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Ruskin The Apostle Of Art Post by :BobTeske Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :3052

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Ruskin The Apostle Of Art


John Ruskin deserves a place among the great English writers of the last century, not only because of his superb style and the amount of his work, but because he was the first to encourage the study of art and nature among the people. So enormous have been the strides made in the last twenty years in popular knowledge of art and architecture, and so great the growth of interest in the beauties of nature that it is difficult to appreciate that a little over a half century ago, when Ruskin first came into prominence as a writer, the English public was densely ignorant of art, and was equally ignorant of the world of pleasure to be derived from beautiful scenery.

It was Ruskin's great service to the world that he opened the eyes of the public to the glories of the art of all countries, and that he also revealed the wonders of architecture. Many critics have laid bare his infirmities as a critic, but a man of colder blood and less emotional nature would never have reached the large public to which Ruskin appealed. Like a great orator he was swayed by the passion of convincing his audience, and the very extravagance of his language and the ardor of his nature served to make a profound impression upon readers who are not usually affected by such appeals as his.

Ruskin was one of the most impractical men that ever lived, but in the exuberance of his nature and in his rare unselfishness he started a dozen social reforms in England, any one of which should have given fame to its founder. He gave away a great fortune in gifts to the public and in private generosity. He founded museums, established scholarships, tried to put into practical working order his dream of a New Life founded on the union of manual labor and high intellectual aims, labored to induce the public to read the good old books that help one to make life worth living.

That much of his good work was neutralized by his lack of common sense detracts nothing from the world's debt to Ruskin. The simple truth is that he was a reformer as well as a great writer, and the very fervor of his religious and social beliefs, his contempt of mere money getting, his hatred of falsehood, his boundless generosity and his childlike simplicity of mind--all these traits at which the world laughed lifted Ruskin above the other men of genius of his time and placed him among the world's great reformers.

Among this small body of men whose spiritual force continues to live in their books or through the influence of their great self-sacrifices, Ruskin deserves a place, for he gave fortune, work and a splendid enthusiasm to the common people's cause.

Ruskin's whole life was abnormal, and his early training served to accentuate those weaknesses of mind and will that made failures of so many schemes for the public good. If Ruskin had been trained in the English public schools he would have learned common sense in boyhood. As it was, his father and mother shielded the boy in every way from all contact with the world. Ruskin's father was a prosperous wine merchant with much culture; his mother was a religious fanatic, whose passion for the Bible imposed upon her boy the daily reading of the Scriptures and the daily memorizing of scores of verses.

Such training in most cases causes a revolt against religion, but in Ruskin's case it resulted in training his boyish ear to the cadences of the Bible writers and in filling his mind with the sublime imagery of the prophets, with the result that when he began to write he had already formed a style, the richest and most varied of the last century.

The boy was a mental prodigy, for he taught himself to read when four years old, and at five he had devoured hundreds of books and was already writing poems and plays. At ten, when he had his first tutor, his knowledge was wide and he had become a passionate lover of natural scenery, as well as no mean artist with pen and pencil. Scott's novels and Byron's Childe Harold formed much of his reading at a time when most boys are content with the stories of Ballantyne or Mayne Reid. The range of his mental activity until he entered Oxford at eighteen was very wide. He was interested in mineralogy, meteorology, mathematics, drawing and painting. What probably expanded his mind more than all else was the education of travel. His father spent about half his time journeying through England and the Continent in an old-fashioned chaise and John always shared in these expeditions. At Oxford he competed for the Newdigate prize in poetry, and after being twice defeated won the coveted honor. He never gained any high scholarship, but he received valuable training in writing.

There is no space here to chronicle more than a few of his many activities after leaving college. He first came into prominence by his passionate defense of the painter Turner against the art critics, and his study of Turner led him to adopt art criticism as his life work. At twenty-three years of age, when most youths are puzzled about their vocation, Ruskin had completed the first volume of Modern Painters, the publication of which gave him fame and made him a social lion in London. Other volumes of this great work followed swiftly and caused a great commotion in the world of art and letters because of the radical views of the author and the remarkable qualities of his style.

This was followed by The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which Ruskin expounded his radical views on this kindred art; The Stones of Venice, an eloquent book enforcing the argument that Gothic architecture sprang from a pure national faith and the domestic virtues; King's Treasuries, a noble plea for good books; Fors Clavigera, a series of ninety-six parts published in eight volumes, the record of his social experiments; Preterita, one of the most charming books of youthful reminiscences in any language, and many others. Ruskin's mental activity was enormous. He had to his credit in his fifty-five active years no less than seventy-two volumes and one hundred magazine articles, as well as thousands of lectures.

This outline sketch of Ruskin's life would be incomplete without mention of the great sorrows that darkened his days but gave eloquence to his writings. The first was the desertion of his wife, who married the painter Millais, and the second was the loss by death of Rose La Touche, a beautiful Irish girl whom he had known from childhood. She refused to marry him because of their differences of religion; even refused to see him in her fatal illness unless he could say that he loved God better than he loved her. Her death brought bitter despair to Ruskin, but the world profited by it, for grief gave his work maturity and force. The last ten years of Ruskin's life were spent at his beautiful home at Brantwood, surrounded by the pictures that he loved and served faithfully by devoted relatives.

Ruskin's books are not to be read continuously. Many dreary passages may be found in all of them, which the judicious reader skips. But his best works are more full of intellectual stimulus than those of any writer of his time with the single exception of Carlyle. Modern Painters overflows with the enthusiasm of a lover of art and of nature who preaches the gospel of sincerity and truth. It is marked, like all his work, by eloquent digressions on human life and conduct, for Ruskin held that the finest art was simply the flowering of a great soul nurtured on all that was highest and best. The Seven Lamps does for architecture what his first work did for painting. The book is written in more ornate style than any other, but he who loves impassioned prose will find many specimens here that can only by equaled in De Quincey's best work. Read the peroration of the "Lamp of Sacrifice" and you will not need to be told that this is the finest tribute to the work of the builders of the mediæval cathedral. Here is a part of this eloquent passage:

It is to far happier, far higher exaltation that we owe those fair fronts of variegated mosaic, charged with wild fancies and dark hosts of imagery, thicker and quainter than ever filled the depth of midsummer dream; those vaulted gates, trellised with close leaves; those window labyrinths of twisted tracery and starry light; those misty masses of multitudinous pinnacle and diademed tower; the only witnesses, perhaps, that remain to us of the faith and fear of nations. All else for which the builders sacrificed has passed away. * * * But of them and their life and their toil upon earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those great heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors and their errors; but they have left us their adoration.

No space is left here to mention in detail Ruskin's other works, but Unto This Last, The Stones of Venice, Sesame and Lilies and The Crown of Wild Olive may be commended as well worth careful reading. Also Preterita is alive with noble passages, such as the pen-picture of the view from the Dale in the Alps, or of the Rhone below Geneva. Read also Ruskin's description of Turner's "Slave Ship" or the impressive passage on the mental slavery of the modern workman in the sixth chapter of the second volume of The Stones of Venice. Read these things and you will have no doubt of the genius of Ruskin or of his command of the finest impassioned prose in the English language.

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Ruskin The Apostle Of Art

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