John Ruskin, 1819–1900, English critic and social theorist. During the mid-19th cent. Ruskin was the virtual dictator of artistic opinion in England, but Ruskin's reputation declined after his death, and he has been treated harshly by 20th-century critics. Although it is undeniable that he was an extravagant and inconsistent thinker (a reflection of his lifelong mental and emotional instability), it is equally true that he revolutionized art criticism and wrote some of the most superb prose in the English language.
Educated by his wealthy, evangelical parents, Ruskin was prepared for the ministry, and until 1836 he spent his mornings with his domineering mother, reading and memorizing the Bible. In 1833 the family went on the first of its many tours of Europe, and the boy ardently studied nature and painting. His stay (1836–40) at Oxford resulted in his winning the Newdigate Prize for poetry and in his determining not to enter the ministry. A breakdown of health in 1840 forced him to travel.
Critic and Reformer
The first volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters appeared in 1843. This work started as a defense of the painter J. M. W. Turner and developed into a treatise elaborating the principles that art is based on national and individual integrity and morality and also that art is a "universal language." He finished the five volumes in 1860. The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) applied these same theories to architecture. In 1848, Ruskin married Euphemia Gray, a beautiful young woman with social ambitions; the union, which apparently was never consummated, was annulled in 1854, and Mrs. Ruskin subsequently married the painter John Everett Millais.
From his position as the foremost English art critic, Ruskin in 1851 defended the work of the Pre-Raphaelite group. His third great volume of criticism, The Stones of Venice (1851–53), maintained that the Gothic architecture of Venice reflected national and domestic virtue, while Venetian Renaissance architecture mirrored corruption. About 1857, Ruskin's art criticism became more broadly social and political. He wrote Unto This Last (in Cornhill Magazine, 1860) and Munera Pulveris (in Fraser's Magazine, 1862–63). These works attacked bourgeois England and charged that modern art reflected the ugliness and waste of modern industry.
Ruskin's positive program for social reform appeared in Sesame and Lilies (1865), The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), Time and Tide (1867), and Fors Clavigera (8 vol., 1871–84). Many of his suggested programs—old age pensions, nationalization of education, organization of labor—have become accepted doctrine. He was made the first professor of art in England (Slade professor, Oxford, 1870) and his lectures were well attended. His multifarious activities broke down his health, however, and in 1878 he suffered his first period of insanity. Recurrences of unbalance became more frequent, though some of his greatest prose, the autobiography Praeterita (1885–89), was written in the lucid intervals.
See his works (39 vol., 1903–12); M. Lutyens, The Ruskins and the Grays (1972); biographies by P. Quennell (1949), E. T. Cook (2 vol., 1911; repr. 1969); T. Hilton (2 vol., 1985–2000); studies by J. Evans (1952, repr. 1970), J. C. Sherburne (1973), J. L. Bradley (1984), J. L. Spear (1984), and S. F. Cooper (2011).