Ruskin and Particularity: Fors Clavigera and the 1870s

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Ruskin's relationship with Pre-Raphaelitism was often, and still is often misunderstood. The common assumption is that Ruskin preached a doctrine of art's absolute fidelity to the particularities of the natural world, and that the early Pre-Raphaelites followed this; Ruskin did not inaugurate the movement, but he caught the essence of its convictions and gave them both audible and credible shape. Kineton Parkes is one of many who gave credence to this view. He wrote in 1889: "Mr Ruskin was ever the firm adherent of the school, for he saw quite clearly the truth that underlay their efforts. "To paint Nature--Nature as it was around them, by the help of modern science, was the aim of the brotherhood."(1) The notion that Ruskin's theory of natural fidelity overlapped exactly with the chief of the Brotherhood's aims ironically led Percy Bate in The English Pre-Raphaelite Painters, published the year before Ruskin died, to berate him for misunderstanding them. He pointed out that the Pre-Raphaelites were not, for the most part, slavish followers of "Nature as it was around them"--they exercised choice, they selected, they departed from features of their models according to other aesthetic criteria--and that Ruskin, by supposedly condemning this as a betrayal of Nature, would have confined and limited their work. It "is a matter for question," Bate wrote, "whether [Ruskin] quite grasped the essentials of the Pre-Raphaelite tenets, and whether he did not hem them round with narrower restrictions than they formulated for themselves, and read into their motives much that was purely evolved from his own dreams of what the raison d'etre of their art should be.(2) For Bate, the Pre-Raphaelites only achieved significance when they had ignored or shaken off the apparently Ruskinian imperative to follow Nature in every detail of her particularity.

Bate, like others, misunderstood Ruskin. Ruskin's argument that fidelity to the natural world was crucial was not, of course, the sole content of his aesthetic doctrine: it was the first stage for an artist to perfect before he or she might begin the higher work of imaginative penetration and reconfiguration of Nature to exemplify and teach greater truths. Fidelity to Nature was the starting point, not the end, of great art. In 1878, Ruskin tried to remind his readers of this in The Three Colours of Pre-Raphaelitism, published in the Nineteenth Century. There, after a long discussion of the greatness of Burne Jones, Ruskin discusses the tomb of Ilaria di Caretto, the wife of Paolo Guinigi, by Jacopo della Quercia in Lucca Cathedral which, as long ago as 1845, he had called "my ideal of Christian sculpture."(3) It exemplifies, he said in 1878, the two great principles of art: it is both lovely and right (34:172). But rightness is more than mimetic accuracy, rightness is about human truth. Indeed, Ruskin indicates, the tomb is physically inaccurate in its positioning of Ilaria. But it is a vision of a truth beyond faithful reproduction of the physical. This serene funerary monument is crucial in Ruskin's whole claim for PreRaphaelitism in The Three Colours, just as the tomb of Doge Michele Morosini in San Giovanni e Paolo is a pivotal point in The Stones of Venice: the Lucca sculpture reminds the reader that Ruskin's ambitions for great art are far more than meticulous fidelity to actual, material fact.

Ruskin's aesthetic concern with particularities, with the exact contours of the material world, were and are often misunderstood, though the misunderstanding is a serious one. In the following discussion, I look at more involved dimensions of the notion of Ruskin and particularity, his entanglement in specific ways with details, facts, precise features of context and environment. But my concentration is on the political work which occupied so much of Ruskin's time in the 1870s which I shall argue is related to Ruskin's earlier claims for great art, and his conception of the proper nature of the artist's apprehension and treatment of particularity. …


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