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John Ruskin as a young man

About John Ruskin


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1 A quick look at John Ruskin’s life

2 Ruskin's Upbringing

3 The connection between aesthetics, spirituality, culture, and morality

4 The transition to social reformer

5 His disastrous marital and romantic life

6 His embattled years as a social reformer


↑  A quick look at John Ruskin’s life   Sec 1

▲1 John Ruskin (1819-1900) achieved early acclaim as an art critic but gave it up for an embattled life as a social reformer. ▲2 In later life he experienced mental breakdowns and eventual insanity due to his frustration with the lack of social reform in England, a disastrous marital and romantic life, loss of his religious faith, a legal dispute with James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and over-work. ▲3 He inherited and later earned large sums of money but willingly spent most of it on his social goals, including funding museums, an art school, and a utopian community, St. George’s Guild. ▲4 He was one of the most interesting and most influential voices of the Victorian Age, and his ideas on social justice and environmentalism remain relevant today. He greatly influenced British political and social thought as well as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Despite his ultra-conservative political outlook, he was a strong influence on the British socialist movement.


↑  Ruskin’s upbringing   Sec 2

▲1 Ruskin’s father was a successful wine merchant of Scottish ancestry with a strong interest in literature and art. His mother was an intensely religious English Evangelical Protestant and a strict, demanding parent. She taught her young son to read the King James Bible, from beginning to end and to memorize large portions of it. Ruskin’s thinking and writing strongly reflects this grounding in Christianity and Scripture.

▲2 Ruskin was an extremely precocious child. He enjoyed the best schooling and extensive travel with his father. By the time he enrolled in Oxford in 1836, he’d published poetry and several magazine articles on geology. He was also an accomplished representational artist from an early age, and his many drawings of natural scenes and buildings are exquisite. Ruskin’s interest in geology—this was his first career plan—contributed to his fine eye for detail.

▲3 In 1843 Ruskin, only 24 years old, published the first volume of Modern Painters, a defense of the painter E.M.W. Turner, whom Ruskin’s father collected and whom Ruskin knew personally. Turner was often attacked for not being true to nature. Ruskin argued, in highly expressive prose, that Turner was in fact representing nature in a deeper way than those who painted nature with pictorial realism. Ruskin eventually wrote four volumes of Modern Painters and could have remained a highly acclaimed art critic.


↑  The connection between aesthetics, spirituality, culture, and morality   Sec 3

▲1 For Ruskin, aesthetics were always tied to spirituality, culture and morality—probably a result of his deeply religious upbringing—and commentary on culture and morality increasingly found its way into his writing on art. Also, he developed an interest in architecture, an art form that (more than painting) focuses our attention on the workers who build the buildings and the ways of living that the buildings promote. ▲2 In a famous section, “The Nature of Gothic,” of his book The Stones of Venice (1851-31) Ruskin celebrates the stonemasons who crafted the gargoyles and other ornamentation on the cathedrals of Northern Europe because of what he perceived as the artistic freedom under which they worked. Ruskin, in other words, is focusing on the well-being of these craftsmen, and so argues that “servile” ornament, which requires human beings to work as though they were machines, is necessarily ugly. This argument about medieval craftsman extends into his fierce condemnation of division of labor and brutally repetitive factory work in his own day. ▲3 Today when we purchase hand-made pottery and other craft work in preference to products that have more “finish” due to their factory manufacture, we are drawing upon Ruskin’s thinking on aesthetics.


↑  The transition to social reformer   Sec 4

▲1 In December 1860, with the appearance of the first of four essays in Cornhill Magazine, Ruskin made the full transition from art critic to social reformer. These essays were published in book form in 1862 as Unto This Last. These essays are a fierce attack on unregulated (laissez faire) capitalism and industrialism and the greed and cruelty of those who were in a position to alleviate the harsh conditions under which so many people worked and lived. They also challenge the era's orthodox theories of political economy (economics), which provided the justification for laissez faire capitalism.

▲2 Both the essay (and, later, the book) met a hostile reception from the wealthy business class that had enjoyed Ruskin’s art criticism. ▲3 Slowly, over several decades, the importance of Ruskin's social criticism was widely recognized and his ideas began to influence public policy.

▲4 The passages in Unto This Last dealing with the pollution of air and water, people’s need for green space, and the problem of sustainability show him to be one of the very first environmentalists.

▲5 Ruskin’s thinking, however, will also strike modern readers as peculiar and backward. Although Ruskin called for social reform, his politics were ultra-conservative. Abhorring socialism and talk of social equality, he did not want the oppressed to demand justice. Rather, he called upon the industrial elites to become morally responsible and generous and to care for each of their employees as a father cares for his children.


↑  His disastrous marital and romantic life   Sec 5

▲1 In 1848 Ruskin had married Effie Gray, a woman with connections to the Ruskin’s family and whom Ruskin had known since she was twelve. In 1854 Effie Gray filed suit to annul the marriage on grounds of non-consummation (which Ruskin disputed). During the years of their marriage, however, Ruskin did not object when Effie enjoyed the friendship of men. After the annulment, Effie married the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, to whose career Ruskin had given support. The couple eventually had eight children.

▲2 In 1858 Ruskin, who was then 38, began giving drawing lessons to 10-year-old Rose La Touche. Gradually he began to fall in love with her. While Ruskin hoped for an eventual marriage, the deeply religious La Touch family voiced objections because Ruskin had experienced a severe loss of faith in 1858. All hopes for marriage disintegrated as Rose lapsed into insanity. She died in 1875 at the age of 27th. ▲3 Clearly, then, Ruskin’s marital and romantic life gave provided little comfort as he faced the antagonism following the publication of Unto This Last. Indeed, his disastrous love life surely contributed to his growing mental instability.


↑  His embattled years as a social reformer   Sec 6

▲1 In the 1860s and 70s , despite periodic attacks of depression, Ruskin maintained an intense schedule of speaking and writing. He wrote about art, offered ideas for educational reform, and, most of all, passionately advocated measures that could bring about the social reform he was seeking.

▲2 Ruskin taught at Oxford as Oxford’s first professor of art and, in addition, established, with his own funding, his own art college at Oxford. As an art professor, he broke all precedent by taking his aristocratic students off campus to repair roads. In 1878 he resigned his professorship in anger after he was sued successfully by the painter James McNeill Whistler for intemperate remarks Ruskin had made about Whistler’s work.

▲3 During the 1870s, Ruskin established and funded St. George’s Guild, a utopian community organized and governed according to principles of his devising. Ruskin always held to an idealized notion of the Feudal society in the Middle Ages—where, he thought, the high and low social classes were united in their concern for each other’s well being.

▲4 Ruskin’s final 10 years were spent in seclusion and insanity, and he died at 81, early in the year 1900, the beginning of a new century.