Page numbers are from John Rosenberg, ed., The Genius of John Ruskin
“Definition of Greatness in Art”
In this early section, is Ruskin more preoccupied with form or thought? What place do these pronouncements give to the sensuous elements of art, to which he himself so profoundly responded? (22)
--the discovery of truth is an intellectual process, 25
Why might an early Victorian critic have been concerned to assert the abstract or ideational aspect of art?
Does Ruskin give any indication of what “the greatest ideas” may be, or how we may recognize them? (23)
--a hierarchical tautology at the basis of his aesthetic
“That the Truth of Nature is Not to be Discerned by the Uneducated Senses”
Can all people understand nature? (23-24)
--Yes, but only with a trained eye. Perception must be cultivated by observation.
What emotions are necessarily associated with a sensibility to color and form?
--necessarily associated with love, and the pure feelings of our moral nature, and intensifies and is intensified by moral qualities. (25)
On page 25 he states that the perception of truth is independent of our moral nature. Do you think these two claims can be reconciled? What might this have been a difficult issue for a Victorian art lover with strong ethical interests?
Can these statements be read as a justification of the need for critics?
“Of Truth of Space”
What points does Ruskin make about the selective and changing nature of vision? 27-28 Why is it inappropriate and “unnatural” to paint every detail with equal intensity?
--mysteriousness and abundance of nature: “And thus nature is never distinct and never vacant, she is always mysterious, but always abundant; you always see something, but you never see all.” (28)
--“every touch is false which does not suggest more than it represents, and every space is false which represents nothing” (28); Victorian ideal of aspiration, 28.
--must fill space, no vacancy, 30
Does this view of vision cast light on Ruskin’s artistic preferences? (visual confusion a matter of morality)
What objections does he have to the representation of nature in the works of the French landscape painter Claude? (over-generalizes, repeats generic forms, 30) What in Ruskin’s view should be the relation of generalization to accuracy in presenting the parts of a whole? (31)
--[the painter] has not one thousandth part of the space to occupy which nature has; but he can, at least, leave no part of that space vacant and unprofitable. (31)
Does Ruskin admire any non-English painters?
On what grounds does he praise Turner’s painting of Mercury and Argus? (31-32)
--“clearly and fully as the idea is formed, just so much of it is given, and no more, as nature would have allowed us to feel or see” (31)
"Of Water, as Painted by Turner"
What are some features of Ruskin’s language? Of his narrative point of view? In what ways is his prose poetic?
What are some reasons Ruskin may have chosen W. M. Turner’s paintings as the subject of his commentaries on water, seascapes and perception?
What interests Ruskin about our perception of reflections in water? Why are these difficult to paint?
How is Ruskin’s approach to nature like or unlike that of Wordsworth? Of the deep ecologists?
What are features of his descriptions of falling water? Why is he concerned with the "spring" and the "plunge" of the fall?
What are qualities of the sea seen by someone who is actually on/in it? (39-40) Could Ruskin know by experience the "prolonged endurance of drowning which few people have courage to go through"?
Why may he be attracted to imagining the sea in a state of violent agitation?
What appeals to him in Turner’s painting, "The Slave Ship"?
After looking at the painting, do you agree that the painting contains "not one false or morbid hue"? What may he mean by this statement?
What aspects of religion seem to attract him? Why does he find exhilaration in a picture of corpses thrown into the sea?
What do you think would have been the effect of reading Modern Painters for a generation of young Victorians?
Can you see ways in which he has been influenced by Joshua Reynold's Discourses on Art in method and substance? Does he gradually depart even further from Reynolds as he progresses?
Are there ways in which his views parallel those of Carlyle in Sartor Resartus? (preoccupation with impenetrable nature of mystery, importance of perspective and the perceiver, inner vision of truth, duty to understand and perceive)
Volume Three: “Of the Received Opinions Touching the ‘Grand Style’”
Against which aspects of Reynold’s definition of noble art does Ruskin believe himself to be rebelling?
--distinction between high and low art
--distinction between central, invariable ideas rather than detail
--contempt for Dutch, praise for Italian art, as representing low and high schools respectively (yet Ruskin himself prefers Italian to Dutch art, if on allegedly other grounds)
--assumption that poetical art is less detailed (to Ruskin it should be more detailed)
Does Ruskin himself maintain the high/low distinction?
--wants to reestablish its grounds
To what extent is Ruskin here able to reverse or provide for alternate definitions?
--speaks of universal truth
--shows that details are important to poetry, and later expands the definition of these details to include their capacity to arouse noble emotions
What do you make of the sudden leap from art theory to poetry? In what context does he adduce Byron’s poetry, and what does he find to praise in it?
--though seemingly fanciful, his descriptions of water and distance add more details than a more prosaic description would do. Its power derives not from generalized description but from an understanding of the specific features of a particular scene.
Ruskin may be quibbling somewhat in interpreting Reynold’s theories as denying the importance of detail; Reynold’s doctrines also included the idea of representative or generalizable details. Compare, too, Ruskin’s own notion of “savageness” or incompleteness, which could be interpreted as an impatience with getting the minutiae exactly right. Ruskin may be reacting hostilely to Reynold’s practice, for his portraits can seem repetitive and somewhat formulaic.
In interpreting Byron, he ignores the extent to which the language of “The Prisoner of Chillon” is chosen for its evocative quality, as in the line, “So far the fathom line was sent.”
Along the way, he notes that if Reynold’s definition of Dutch and Italian schools of painting were accurate, we should in fact prefer the former. Yet since Ruskin wished to praise modern British rather than Dutch art, he merely asserts that Dutch painting is not poetic, rather than considering its virtues or limitations with examples, and proceeds to his own discussion of poetry.
What is a “poetical” treatment in art?
Poetry is “the suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions”—must be felt on “great and true grounds,” (50). Again there is a high/low distinction—some grounds are “false.”
On what grounds can we discern poetic feeling? Poetry is “the suggestion, by the imagination, of noble grounds for the noble emotions.” (50)
According to Ruskin, how can one tell which subjects are not great? (51-52)
What examples does he give of “false” references? Can you see any pattern to his choices? (mercantile references; small cheating is insignificant; shops and fireworks are not great)
Do his evaluations here switch from assessing the author’s imagination to a moral/ideological evaluation of the subject?
--it is not enough to have emotion; emotion must be finished by imagination, 51
He constructs a hierarchy of subjects and contexts—again, extra-painterly criteria—“Love, Veneration, Admiration, and Joy” and “Hatred, Indignation, Horror, and Grief.” How can we tell whether the grounds for the noble emotions are noble? How can we perceive that Turner’s portrayals of the English landscape are nobler than those of Constable?
--by noble Ruskin means something close to “sublime”
Since both poetry and history are detailed, how can we distinguish poetry from history?
--detail must suggest noble emotions, 49-50
--details are furnished by the imagination to create affecting result, 51-52.
This would seem to suggest a focus on the purpose of art, a teleological test: the artist’s intention to excite noble emotions and to a lesser degree, on the audience’s response.
Who are the persons capable of producing great art?
--great art is produced by men who feel acutely and nobly, 53
If accepted, what effect would such a view have on art criticism?
--would be biographical, concerned with selecting painters of genius and morality
--intentional or characterological readings common in Victorian literature, as in Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship, or Browning’s monologues about painters such as “Andrea del Sarto,” to Tennyson’s “The Palace of Art”
For Ruskin, does poetry seem to be similar in its essence to painting? (52)
--poetry exists equally through language and painting (cmp. the aims of the Pre-Raphaelites)
What consequences, if any, do these elisions produce? (contrast Pater later in the century—art aspires to the condition of music)
In fact, displays of flares were presented in one of Holman Hunt’s paintings, “London Bridge by Night.” Presumbably in some contexts the display of warehouse goods could be noble—perhaps a painting of Joseph as regent in Egypt feeding his people.
Then Ruskin says, the distinction is not in the kinds of details portrayed but the uses for which it employs them.
What is the relation of the private/poet’s life to his work? (53) Great art is produced by men who feel acutely and nobly.
--biographical fallacy—examining the life to see if the artist was capable of great work. By this standard many would fail!
“Of the Naturalist Ideal”
In discussing art which represents “things as they are,” how does Ruskin reconcile the desire to reproduce perfect or ideal human forms with the tenets of “naturalism”?
--great painters emphasize contrast, also see the ugly as conforming to “type” (56); his rhetoric moves toward something of Keats’ “negative capability”: The man who can see truth at all, sees it totally,” 56.
Ruskin doesn’t assume that there are no imperfect forms; instead, the contrast theory depends on acceptance of hierarchies, 56.
--ideal types are the “highest personages” of story, where their appearance “rationally to be supposed.” (56)
How do you reconcile this with Ruskin’s earlier insistence on noble ideas, forms, and emotions?
--he wishes these noble forms placed at the center of a work, doesn’t accept that this may misrepresent nature.
--the ideal is “naturalist, because studied from nature, and ideal, because it is mentally arranged in a certain manner.” (57)
Earlier he had avoided discussion of structure, the relationship of parts to the whole, but these are crucial to any definition of “nobility.”
--ordering imaginative vision—moves toward commenting on unconscious origins of art and its essentially unified structure.
Can you see any parallels between Ruskin’s remarks and twentieth-century debates over whether art has an “organic form”?
How does Ruskin define the necessity for a painter to see before he creates? (57) Is this a physical or mental sight?
--can see either mentally or physically, 58
--all great men see what they paint before they paint it; has just distanced himself from photographic literalism
Is this a romantic concept of inspiration? (wise passiveness; Blake, Coleridge)
Paintings, of course, are the representatives of detailed vision.
What is meant by Ruskin’s view that “great art represents something that it sees or believes in;--nothing unseen or uncredited” (58)? How can Dante’s representation of a centaur, Chiron, be described as an instance of vision?
How does one know whether an artist has seen what s/he reproduces?
--could point toward biographic evidence—did the author really believe the vision? or the assertion could become a tautology: a true vision was really seen.
Here he introduces the idea of belief—the artist believes what he sees to be true. Sincerity and conviction become further tests of art—grotesque and nonliteral truth become possible (58). [This would seem to contrast with his earlier attacks on Reynolds’ respect for Homer, in which he seemed to find unnatural traits of Homer gratuitous. Now he might see them as the result of a whole and sincere vision.]
How does Ruskin reconcile the acceptance of the “vulgar” and “commonplace” with his bias toward great and noble ideas? (59)
--great idealists venture into what the pseudo-idealists call “vulgarities”
--no whole truth is vulgar—test of range and sincerity; compare 50, cannot be appropriately enraged over a small theft
What relationship does the harmony of the parts have to the work of art?
--praises Homer, “the whole harmony of the thing done seems as if it had been wrought by the most exquisite rules.” (60)
--the artistic process seems passive, the personality suspended, but its “whole harmony” testifies that/she possesses a receptive personality for this vision
What does Ruskin assert about the artistic representations of past ages?
--must capture the universal and avoid specific efforts to reproduce the superficial manners of past ages (60-61); it is acceptable to mix the features of different periods, as did Shakespeare.
[Why then represent past ages at all? Why the lamp of memory?]
Since Ruskin opposed literal medievalism as antiquarianism, there is an irony in the fact that his writings helped encourage the taste for Victorian gothic architecture.
“Of the Pathetic Fallacy”
What is Ruskin’s definition of the pathetic fallacy, and according to him which poets seem to have used it? Where do they appear in his hierarchy of four classes of poets?
--pathetic fallacy is a distorted perception of nature by the mind in a state of passionate emotion, 65, not the literal truth, fuses objective and subjective
attacks false metaphor (64-65), yet styles in metaphor change with different time periods
What are the four classes of poets, according to Ruskin?
--the lowest are those who maintain correct perception without feeling
--the second order are those who feel strongly, think weakly and see untruly—among these he classes Keats and Tennyson (68); seems to dislike nineteenth century romanticism
--third order are those who feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly
--the poets of vision, inspired language and wild metaphor. These see untruly because what they see is inconceivably above them [a kind of sublimity]: “the men who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they” and who govern their strong feelings.
Which poets does he class in this fourth, prophetic category?
--Homer, Dante and Shakespeare.
How can we tell whether a poet is in the second or fourth category, that is, whether he is weak or inspired?
--intentional standard, 68
--nature and strength of passion determine whether one should control it fully
--one should fix on pure [but suggestive] fact, 69
What kinds of poetic diction does Ruskin find affected?
In advocating the test of sincerity, does Ruskin explain how we can tell whether a statement of poetic passion is affected or sincere?
--art judged by intention of the author, 70; again seems to approach biographical fallacy
According to Ruskin, whose poetry best illustrates sincere pathetic fallacy?
Does Wordsworth illustrate Ruskin’s final statement, “the pathetic fallacy, . . . so far as it is a fallacy, . . . is always the sign of a morbid state of mind, and comparatively of a weak one”? (72)
--sees Pope as affected, Wordsworth as representing psychological truth
Is the distinction between a “pathetic fallacy” and a successful image easy to discern?
To what extent does Ruskin approve this feature of the modern sensibility?
--ambivalent toward a characteristic of Romantic art to which he responds deeply
How central is the feature he labels “pathetic fallacy” to Romantic and modern poetry?
from The Seven Lamps of Architecture, "The Lamp of Memory"
What are some passages of this essay in which style follows and creates meaning?
What, according to Ruskin, are the "two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men"? (131) Of these, what is unique about architecture?
For whom should we build? What kind of buildings should we build for our descendants?
In your opinion, are Ruskin’s principles now followed? If they were, how might the quality of cities be changed?
What should be the effect of the "golden stain of time"?
What are the essential qualities of nature, in his view, and how may buildings imitate these? (132-33)
Why does he dislike "restoration"? What is dishonest about it? What are some alternatives?
What are some ways in which Ruskin uses personification? (136) Is this effective?
Why do we lack the right to destroy old buildings? Could these principles be applied to other non-replaceable aspects of life, such as supplies of natural resources, forests or water?
What are proper principles of preservation, in Ruskin’s view? (Most of these were embodied in the principles of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). Do modern restoration projects you have visited seem to abide by the same principles?
from The White Thorn-Blossom
What are some limitations of communication technology and the search for speed, in Ruskin’s view? (367-68)
What is destroying our clean air? our clean water? our earth?
What solutions does he propose to protect and renew each?