[An abstract of a presentation delivered at the July 1995 Symposium in Sante Fe, New Mexico, on the occasion of the world premiere of David Lang and Manuela Holterhof's opera about Ruskin, Modern Painters.]

Decorative Initial Anyone familiar with John Ruskin's extensive writings on society knows that his virulent denunciations of the elite classes of his industrial age are virtually without parallel in the literature (in comparison, Marx's excoriations appear somewhat tame). Over a course of twenty years — between 1857 and 1877 — in The Political Economy of Art, Unto This Last, Munera Pulveris, The Crown of Wild Olive, Sesame and Lilies, Time and Tide, and the "letters to workingmen" he called Fors Clavigera, Ruskin authored a series of attacks quite literally designed to bite the hand that had fed and bred him. With neither compunction nor equivocation, he accused the upper classes of his day of an obsessive, society-destroying "rage to be rich," of being utterly devoid of compassion for their fellow human beings, of living lives foppish and vacuous, of being devils incarnate masked in Christian trappings. For someone raised in an upstanding, quiescent upper middle class family, a prize-winning graduate of Oxford, who, before 1860, had been primarily known as a brilliant critic of landscape art and the unflagging champion of the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, this transition to unstinting reviler was wholly unexpected and shocking. This paper explains how this remarkable transition came about.

Everyone conversant with the Ruskin story is aware that his marriage to Euphemia ("Effie") Gray was a complete disaster — socially, emotionally, sexually. Further, everyone knows that the union came to an end astonishing for the age: an annulment (1854) based on the charge (attested to by physical examination and never contested by Ruskin) that, after five years, the marriage remained unconsummated. Finally, everyone is aware that, after this official sundering and the passage of the absolute minimum of time necessary to uphold the Victorian era's strictures regarding decorous behavior, Effie married John Everett Millais (with whom she would go on to have eight children), the well-known Pre-Raphaelite painter who, with the Ruskins' complete, eager acquiescence, had been the strained couple's intimate since 1851.

Against these familiar facts, I will suggest that Ruskin's divorce, coming as it did at a crucial juncture of his psychological development (he was 36 at the time), was the one thing most needful for facilitating his transition from a renowned art maven into an analyst whose tremendous power with the pen had the ability, when trained on targets social, to upset and infuriate an entire generation of privileged and powerful English elites with its truth-telling and embarrassing exposures. I will suggest further that, while it is doubtful that Ruskin in any way consciousty "engineered" the intensifying, surreptitious attraction that was developing between Millais and his wife, he was secretly delighted when that romantic attachment surfaced. As a result, as the proceedings Effie and her family instigated against him progressed, Ruskin refused to raise a finger in his own defense (though this choice eventuated in painful public ridicule) because he desired, at all costs, to be free of Effie and the real and symbolic obligations which their on-going, deeply troubled, union demanded.

To save his "manly reputation," of course, he could have chosen to close it — he was, after all, the aggrieved husband. However, such an option, in Ruskin's mind, was not even worthy of second thought. Silently accepting his soiled public reputation, he stepped through the opening and never once looked back with regret. A few months later, alone, watching the sun set over his beloved Alps, his diary entries and letters home relate that in the next few years he finished the last three volumes of Modern Painters. But these, unlike the two previous, now had a strikingly different tone. No longer were they "merely" arguments for one form of art, one artist, as opposed to another. The Stones of Venice had been the turning point. From the divorce onward, all of Ruskin's books were primarily moral arguments, sociological arguments. All great art, he wrote in these volumes (and then demonstrated with a lucidity that has not been duplicated since), is moral, reflective of the compassion and justice of its age; the greatest art, therefore, is reflective of the greatest — i.e., the most moral — society: hence Venice's deserved ascendance and honored place as one of the most laudable nations of history; hence his Britain's decadence and equally deserved dishonor. By 1860, the year he published Unto This Last, a scathing attack on the inhumane political economic theory dominating his day (the theory of Smith, Richard, Malthus, Bentham, and Mill), the transition was complete. Never again was Ruskin to write about art for its own sake. The albatross cut off at last, his path was clear. Until the moment, in exhaustion and near madness, when he ceased writing almost three decades later, Ruskin never wrote another word that did not have as its deepest intention the reformation of his social order into one where all human beings could live and work in full health and dignity. Moreover, in all the thousands of pages which this Herculean effort represented, he never let his privileged contemporaries off the hook, unflinchingly arguing to the end that all the fundamental problems and inhumanities of society had been created by, were still being created by, unfeeling, rapacious, perfidious elites.

To his dying day Ruskin was unutterably thankful for the serendipitous gift of John Everett Millais. Knowing the everlasting value of Ruskin's contributions to literature and the theory of society in his post-marital days, we too, late twentieth-century admirers of the man Derek Leon called "the greatest Victorian," should also express our heartfelt thanks for the seductive painter who, a century and a half ago, entered the Ruskins' pained parlor.

Last modified 1 May 2024