uskin begins the chapter "Of Truth of Color" (in Volume I of Modern Painters) with a comparison of a painting by Poussin and his own experience with the scene depicted. The author's windswept, stormy visit to that stretch of road in Italy differs wildly fromthe tranquil scene located in the National Gallery. Although Modern Painters was written in defense of J.M.W. Turner and his work, Ruskin clearly understands that man cannot really imitate nature. Yet Modern Painters and Ruskin had great influence in the ideas and founding of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB). In the excerpt below, Ruskin addresses the problem of imitating nature and the impossibility of this task.

There must yet be a distinct difference in the impression we convey, because we cannot approach her light. All such hues are usually given by her with an accompanying intensity of sunbeams which dazzles and overpowers the eye, so that it cannot rest on the actual colors, nor understand what they are; and hence in art, in rendering all effects of this kind, there must be a want of the ideas of imitation, which are the great source of enjoyment to the ordinary observer.

Yet having posited that it is impossible to present reality in art, Ruskin continues to believe in art and the artist. Ruskin continues with a description of the great painter:

He will give you, or state to you, such truths as are in his power, completely and perfectly; and those which he cannot vie, he will leave to your imagination. If you are acquainted with nature, you will know all he has given to be true, and you will supply from your memory and from your heart that light which he cannot give. If you are unacquainted with nature, seek elsewhere for whatever you may happen to satisfy your feelings; but do not ask for the truth which you would not acknowledge and could not enjoy. [Source (outside the Victorian Web]

Ruskin on the one hand renounces the human ability to perceive reality fully, and yet at the same time, he reaffirms our individual ability really to experience art. Nature, reality, comes from within each individual, and the artist and his public work ultimately serves as a conduit to a very private experience.


Ruskin proposes that it is through realizing the limitations of art and the artist that a true understanding of nature develops. Does this allocation of responsibility, the need for the full engagement of the viewer, translate into the works of the PRB?

Does Ruskin resolve this paradox between the public work and the private individual?

In describing the sensitive viewer of art, Ruskin almost sounds discriminatory — one is either capable of understanding the truth or else he is sent away to find some other paltry source of satisfaction. Do the PRB address this at all?

Is the realization of the finite limits of humanity a sign of the times? Of the limitations of science and experience? And how is this resolved with the author's faith (and later loss of faith)?

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Last modified 30 April 2024