Ruskin was an only child. He was born in 1819 in London but, like so many of those who have sought to explain the laws of economics, he was of Scottish descent. His father was a self-made man, a prosperous wine-merchant with a passion for Romantic literature and the visual arts. His mother was an inflexibly devout Evangelical; under her pious regime, Ruskin had to learn great tracts of the Bible by heart. As a child he was both spoilt and deprived: he had few companions and was denied many of the ordinary sensual delights of childhood, while his intellect and self-esteem were nourished and pampered. The denial of ordinary pleasures, as Ruskin suggests in his autobiography Praeterita, seems to have stimulated and refined his aesthetic sensibilities. In particular, it heightened his powers of sight, the faculty whose moral value his writings consistently stress. Modern biographers have tended to abominate his parents for their snobbery, their puritanism, and the suffocating excess of their devotion to their only son. But though Ruskin himself recognized these failings and the harm they had done him, he also praised his parents for the conduct of their lives and valued their commitment to honesty and hard work. Moreover, most of his attitudes and preoccupations can be traced to their teaching. To his mother he owed his religious awe, which set nature above all human endeavour, and his feeling for the rhythms of English prose, rooted as it is in the language of the Authorized Version. From his father he acquired his love of travel, landscape, painting, architecture; Byron and Scott and Turner; perhaps also something of his economic awareness.
Yet he despised their narrowness. Caricaturing their absurd ambitions for him in Praeterita , he wrote that they wanted him
'to write poetry as good as Byron's only pious; preach sermons as good as Bossuet's only Protestant; be made, at forty, Bishop of Winchester, and at fifty, Primate of England'.
It is a beautifully neat sketch and only mildly exaggerated. It points quite clearly to the sources of Ruskin's thought in two movements of the late eighteenth century: Romanticism and Evangelical Protestantism. One wonders whether he ever realized how nearly fulfilled these parental ambitions were. If he never became a prince of the church, he certainly attained a comparable degree of public respect; and the literary manner he made his own might be seen as a marriage of poetry and the sermon.
His father did much to encourage the enthusiasm which led to Modern Painters. On his thirteenth birthday, Ruskin was given a copy of Samuel Rogers' Italy, a topographical poem illustrated with vignettes by Turner. He was ravished by these engravings. The following year the family went on holiday to Switzerland and there, for the first time, Ruskin glimpsed some of the mountain landscapes Turner had made his own. Soon, with his father's help, he was collecting Turner watercolours and the continental visit had become an annual event. In 1836, incensed by attacks in the quarterlies on Turner's late style, he launched himself into a spirited defence of those great paintings. The article was never published but its argument — that Turner shocked the critics because he was more 'truthful' than the conventional artists they praised — was the germ of the book Ruskin began in 1842, as soon as he had graduated from Oxford. 'Truth to Nature' is the theme of Modern Painters, and from the outset it has moral implications. If the criterion of greatness in art is truth, it follows that inferior art is bad because it is false. Good taste, therefore, is a moral quality. Ruskin did not shirk the awkwardness of this conclusion, and thereafter his development is marked by an inability to turn his back on disturbing questions.
It took Ruskin eighteen years to complete Modern Painters. He had originally conceived it as an essay, but the essay grew and, by the time the book was published, he was thinking in terms of three volumes. The second volume, which appeared in 1846, is hardly concerned with modern painting at all. It announces his discovery of Italian religious art — of Giotto, Fra Angelico, Bellini and, in a later period, Tintoretto. This discovery provoked a long but fruitful digression into the study of architecture, the outcome of which was four more books: The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851 and 1853). Modern Painters was shelved for nearly ten years; then, in 1856, Volumes III and IV appeared, only to be followed by more digressions — this time not only into writing but into projects of a practical and socially constructive nature. During this period he began addressing himself to religious and social questions and became, through his defence of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and his detailed annual reviews of the Royal Academy exhibition, a powerful influence on the course of contemporary art. By the time the last volume appeared, his mind was on other things and his views on most subjects had changed or developed. This is hardly surprising. He was twenty-four, precocious and opinionated, when the project began. He had studied a lot of pictures but his knowledge was far less wide-ranging than the autocratic tone of the first volume might suggest. As his knowledge increased, he noticed his errors and changed his mind. Moreover, the changes that took place in his personal development affected the book's focus and angle of vision. He had begun writing it as a pious Evangelical who saw nature as the visible language of God. By 1860 he had been 'un-converted' and the focus of his interest had moved from landscape to man.
This is as much as to say that Modern Painters is not one book, but five — as Ruskin himself realized. And yet, as he observed in his Preface to Volume V, there is a unifying theme:
'In the main aim and principle of the book, there is no variation from its first syllable to its last. It declares the perfectness and eternal beauty of the work of God; and tests all work of man by concurrence with, or subjection to that.'
The development then, as he goes on to say, was organic: 'as the work changed like a tree, it was also rooted like a tree.' Ruskin's belief in the divinity of nature is Romantic. A quotation from Wordsworth appeared on the title-page of each volume of Modern Painters. This would seem to stress the modernity of Ruskin's thought, and not incorrectly. But his idea of creation, like Wordsworth's, is founded on the Natural Theology of the eighteenth century. Nature was, after the Bible, the second book of divine revelation. It could therefore be read by the pious observer. The function of art, Ruskin argued, was to interpret it and, thereby, the 'word' of God. And so the artist's main duty was to be truthful in his representation. Thus, when an artist was judged untruthful, as Turner had been, his only court of appeal was to nature herself. It was to her, therefore, that Ruskin turned in the painter's defence. The aspect of Modern Painters that is likely to seem most extraordinary to present-day readers is the detailed analysis and description of natural forms. Before we can judge the fidelity of a painting (these passages suggest) we must learn to perceive the subject correctly. Turner seems eccentric in his late work not because he distorts but because, on the contrary, his observation is so accurate. This is difficult to judge for two reasons: first, because the accuracy is not a matter of the single photo-graphic image, but of overall impression (the painting has a context-in the larger landscape beyond the frame's confines and ultimately in the whole of the natural order); and, second, because people tend to judge pictures by the standards of other pictures. Turner's critics were hidebound by convention. They admired the kind of painting that emulated the Old Masters and observed the 'rules'. For Ruskin such pictures merely drew on the history of pictorial convention and, in so doing, perpetuated what might be falsehood, flattering human skill at the expense of truth. He condemned the neo-classical notion that nature should be idealized and that the artist should 'improve' it. On the contrary, he argued, the real world is the source of all our ideas of beauty: to idealize is to deform. The difficulty of Ruskin's criticism is that it also partakes of idealism. This is not a contradiction. He believed that the artist should render particulars with accuracy at the same time as giving the spectator an idea of the essence and meaning of created things. For this reason he also condemned what he saw as the debased and materialistic realism of Dutch genre painting. Beauty in nature was the signature of a loving God: it was the artist's duty to communicate that.
But beauty is not the only subject of art. From the outset, Ruskin realized that attention to truth involved knowledge of good and evil. The artists he praised as 'Naturalists' had the courage to look on evil as well as beauty. This is most clearly stated in the later volumes of Modern Painters (see, in the present selection, 'The Two Boyhoods'), but it is already apparent in the first. The early volumes were famed for their purple passages of descriptive prose. Here is one of the finest, the description in Modern Painters I of an oil by Turner that Ruskin owned, Slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying (1840):
It is a sunset on the Atlantic, after prolonged storm; but the storm is partially lulled, and the torn and streaming rainclouds are moving in scarlet lines to lose themselves in the hollow of the night. The whole surface of sea included in the picture is divided into two ridges of enormous swell, not high, nor local, but a low broad heaving of the whole ocean, like the lifting of its bosom by deep-drawn breath after the torture of the storm. Between these two ridges the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendour which burns like gold, and bathes like blood. Along this fiery path and valley, the tossing waves by which the swell of the sea is restlessly divided, lift themselves in dark, indefinite, fantastic forms, each casting a faint and ghastly shadow behind it along the illumined foam. They do not rise everywhere, but three or four together in wild groups, fitfully and furiously, as the under strength of the swell compels or permits them; leaving between them treacherous spaces of level and whirling water, now lighted with green and lamp-like fire, now flashing back the gold of the declining sun, now fearfully dyed from above with the undistinguishable images of the burning clouds, which fall upon them in flakes of crimson and scarlet, and give to the reckless waves the added motion of their own fiery flying. Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shadow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.(Library Edition III, 571-572)
By the time he wrote Unto this Last, Ruskin had turned against 'fine writing' of this kind: it allowed the reader to admire the style without attending to the content. The passage is undeniably over-written. Yet the content could hardly have been expressed more powerfully or in any other way. The matter of the painting is described as if it were real: the very style has been influenced by Turner. By this means Ruskin's words unite with nature and the painter's hand in legible condemnation of the slavers' evil: 'written upon the sky in lines of blood'. Even though the message is refracted through praise of a work of art, there is no mistaking Ruskin's generous outrage. The prophetic voice of Ruskin the social critic is heard here for the first time. In 1856 he wrote (in Modern Painters III):
'the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what he saw in a plain way . . . To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one.'
He was to be more and more tormented by the fact that sometimes he saw things only too well.
As Modern Painters develops, the broad theme of Truth-to-Nature increasingly takes on this darker colouring. As Ruskin grew older, the bold certainties of his Evangelical faith began to weaken. His travels and his knowledge of Christian art had removed his hatred of Catholicism, and he began to think of his parents' religion as sectarian, provincial and life-denying. More seriously, by 1858 (the year of his 'unconversion') the advances of modern science were troubling him. The Origin of Species appeared in 1859, but more disturbing to Ruskin — since his own knowledge confirmed it — was the evidence of geology. As early as 1851, he expressed his fear of the geologists' 'dreadful Hammers', the clink of which he heard , at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses'. It seems unlikely that Ruskin ever became an atheist, but before he completed Modern Painters he had certainly lost his faith in the idea of the visible world as the language of a loving God. Accordingly, the author of Volumes IV and V finds that when he beholds the wonders of nature his eyes come to rest on pain, cruelty, corruption and death. Moreover, the digression that had led him from religious painting in Modern Painters II to religious architecture in The Stones of Venice also caused him to consider the response of human life to its natural context: for architecture, though it too may express delight in leaves and mountains, is above all a social art, 'born of man's necessities and expressive of his nature'. But when Ruskin looked at the social order around him, he found a way of life which did nothing to mitigate the hardness of the human lot and which, as far as the weaker members of society were concerned, did much to aggravate it. A society so dedicated to squalor and heartless brutality was, in Ruskin's view, indifferent to the beauty he had preached; and most of its professions of Christian charity were mere hypocrisy. Its real God was not the man of sorrows, but Mammon.