The second chapter of John Ruskin's Modern Painters vol. 1, "On the Truth of Color," ends on a surprising note. Throughout most of the chapter, Ruskin employs vigorous and vividly poetic rhetoric to describe the color of nature and Turner's truthful reproduction of that color. Yet despite all the lyricism and emotion Ruskin brings to bear on his discussion of color, he ends the chapter by downplaying the intrinsic significance of color. Ruskin indicates that he values color not for its own sake but as a tool for the expression of deeper truths:

Powerful and captivating and faithful as his colour is, it is the least important of all his excellencies, because it is the least important feature of nature. He paints in color, but he thinks in light and shade; and were it necessary, rather than lose one line of his forms, or one ray of his sunshine, would, I apprehend, be content to paint in black and white to the end of his life. [&] With him, as with all the greatest painters, and in Turners more than all, the hue is a beautiful auxiliary in working out the great impression to be conveyed, but is not the source nor the essence of that impression; it is little more than a visible melody, given to raise and assist the mind in the reception of nobler ideasas sacred passages of sweet sound, to prepare the feelings for the reading of the mysteries of God. [168-170]


1. What is the point of the color/music analogy in the final sentence? What similarities does Ruskin see between color in painting and sacred music?

2. Ruskin seems to say here that painters should use color to aid the viewer's understanding of certain ideas or meanings. However, he suggested earlier in the chapter that the goal of the colorist should be to capture the truth of natural color. Is there a contradiction here, or can these two positions be reconciled?

3. Does Ruskin believe that the two functions of color — the didactic function and the mimetic function — are mutually exclusive? Or does he believe that a painter can both capture the truth of color and use color to lead the viewer to greater truths? Did the Pre-Raphaelites attempt to do this, and if so, how?

4. How does all this relate to Ruskin's discussion of typological symbolism, as summarized in "Influence of John Ruskin on the PRB"? Does Ruskin believe that painters should pursue truth in color in order to create more realistic symbolic images?

Last modified 30 April 2024