Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Ruskin's Rock, Ruskin's Waters

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Ruskin's Rock, Ruskin's Waters

Article excerpt

Ceci nest pas une pierre. It's not a rock at all, of course, but a picture of a rock. And despite its stunning detail, it's not a photograph but a drawing-one measuring forty-eight by thirty-three centimeters, rendered in pen and ink and lampblack wash, and with some parts (the stems in the upper right) "rudely struck in with body-colour." The English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) drew this rock overhanging a waterfall in the Scottish Highlands, in the summer of 1853 for the most part. On February 7, 1854, he wrote in his journal, "finished my rocks at Glen Finiasbut he never really completed the drawing to his satisfaction, as he admitted when he allowed it to be exhibited in 1878.

Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas is both the picture's title and its dateline. Victorian geologists identified the Glenfinlas rocks as mica or chlorite slate, and Ruskin's description of the "slaty crystallines" in the fourth volume of Modem Painters (1856) captures the almost vibratory flow of the rock in his drawing:

... all touched and trembled, like waves by a summer breeze; rippled, far more delicately than seas or lakes are rippled: they only undulate along their surfaces-this rock trembles through its very fibre, like the chords of an Eolian harp-like the stillest air of spring with the echoes of a child's voice.

This is the sort of writing that had won Ruskin his reputation: fluent, suggestive, musical in its cadences, lyrical in its modulations of repeated vowels and consonants. "Word-painting," it was called by his admirers; "purple prose" by those less swayed.

The same outcropping can be seen in the background of perhaps the most famous portrait of Ruskin, the full-length oil begun that same summer by John Everett Millais. The thirty-four-year-old Ruskin-along with his father, a canny Scotsman who had amassed an immense fortune importing Spanish sherry-had commissioned the portrait from Millais, a decade his junior. In 1853, Ruskin was a mildly famous-if somewhat controversial-writer on art and architecture. The first two volumes of Modem Painters (1843 and 1846) had attracted the admiration both of the literati (including Wordsworth, Tennyson, the Brownings, and Charlotte Bronte, who told Elizabeth Gaskell, "this book seems to give me eyes") and of the middle-class, museum-going, print-buying public. Following on the heels of their success, his The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (first volume 1851) had made an eloquent moral and social argument on behalf of the already widespread Gothic Revival.

In 1848, Millais, William Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a few others had constituted themselves as the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," even appending the initials "P. R. B." to the signatures on their paintings. But they had litde critical or popular success until, in 1851, Ruskin took up the cudgels for them in the face of the fierce criticism their work was receiving. (Millais' Christ in the House of His Parents was, according to The Times, "plainly revolting," while the Literary Gazette deemed it "a monstrous atrocity." Even Charles Dickens put the boot in: Millais' Mary was "so horrible in her ugliness that. . . she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster in the vilest cabaret in France or in the lowest gin-shop in England.")

In the first volume of Modem Painters, Ruskin had stressed the necessity for the landscape artist to hew as closely as possible to the truth of natural appearances. He was arguing on behalf of his great hero, J. M. W. Turner. Turner was by no means on the fringes of the British art scene-he had been elected to the Royal Academy in 1802-but his later work was attacked as a wild and willful violation both of the appearance of nature and of the principles of the "Grand Style" in painting. On the contrary, Ruskin argued, no landscape painter had ever depicted nature as truly as Turner. (The full title of his book was Modem Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to All the Ancient Masters, Proved by Examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual, from the Works of Modem Artists, Especially from those ofj. …

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