Critical Condition

Critical Condition

Writer, painter, educator, philosopher, keen observer of clouds and leaves and rocks. The 19th-century Englishman John Ruskin was many things, but he’s most remembered for his work as an art critic, for which Yale art history professor Tim Barringer has called him “perhaps the most eloquent of all writers on art in the English language.”

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, staged by the Yale Center for British Art on the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth, certainly documents its subject’s eloquence. But it also examines his influence and his prescience. Born near the beginning of the 19th century and dying on the cusp of the 20th, Ruskin’s work manages to reach into the 21st, asking questions that feel important, even urgent, today. Among them, as Barringer writes in the exhibition catalog, are: “What is the ethical value of beauty? … What is the relationship between mankind and nature, or the environment? And ultimately, what is of value in human life?”

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Naturally, the exhibition’s first of four bays explores Ruskin’s early work and development. Some of that work is very early, in a notebook filled by seven-year-old Ruskin with what we would call fan fiction: imaginative writings based on his favorite books, transcribed in an astonishingly steady hand that mimics printed type, with illustrations referred to by the budding artist as “copper plates.” On display, too, are some of the young man’s first attempts at drawings, engravings and watercolors, documenting the architecture of St. Lô and of Venice, which would inspire one of Ruskin’s best-known works, a three-volume treatise on Venetian architecture titled The Stones of Venice (1851).

But the most compelling items in this bay are what compelled Ruskin himself to become an art critic: the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. A defense of the renegade painter, who was widely criticized in his day but is now venerated, was central to Ruskin’s first published work, Modern Painters I (1843), and the exhibition therefore features three striking Turner landscapes, two of them featuring scenes of Venice and the third a scene of the Swiss town of Flüelen. In the watercolor Venice, The Mouth of the Grand Canal (ca. 1840), Turner paints the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in the far background as if it’s about to disappear into the clouds, at the same time suggesting the most delicate details of its carved tower. In his oil painting Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute (ca. 1835, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), the masts of ships docked in the river glisten like copper, and the buildings along the banks, in shades of white and gold and pink, are both exquisitely detailed and elusive. The representation is realistic but also fantastical, with an emotional resonance that captures what it’s like to look at such a scene with your own eyes. Ruskin would champion this dynamic as a critic and implore artists to view their subjects directly and with feeling.

The exhibition’s second bay focuses on Ruskin’s observations of the natural world and his call for artists to pay attention to the smallest detail in their renderings of nature, advice that he himself attempted to follow in his own paintings and drawings—“looking at something truly from nature and not convention,” says Victoria Hepburn, a Yale doctoral candidate and co-curator of the exhibition with fellow students Tara Contractor and Judith Stapleton. As an example, Hepburn points to Ruskin’s use of purple ink to illustrate the branch of a tree in a plate from his art criticism series Modern Painters (1843-60)—not literally “true,” perhaps, but true to the visual experience of the tree. Co-curator Contractor points to a detailed watercolor by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, Study from Nature, Inveruglas (1857), in which a man has abandoned his binoculars in the mossy foreground in order to “engage with nature with his own eyes,” just as Ruskin would have it.

Turner’s influence on Ruskin’s own paintings of the natural world can be seen here as well, especially in the stormy rain clouds of Lausanne (undated), a watercolor attributed to Ruskin, with its stormy purple sweep of rain attacking the mountain-edged lake. In stark contrast, his watercolor In the Pass of Killiecrankie (1857, on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge) gives us lush color and dapples of light on a patch of water. Wildflowers painted with enough detail to show every petal cling to the crags of a rocky hillside that swallows nearly the entire frame, with just a hint of distant, blue-purple mountains in the corner. Ruskin the painter seems to have been trying out the middle ground between abstraction and slavish verisimilitude, landing in different places as he worked on different pieces.

In keeping with a belief that laborers like those who carved the columns of Gothic cathedrals could “rebuild and redeem a world destroyed by modern industrial capitalism” and machine-driven production, Ruskin created the free, public St. George’s Museum in Sheffield, England. He hoped that the city’s iron workers would visit and learn to sharpen their powers of observation by studying his collections of objects both natural and manmade. The impression of that museum is recreated in a third bay, with a life-sized photograph of its interior positioned behind cases of polished minerals from Ruskin’s own collection, ancient Greek ceramics, a cast of plasterwork from Rouen Cathedral, books, drawings and other items like the ones St. George’s displayed.

A final bay presents the critic’s legacy, elements of which inspired a wide range of people and projects: the Arts and Crafts movement (including textile designer William Morris), Britain’s Labour party, illustrator Walter Crane and Mahatma Gandhi, to name a few. Even New Haven apparently has its Ruskin-inspired architecture. A colored architectural drawing of Yale’s Street Hall, which now comprises a section of the Yale University Art Gallery, reveals its Ruskinian elements, co-curator Stapleton says, pointing to its Italian Gothic style, multicolored trim, carvings by local workmen and use of local stone: “the stones of New Haven”—or rather, as she clarified, East Haven.

The exhibition’s title, Unto This Last, refers to Ruskin’s belief that “the person at the end of the line deserves the same treatment as the person at the front of the line,” Barringer says, but he’s quick to add that Ruskin’s version of utopia was still a hierarchy, in which the haves took care of the have-nots. In his essay in the exhibition catalog, Barringer cites the “deeply disturbing, indeed unforgiveable” fact that Ruskin refused to condemn slavery in America, seeing it instead as “a sometimes necessary aspect of authoritarian and hierarchical social structures…”

But Unto This Last, Hepburn says, wasn’t mounted to express agreement with Ruskin’s conclusions. Rather, she says, it argues for the continued importance of the questions he sought to answer. Our world, in which capitalism and industry are king, hundreds of millions are starving and nature is under siege, turns out to be not so unlike his own.

Photo Key:

1. Frederick Hollyer, Portrait of John Ruskin (Datur Hora Quieti), ca. 1894, platinum print, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
2. J. M. W. Turner, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, ca. 1835, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
3. John Ruskin, “The Dryad’s Waywardness,” from Modern Painters (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1843–60), vol. 1, plate 59, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
4. Peter Bonnett Wight, The Yale School of the Fine Arts, 1864.

Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin
Yale Center for British Art – 1080 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm through December 8
(203) 432-2800 |…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images, which have been cropped to fit, provided courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

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