The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and Modernist Aesthetics

By Rachel Teukolsky | Go to book overview

ONE
Picturesque Signs, Picturing Science

Ruskin in the 1840s

How difficult it is to avoid substituting the sign for the thing; how difficult to keep
the essential quality still living before us, and not to kill it with the word.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810),
trans. C. L. Eastlake (1840)

I speak especially of the moment before the sun sinks… There is then no limit to
the multitude, and no check to the intensity, of the hues assumed. The whole sky
from zenith to the horizon becomes one molten mantling sea of colour and fire;
every black bar turns into massy gold, every ripple and wave into unsullied shad-
owless crimson, and purple, and scarlet, and colours for which there are no words
in the language, and no ideas in the mind,—things which can only be conceived
while they are visible… Now there is no connection, no one link of association or
resemblance, between those skies and the work of any mortal hand but Turner’s.

—John Ruskin, Modern Painters I (1843)


A Long Modernism

John Ruskin’s extreme personal qualities have made him an archetype of the Victorian man of letters. His high seriousness, religious conviction, extravagant prose style, and strong moral assertions are all canonized in a daunting collected works of thirty-nine volumes. Ruskin’s reputation stands in particular on his writings promoting Gothic architecture, as encapsulated by his iconic chapter “The Nature of Gothic,” appearing in the middle volume of The Stones of Venice (1853). Here he argues that the irregular shapes of Gothic cathedrals reflect the political freedom allowed to the medieval artisan, as opposed to the symmetrical shapes produced in Victorian workshops, where the workman is entirely “a slave.”1 This text would seem to cement Ruskin’s status as an unabashed moralizer, valuing art not for any detached appreciation of beauty but instead for the alleged political rectitude of its producers. His reputation as a hectoring patriarch was cemented by the modernist generation that followed him; as D. H. Lawrence proposed in a letter, “the deep damnation of self-righteousness… lies thick all over the Ruskinite, like painted feathers on a skinny peacock.”2 In the classic 1932 study The Victorian Morality of Art: An Analysis of Ruskin’s Esthetic, Henry Ladd

-25-

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