Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Ideal Form
Natarajan, Uttara, Philological Quarterly
In an essay first published in Macmillan's Magazine in March 1887, and later republished in 1890 in his Essays in English Literature 1780-1860, George Saintsbury makes what must appear to present-day commentators, a surprisingly large claim for Hazlitt's legacy to the Victorians. Listing as Hazlitt's heirs, Macauley, Thackeray, Dickens, and Carlyle, Saintsbury goes on to mention, almost in passing: "As for art ... I shall only, in reference to this last subject, observe that the singularly germinal character of Hazlitt's work is noticeable here also; for no one who reads the essay on Nicholas Poussin will fail to add Mr. Ruskin to Hazlitt's fair herd of literary children." (1) Yet Saintsbury is no adulator, and is as ready to assert Hazlitt's faults ("He screams, he foams at the mouth, he gnashes and tears and kicks.... His remarks on Burke ... suggest temporary insanity") as he is to establish his merits. (2) His assessment of Hazlitt's importance to the writers of the mid-nineteenth century is thus the more worthy of notice. His indication of Hazlitt's presence in Ruskin's comments on Poussin is my basis here for the recovery of a much larger intellectual debt This essay will show that Hazlitt is central to the version of realism that is theorized in Ruskin's writings of the mid-1840s. The "singularly germinal character" of Hazlitt's writing feeds into that part of Ruskin's that is in turn singularly germinal, so that Hazlitt in some measure contributes to Ruskin's impact upon his age.
HAZLITT AS RUSKIN'S SOURCE
Ruskin alludes to Poussin in his "Preface" to the second edition of Modern Painters I (1844), as a model that Reynolds might have kept in mind, for the "elevated ideal character of landscape," going on to describe "the true ideal of landscape" as "the expression of the specific ... characters of every object, in their perfection" (3:27). (3) Poussin's attention to the specific details of nature, so as to exemplify the "true ideal" is the point principally made in Hazlitt's essay, "On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin"; in another essay, "On the Portrait of an English Lady, by Vandyke," Hazlitt describes Poussin's painting of Adam and Eve as "the very ideal of landscape painting." (4) Both essays are republished some months after the publication of the second edition of Modern Painters I, and Ruskin may or may not have had a prior knowledge of them at the time of writing his "Preface." That he had read, by 1843, Hazlitt's Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England (1824), is evident from his direct and disparaging quotations in the first edition of Modern Painters I, where he not only dismisses (and misrepresents) Hazlitt's artistic judgement, but also ridicules his epithets, "pulpy" and "downy" (3:350). His knowledge at this point of other of Hazlitt's essays on art, such as the essay on Poussin, is less certain. But more important than the particular instance of Poussin, is the theory that Poussin is adduced to exemplify by Ruskin, of an ideal that, contrary to Reynolds's principles, is embodied in specific form. In that theory, we find Ruskin's most significant debt to Hazlitt.
The first volume of Modern Painters was published in 1843. It was Ruskin's first major work, and as such, the foundation and first stage of what was to become the most influential body of art criticism in the nineteenth century. Also published some months later in the same year, 1843, was the first volume of a collection of Hazlitt's writings on art, edited by his son, and entitled, Criticisms on Art. In 1844, the second edition of Modern Painters was published with a new "Preface," in which Ruskin propounds for the first time, and to silence his critics, a theory of the ideal, formulated in retrospect to justify the principles of criticism already set out in his text. In so doing, he draws substantially--although without acknowledgement--on Hazlitt's theory of the ideal, as contained, especially, in two essays in the first volume of Criticisms, "On the Fine Arts" and "On the Elgin Marbles."
In an excellent essay, entitled "Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Nineteenth-Century Art Criticism," William C. Wright argues painstakingly and in some detail, Ruskin's knowledge of Hazlitt? Wright's primary comparison is between Ruskin's "Preface" to the first edition of Modern Painters I, and Hazlitt's article on the fine arts in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His object is to counter the dismissal of Hazlitt by Ruskin scholars by pointing to the correspondence between Hazlitt and Ruskin, to establish both that Hazlitt's stature as a critic of art is comparable, if not equal, to Ruskin's, and the possibility of plagiarism. My own comparison is based on another Hazlitt text, and my claim for Hazlitt is somewhat larger than Wright's. (6) Via the Criticisms, the theory of the ideal that Ruskin propounds in 1844 "Preface" can be traced directly to Hazlitt, and that theory is fundamental to the subsequent development of Ruskin's thought.
RUSKIN'S HAZLITTIAN IDEAL
Prior to the publication of the Criticisms on Art, in his brief comment on ideal beauty in the first edition of Modern Painters I, Ruskin is already so far close to Hazlitt that he insists on the specific characteristics of the ideal. "Few, if any, individuals possess ... the utmost degree of beauty of which the species is capable. This utmost degree of specific beauty, necessarily coexistent with the utmost perfection of the object in other respects, is the ideal of the object" (3:111). Whether, at this stage, Ruskin arrives at his definition independently of Hazlitt, or whether he is already drawing on Hazlitt's essay "On the Fine Arts" (first published in 1816 in the Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and appearing in the uniform issue as late as 1842) (7) is nearly impossible to ascertain. In either case, the correspondence with Hazlitt's criteria for the ideal exists from the first appearance of Modern Painters I, and it manifests already, Ruskin's commitment to the governing principle of Modern Painters I and of all of his writing thereafter: particularity. On the other hand, the relation of particular and ideal, and indeed the whole topic of the ideal, is only touched upon in that single cursory comment in the first edition. It is not until the "Preface" to the second edition that Ruskin begins to develop a theory of the ideal, based on the principle of particularity, that enables him to surmount, as he puts it later, "that unfortunate distinction between Idealism and Realism which leads most people to imagine the Ideal opposed to the Real" (4:164). That development is enabled largely by his reading of Hazlitt's Criticisms on Art.
In the essay "On the Fine Arts" in the first volume of Criticisms, Hazlitt disputes Reynolds's principle, indiscriminately applied, as he claims, to "portrait, history, and landscape," that "the great style in art, and the most PERFECT IMITATION OF NATURE, consists in avoiding the details and peculiarities of particular objects." (8) Countering that principle in his essay "On the Elgin Marbles," he states "that art is (first and last) the imitation of nature," where "By nature we mean actually existing nature ... not an idea of nature existing solely in the mind, got from an infinite number of different objects, but which was never yet embodied in an individual instance." "The highest art," therefore, "is the imitation of the finest nature" and "the ideal is only the selecting a particular form which expresses most completely the idea of a given character or quality." (9)
Alluding to Reynolds in just Hazlitt's vein, Ruskin writes in the "Preface" to the second edition of Modern Painters I,
the violation of specific form, the utter abandonment of all organic and individual character of object ... is constantly held up by the unthinking critic as the foundation of the grand or historical style, and the first step to the attainment of a pure ideal. Now there is but one grand style, in the treatment of all subjects whatsoever, and that style is based on the perfect knowledge ... of the specific characters of the given object, be it man, beast, or flower.... Every alteration of the features of nature has its origin either in powerless indolence or blind audacity. (3:25)
Barring its evangelical tendency, the purport of Ruskin's comments is nearly identical to Hazlitt's. The notion of "ideal form" that is to figure so largely in Modern Painters H and III is propounded for the first time in the 1844 "Preface," written after the publication of the first volume of Hazlitt's Criticisms on Art. ("Idealized form" is present also in the only substantial addition that Ruskin makes to the main body of the text of the second edition [3:625].) The correspondence between the "specific form" of Ruskin's ideal and the "particular form" of Hazlitt's is notable.
Most telling, perhaps, is Ruskin's subsequent assertion, that "The true ideal of landscape is precisely the same as that of the human form," and his reference, in the same paragraph, to a "severe simplicity, as in the muscular markings in a colossal statue" (3. 27). That association of ideas, between the ideal human form, simplicity, muscle, and a colossal statue can be traced directly to Hazlitt's comments on the Elgin marbles. In the essay "On the Fine Arts," Hazlitt remarks "that entire and naked simplicity which pervades the whole of the Elgin Marbles:" (10) and in the essay "On the Elgin Marbles," he attends especially to their muscular detail. Ruskin's editors, picking up on another possible reference to the marbles in the 1844 "Preface," note that "Ruskin at this time often went to the British Museum to study the Elgin marbles" (3. 35n), and we might infer, either that he was prompted in so doing by Hazlitt's writings, or that, studying the marbles, his attention was naturally directed to Hazlitt's observations. The ideal of the human form, as embodied in the marbles, is the basis of Hazlitt's counter to Reynolds and Ruskin applies Hazlitt's description of the marbles to his own criteria for landscape painting in the 1844 "Preface."
HAZLITT'S THEORY OF ABSTRACTION
That the topics of "ideal form" and particularity, the grand or historical style in painting, the criticism of Reynolds, the ideal of landscape in Poussin, and the ideal of the human form in the Elgin marbles, are connected in Ruskin's 1844 "Preface," exactly as they are in an edition of Hazlitt's art criticism that just precedes that "Preface," is not coincidental. Ruskin's debt to Hazlitt is far-reaching. The symbiotic relation between particular and ideal, at the heart of Hazlitt's philosophy, passes directly to Ruskin. With reference to art, that symbiosis is expressed as a relation between grandeur and detail. In Hazlitt's Criticisms, "The utmost grandeur of outline, and the broadest masses of light and shade, are perfectly compatible with the utmost minuteness and delicacy of detail." "The gross style consists in giving no detail, the finical in giving nothing else.... The union of both kinds of excellence ... is that which has established the reputation of the most successful imitators of nature." By displaying, "besides the grandeur of form, all the minutiae and individual details ... that subsist in nature," the "Elgin Marbles give a flat contradiction to this gratuitous separation of grandeur of design and exactness of detail, as incompatible in works of art." (11) In turn, Ruskin paraphrases,
The rapid and powerful artist necessarily looks with such contempt on those who see minutiae of detail rather than grandeur of impression, that it is almost impossible for him to conceive of the last great step of art by which both become compatible.... Thus, frequently to the latest period of his life, he separates, like Sir Joshua, as chief enemies, the details and the whole, which an artist cannot be great unless he reconciles; and because details alone, and unreferred to a final purpose, are the sign of a tyro's work, he loses sight of the remoter truth, that details perfect in unity, and contributing to a final purpose, are the sign of the production of a consummate master. (3:32)
Ruskin follows Hazlitt, then, in reprobating equally the art that consists in nothing but detail and the art that contains no detail at all. The first kind of art is exemplified for both writers by the works of the Dutch painters, and both hold up Titian, by contrast, for his successful rendering of detail. (12)
The notion of an ideal characterised by its particularity or, synonymously, of grandeur produced from detail, belongs to a doctrine or principle of abstraction that is the defining tenet of Hazlitt's philosophy. In his Lectures on English Philosophy, Hazlitt dismisses Locke's contention, that an abstract idea is purely general, with no reference to actual or particular experience, and at the same time, dismisses also Berkeley's denial of abstraction altogether, in the thesis that since all ideas are particular, there is no such thing as an abstract idea. Instead, he propounds a theory of abstraction that denies both the purely abstract and the merely particular, defining an abstract idea as an "aggregate" of a number of particulars. (13) To Hazlitt, all particulars are generals, "and the only difference between abstract and particular, is that of being more or less general." (14) The process of generalization or abstraction begins in the mind's innate tendency to unification or whole-making, that is, in its idealizing tendency.
By implication, all generals, where they are aggregates of particulars, are ideal insofar as they comprise a unity, and the greater the number of particulars comprising that unity, the greater the unity, and the more ideal. Thus, in the Criticisms on Art, "ideal perfection ... consist[s] ... in following up the same general idea ... through every ramification of the frame"; particularity is contained in that "every ramification of the frame." (15) Particularity not only does not negate, but actually attests to ideal character.
The ideal of the Criticisms is an aggregate or abstraction in Hazlitt's sense, in that it is an organization of details into a whole, and it is also more than the mere reproduction of detail, because it is a whole, a unity. Grandeur in art is the unity of parts and the whole; in Hazlitt's essay "On the Elgin Marbles," "grandeur consists in connecting a number of parts into a whole, and not in leaving out the parts." Unity or connection is the condition of the ideal, and because its make-up is particular, such an ideal can also be referred to actual or empirical existence. Indeed empirical existence ("nature" or "truth") can itself be described as ideal, so far as it constitutes a unity: "truth is to a certain degree beauty and grandeur, since all things are connected, and all things modify one another in nature. Simplicity is also grand and beautiful for the same reason." (16) The conceptual links, between unity, grandeur, and simplicity, reappear in the conjunction of those terms in Ruskin's declaration in the 1844 "Preface," that "... the power and grandeur of his [the artist's] result will be exactly proportioned to the unity of feeling manifested in its several parts, and to the propriety and simplicity of the relations in which they stand to each other" (3:41).
A DIVERGENCE OF USAGE
There is one respect that should be considered, perhaps, in which Ruskin departs from Hazlitt in the 1844 "Preface," and that is, his usage of the term "specific." Unlike Hazlitt, Ruskin deliberately distinguishes "specific" from "individual," so as to set species above individuals. In the text of Modern Painters I, he has already expressed the superiority of a truth of species to a truth of individuals. "The qualities and properties which characterize man or any other animal as a species, are the perfection of his or its form and mind, almost all individual differences arising from imperfections; hence a truth of species is the more valuable to art, because it must always be a beauty, while a truth of individuals is commonly in some sort or way, a defect" (3:153). In the 1844 "Preface," accordingly, "The true ideal of landscape ... is the expression of the specific--not the individual, but the specific--characters of every object, in their perfection. There is an ideal form of every herb, flower, and tree, and it is that form to which every individual of the species has a tendency to arrive, freed from the influence of accident or disease" (3:27). Perfection of this kind, "rejecting the peculiarities of individuals, and retaining only what is common to the species," is what Hazlitt imputes to Reynolds, (17) and it might indicate in Ruskin, at this stage, some continuing deference to Reynolds. On the other hand, Ruskin's nice discriminations, of "genus," "species," and "individual," to enable an ideal that is specific but not individual, exaggerate a divergence that is not in fact essential. It is true that in the 1844 "Preface," "greatness of manner chiefly consists in seizing the specific character of the object, together with all the great qualities of beauty which it has in common with higher orders of existence, while he utterly rejects the meaner beauties which are accidentally peculiar to the object, and yet not specifically characteristic of it" (3:33). But it is also the case that idealization, so defined, has as much in common with Hazlitt as it does with Reynolds. As Hazlitt explains it, idealization consists in the combination of details into a whole, and also in the selection and elision of details that falls to the artist. In the lecture "On Abstract Ideas," "the same process ... is absolutely necessary to our most particular notions of things, as well as our most general, namely, that of abstracting from particulars, or of passing over the minute differences of things, taking them in the gross, and attending to the general effect." (18) Just such a process of abstraction is effected by the idealizing artist in the essay "On the Fine Arts": "abstract truth, or ideal perfection does not consist in rejecting the peculiarities of form, but in rejecting all those which are not consistent with the character intended to be given." (19) Hazlitt's criterion in elision is consistency; Ruskin's (and it is here that he closest to Reynolds), "greatness," opposed to "meanness," of detail. But Hazlitt himself is so far close to Reynolds that he permits an editing or elision of detail in the first place. The distinction on which Hazlitt harps so repeatedly consists in this: to Hazlitt, the end of such elision is the intensification or accentuation of particular character; to Reynolds, as he is glossed by Hazlitt and Ruskin, the end is to eradicate particularity.
What is valuable to Ruskin in Hazlitt's theory of abstraction, as it informs his theory of the ideal, is that it upholds simultaneously and without contradiction, both the imaginative and the empirical origin of truth. As a unity, the ideal attests to the creative power of the artist, as particular, to his fidelity to nature. In the fuller treatment of the ideal in the second volume of Modern Painters (1845), where Ruskin maintains, without sacrifice to either, empirical as well as imaginative validity, the distinction of "individual" and "specific" recedes.
"I wish to examine how far this perfection exists, or may exist, in nature, and, if not in nature, how it is by us discoverable or imaginable" (4:167). Starting his inquiry into ideal form in Modern Painters II with the consideration of the lower animals, Ruskin finds that "entire generic form" exists in many animals, "neither would any art be able to add to or diminish from it" (4:168). Individuality, here, already accommodates the generic, and it becomes more and more pronounced as the inquiry proceeds. Thus, where the complex forms of plant life are concerned, the wild oak is more ideal in its deformity than the park oak, in its perfection, because the first is more natural: "The wild oak may be anything, gnarled, and leaning, and shattered, and rock-encumbered, and yet ideal, so only that, amidst all its misfortunes, it maintain the dignity of oak" (4:170). At this point, Ruskin is no longer distinguishing "individual" and "specific" in his characterization of the ideal: "The task of the painter, in his pursuit of ideal form, is to attain accurate knowledge, so far as may be in his power, of the peculiar virtues, duties, and characters of every species of being; ... and it is in the utmost and most exalted exhibition of such individual character, order, and use, that all ideality of art consists" (4:173; my italics). Like Hazlitt before him, Ruskin describes idealization as a kind of abstraction, whose end is not the eradication, but the intensification, of individuality. (20) When he finally turns to the topic of what he calls the "bodily ideal," he has so far discarded or modified the notion of individuality as deformity, as not only to proclaim that "in investigating the signs of the ideal or perfect type of humanity, we must not presume on the singleness of that type," but also that "we have not to banish from the ideal countenance the evidences of sorrow, nor of past suffering, nor even of past and conquered sin" (4:183-86). If elision is integral to the idealizing of the human form, then such elision may not be at the expense of individuality: "no right ideal can be reached by any combination of feature nor by any moulding and melting of individual beauties together, and still less without model.... It is usual to hear portraiture opposed to the pursuit of ideality, and yet we find that no face can be ideal which is not a portrait." Such a conclusion is exactly Hazlitt's: "each image in art should have a tally or corresponding prototype in some object in nature." (21)
Thus the lacuna in the history of English art criticism between Reynolds and Ruskin can be shown to be occupied by Hazlitt, the primary proponent of a distinctly romantic aesthetics, with its basis in a philosophical idealism. (22) By absorbing the theory of the ideal contained in Hazlitt's Criticisms on Art, Ruskin is absorbing at the same time, the key implications of Hazlitt's philosophy, that the ideal can be understood as inseparable, indeed, identical, with the real, where "real" refers to actual existence, the existence of things in nature, and that such an identity, enabled only in literary and artistic practice, exalts the practice that so enables it. Hazlitt is key to the transition from Reynolds to Ruskin, his theory enabling the symbiosis of realism and idealism that is fundamental to Ruskin's thinking about art in Modern Pr, inters H and from then onwards. If the argument--far beyond the scope of this essay--can be made that that theory is transmitted in turn through Ruskin to the great writers of realist fiction, among them Charlotte Bronti and George Eliot, on whom Ruskin had so profound an impact, (23) then Saintsbury's claim, of "the singularly germinal character of Hazlitt's work," might be spectacularly vindicated.
University of London
(1.) George Saintsbury, Essays in English Literature 1780-1860 (London: Percival, 1890), 157.
(2.) Ibid., 152.
(3.) All quotations from Ruskin are taken from The Works of John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1903-12). References are by volume and page.
(4.) William Hazlitt, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent, 1930-34), 8:170; 12:292.
(5.) William C. Wright, "Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Nineteenth-Century Art Criticism," JAAC 32 (1974), 509-23.
(6.) That the dates of publication of the first volume of Hazlitt's Criticisms on Art and Ruskin's 1844 "Preface" tally so nearly is not treated as significant by Wright, yet it is the close concurrence between these two texts that furnishes the strongest proof of influence. Hazlitt's writings on the Elgin marbles, which Wright, failing to take the Criticisms into consideration, does not touch upon at all, are integral to that proof.
(7.) See Howe's note, Hazlitt, Works, 18:433n.
(8.) William Hazlitt, Criticisms on Art, ed. by his son, 2 vols. (London: John Templeman, 1843-44), 1:207.
(9.) Ibid., 1:249, 251,250, 250-51.
(10.) Ibid., 1:163.
(11.) Ibid., 1:208, 209, 245.
(12.) See ibid., 1:178-179, 210 and cf. the 1844 "Preface," 3:32-33.
(13.) See the lecture "On Abstract Ideas" in Hazlitt, Works, 2:191-215. For a detailed explication of the symbiosis of particular and universal in Hazlitt's doctrine of abstraction, see my Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense: Criticism, Morals, and the Metaphysics of Power (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), especially 131-41.
(14.) Hazlitt, Works, 2:209.
(15.) Hazlitt, "On the Fine Arts," Criticisms, 1:214.
(16.) Ibid., 1:250.
(17.) Ibid., 1:114.
(18.) Hazlitt, Works, 2:209.
(19.) Hazlitt, Criticisms, 1:214.
(20.) The correspondence between Hazlitt and Ruskin in the account of idealization as a process of abstraction whereby the particular is intensified is noted briefly by Henry Ladd in The Victorian Morality of Art: An Analysis of Ruskin's Esthetic (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 214 and 384n. Ladd, assuming Ruskin's ignorance of Hazlitt, posits coincidence rather than influence.
(21.) "On the Elgin Marbles," Hazlitt, Criticisms, 1:251.
(22.) My case for Hazlitt's idealism is made fully in nay book, Hazlitt and the Reach of Sense.
(23.) See Cook and Wedderburn's 'Introduction' to Modern Painters I, 4:39.…
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Publication information: Article title: Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Ideal Form. Contributors: Natarajan, Uttara - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 81. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 493+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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