Hazlitt, Ruskin, and Ideal Form

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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.


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. …


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