Ruskin's Turner: The Making of a Romantic Hero

By Munsterberg, Marjorie | British Art Journal, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Ruskin's Turner: The Making of a Romantic Hero


Munsterberg, Marjorie, British Art Journal


[Turner] stands upon an eminence, from which he looks back over the universe of God and forward over the generations of men. Let every work of his hand be a history of the one, and a lesson to the other. Let each exertion of his mighty mind be both hymn and prophecy; adoration to the Deity, revelation to mankind.

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol 1 (1843) (1)

[Modern Painters] said everything about Turner I ever felt, or even did not know I felt.

Pauline, Lady Trevelyan (1844) (2)

Art historians have refuted the idea of JMW Turner 775-1851) as an embodiment of the embattled Romantic genius repeatedly and in detail. An immense amount of literature has appeared since the bicentennial celebration of the painter's birth, including catalogues raisonnes of his paintings, watercolours, and engravings, a collection of his letters, and several biographies, as well as specialized studies of his life and work. Major exhibitions have brought famous as well as unfamiliar works before a wide public. In addition, individual paintings have been analysed in relation to new questions, especially ones drawn from social and economic history. (3) All this scholarly activity has placed Turner firmly within the context of his period, and charted the development of his art.

One aspect of Turner's career, however, has not received the attention it deserves: John Ruskin's role in creating the modernist narrative that presents Turner as a Romantic hero. I will argue that the image of Turner as the maker of great and revelatory pictures, scorned by his contemporaries, finally recognized as a true genius after enduring a lifetime of hostility, was invented by John Ruskin (1819-1900). Beginning in 1843 with the first volume of Modern Painters, continuing through his publications of the 1840s and 1850s, and culminating in 1860 in the fifth volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin argued for a very particular interpretation of both Turner and his work. Study of the reviews Ruskin's writings received at the time of their publication reveals just how new and how objectionable these ideas seemed. Critics sharply contradicted his vision of Turner's life as well as his interpretations of the pictures. Even while other aspects of Ruskin's work won praise, his ideas about Turner remained highly contentious. When Walter Thornbury's Life of J.M.W. Turner appeared in 1862, it also was criticized fiercely by reviewers and by people who had known Turner, in part because of its dependence on Ruskin's ideas, but chiefly because of its many inaccuracies. By the late 1870s, however, when a revised edition of Thornbury's biography appeared and the Fine Art Society in London staged a major exhibition of Ruskin's collection of works by Turner, memories of the artist had faded, and Ruskin's authority as an art critic and Turner's greatest defender was immense. His deeply personal identification with the artist added to that authority, taken as proof of the correctness of his understanding. By the 20th century, his advocacy of Turner's genius had become one of the canonical episodes in the history of modernism. (4)

Like most Victorians, Ruskin first encountered Turner's work in the form of engravings, when he received the illustrated edition of Samuel Rogers's Italy in 1832 as a present for his 13th birthday. Its vignette illustrations remained an important part of Ruskin's conception of the artist for the rest of his life. (5) It was not until the next year that he saw Turner's oil paintings, when he visited the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy with his father. (6) In 1837, Ruskin received Turner's watercolour Richmond Hill and Bridge, Surrey (British Museum) as a birthday gift from his father, the first of many he was to own, and in 1844 he received Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying--Typhon Coming On (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; B & J 385), the first of only two oil paintings by Turner he would own, also as a gift from his father. …

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