A large part of Ruskin’s work and especially of his earlier work was in the form of art-criticism. His first notable work was Modern Painters, which he afterwards modified and expanded through a series of years. It was not, as its title might suggest, a history of modern painting, but rather a glorification of Turner as the first and greatest of genuine landscape-painters. The book, especially in its enlarged form, goes much farther.
For Ruskin enters into elaborate discussion of art-theories, of the characteristics of various schools, of the true and false in art and especially of the relation of art to Nature. This interest in landscape and the recognition of its place in art, associates itself with the naturalistic movement in poetry, otherwise called Romanticism. It associates itself, however, quite as much with modern scientific study of nature for Ruskin was concerned even more with natural truth than with natural beauty. Other art-works of importance are his Seven Lamps of Architecture and his Stones of
. The former of these aptly illustrates the very important fact that Ruskin believed the inspiration of all true art to lie in the moral nature of the artist and of his age and also the further and the greater fact that all Ruskin’s work of whatever name or nature—is at bottom, dealing with moral questions. The Seven Lamps are—Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience. They suggest much as to Ruskin’s spirit and method. The Stones of Venice is a work of larger scope, but it is informed by the same general purpose. The effect of the three works taken together is to show Ruskin’s conception that the natural world is the expression of the divine mind, and filled, therefore, with spiritual suggestion and that all human art must find its highest power in fidelity to nature and in humble obedience to moral law. Such doctrine as this, Ruskin preached to his generation and he preached it with a prophetic fervour, not merely because he wished to see modern life made more beautiful, but because he believed that beauty is at bottom a matter of righteousness. Venice
Ruskin’s value as an art-critic lay chiefly in the inspiration be supplied to his generation to appreciate the beauty of natural phenomena; he showed then the absurdity of compounding the grandeur of nature merely with her big scenic effects when a blade of grass or an ordinary cloud can reveal as richly the possibilities of beauty. To this extent, he supplemented the teaching of Wordsworth and Shelley. Approaching art with this underlying thought, he remarks that painting should be something more than an ingenious arrangement of pigments. Without under-estimating technique, he emphasises passionately the importance of sincerity and truthfulness. “In these books of mine,” he declared, “their distinctive character as essays on Art is bringing everything to a root in human passion or human hope.”
From 1843 to 1860, he concerned himself with the fine arts, especially painting, sculpture and architecture. From 1860 onwards, he carried the principles underlying this criticism into social life and just as Turner inspired his earlier work, so does Carlyle inspire his later. Ruskin has summed up for us clearly and concisely the trend of his teaching in his Fors Clavigera :
Modern Painters taught the claims of all lower nature in the hearts of men; of the rock and wave and hut as a part of their necessary life, in all that I now bid you to do, to dress the earth and keep it, I am fulfilling what I then began. The Stones of Venice taught the laws of constructive Art and the dependence of all human work or edifice for its beauty on the happy life of the workman. Unto This Last taught the laws of that life itself and its dependence on the Sun of Justice, the Oxford Lectures the necessity that it should be led and the gracious laws of beauty and labour recognised by the upper, no less than the lower classes of England and lastly Fors Clavigera has declared the relation of these to each other and the only possible conditions of peace and honour for low and high, rich and poor.”
Hence we are fully prepared for the thesis maintained by Ruskin that a lack of feeling for beauty means more than blunted art sensibility, it means “a contempt for right sense—beauty is the concrete final expression of rightness .”
“The jerry builder symoblises for Ruskin the defective idealism that he found in the life of our day. In a corrupt age, he argued, you have corrupt art : in an age of noble aims and endeavours, great art. As stated by him, the generalisation seems too sweeping. The history of art can show periods of splendour when there was abundant moral depravity. Ruskin overemphasises the correspondence between art and morality. Beauty may be the concrete final expression of rightness. But rightness of what ? Not necessarily of conduct surely, but of feeling. High and enduring beauty cannot be the expression of a debased and low nature. But it may well be that the artist expresses here merely his feeling for what is good and great, although the evil influences in his nature conspire to prevent him from expressing this feeling in action as a man. Few men are so vicious and rotten throughout as to have no gleam of rightness (to adhere to Ruskin’s terminology) but they may be too poor and weak to let the rightness dominate their lives.
The vision of beauty is by no means confined to the virtuous soul, any more than is spiritual intuition. The crafty and scheming Jacob sees a ladder ascending from earth to heaven where his robester moral brother sees only a heap of stones in a desert-place. Ruskin, therefore, circumscribes his argument too narrowly, identifying great art with the outward expression of a healthy conscience.
Benson explains the position of Ruskin as a critic of art in the following sentences :
“Ruskin was never in the technical sense an art-critic at all. He wrote about art and he wrote about it with considerable technical skill. He was a real artist himself and he, thus, had a considerable practical knowledge of the aims, the difficulties, the obstacles, the theory and the treatment of art. But to be a comprehensive critic of art and it was this which Ruskin undertook to be, a man must have a comprehensive view of art—he must be erudite, he must have a knowledge at once wide and detailed and this Ruskin did not possess. His acquaintance with pictorial art was partial and limited.” Further, Benson remarks about him : “We must then, keep this in mind—that art-criticism was, to Ruskin, not more than the habit and vesture of the priest, but that all the time his hand was raised to consecrate and to bless and his heart was set upon the divine mystery, of which the bread on the gleaming dish and the wine in the jewelled chalice were but the fair and seemly symbols.”