uskin's "Of Truth of Water" defines water as "the best emblem of unwearied, unconquerable power, the wild, various, fantastic, tameless unity of the sea. " He suggests the "most wonderful" substance, water, consistent with "changefulness of beauty" — hence, why Ruskin compares its capturing to the capturing one's soul on canvas. Within the prophetic writing, Ruskin deems the element uncapturable — at least perfectly — is painting water truthfully "is beyond the power of man."

Often Ruskin finds ignorance in modern painter's perception, since they do not paint according to what they see, but according to "habit of sketching from nature without thinking or reasoning." Though his criticisms of old painters appear vicious and harsh, Ruskin admits he lacks such reasoning as well, and thus, humbled, consistently criticizes the ignorance of water paintings. The emotional tone carried throughout the chapter stems from his disappointment that "there is no perfect or even tolerably perfect sea painting to refer to" as essentially true, even pure.

Despite acknowledging the impossibility of capturing water, Ruskin, rather paradoxically proceeds in explaining how the element should be seen. After detailing "general optical laws which are to be taken into consideration in the painting of water," he, once again, reverts to a painter's fallacy of ignorance. In criticizing of Canaletto's ripples, Ruskin points out how his ignorance of "optical laws" represents an "inexcusable violation of the truth." These laws, then, are considered the truth to Ruskin.


1. In the Preface to the First Edition of Modern Painters, Ruskin states:

The reputation of the great artist to whose works I have chiefly referred, is established on too legitimate grounds amongst all whose admiration is honourable, to be in any way affected by the ignorant sarcasms of pretension and affection, But when public taste seems plunging deeper and deeper into degradation day by day, and when the press universally exerts such power as it possesses to direct feeling of the nation more completely to all that is theatrical, affected, and false in art; while it vents its ribaldry on the most exalted truth, and the highest ideal of landscape that this or any other age has ever witnessed, it becomes the imperative duty of all who have any perception or knowledge of what is really great in art, and any desire for its advancement in England, to come fearlessly forward, regardless of such individual interests as are likely to be injured by the knowledge of what is good and right, to declare and demonstrate, wherever they exist, the essence and authority of the Beautiful and the True.

From, this excerpt, what can be gathered about Ruskin's opinion on public criticism? Does Ruskin really have enough knowledge about "truthful" art to criticize modern painters? Why would painters, and others, listen to Ruskin's words despite his ignorance?

2. Ruskin numbers "optical laws" First, Second, Third, and so on. Why would he choose this numbering method? Why would this strategy be received poorly? Is he insulting artist's intelligence and skills?

3. Which would Ruskin agree more with? Art must be taught or art is inherently natural.

4. Would contemporary painters think Ruskin's laws elementary? Do you think Ruskin's writing for a distinct audience or merely for the betterment of English art?

Last modified 7 April 2009

6 May 2019