It must have been a bitter disappointment to John Brett to read Ruskin’s notice of his landscape of the Val d’Aosta (ill. 22) at the Royal Academy in 1859. Ruskin had suggested the subject to him, and advised him as he painted it. The picture satisfied all Ruskin’s criteria of geological and meteorological accuracy, but it was not enough:

it seems to me wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world. There seems to me no awe of the mountains there — no real love of the chestnuts or the vines. Keenness of eye and fineness of hand as much as you choose; but of emotion, or of intention, nothing traceable. [14.236]

These higher requirements of the artist are the subject of the following chapter.

Last modified 30 April 2024