John Ruskin, the greatest Victorian bar Victoria, was an artist, scientist, poet, environmentalist, philosopher, and, importantly here, the pre-eminent art critic of his time. He provided the impetus that gained respectability for the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin’s letter to The Times in 1851, supporting the much-derided Pre-Raphaelites for their naturalism and truth to nature, marked a turning point in their perception by the public. In a second letter, he wrote that the Pre-Raphaelites might “lay the foundation of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for 300 years.”
When, after this, Ruskin met the Pre-Raphaelites, he encouraged them in their ideals, acting as tutor, mentor, and generous supporter to Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt, as well as later artists in a similar spirit such as John Brett and John William Inchbold. He was a long-time friend of the children’s illustrator Kate Greenaway, and also of the bird-painter H. S. Marks.
Ruskin taught Pre-Raphaelite style drawing at the Working Men’s College in London for some years, enlisting Rossetti to teach figure and watercolor painting, and afterwards Ford Madox Brown to fill the same position. Afterwards, he left London, becoming Slade Professor of Art at Oxford (where there is an art college named after him) and then removing to the Lake District where he helped to start the Environmental Movement.
Ruskin then turns to the more emotional part of his aesthetic, Vital Beauty, the beauty of living things. He begins with a word painting that contains contrasted examples of both forms of the beautiful, and this is followed by an explanation of the principles of Vital Beauty:
I have already noticed the example of very pure and high typical beauty which is to be found in the lines and gradations of unsullied snow: if, passing to the edge of a sheet of it, upon the Lower Alps, early in May, we find, as we are nearly sure to find, two or three little round openings pierced in it, and through these emergent, a slender, pensive, fragile flower, whose small, dark purple, fringed bell hangs down and shudders over the icy cleft that it has cloven, as if partly wondering at its own recent grave, and partly dying of very fatigue after its hard-won victory; we shall be, or we ought to be, moved by a totally different impression of loveliness from that which we receive among the dead ice and the idle clouds. There is now uttered to us a call for sympathy, now offered to us an image of moral purpose and achievement, which, however unconscious or senseless the creature may indeed be that so seems to call, cannot be heard without affection, nor contemplated without worship, by any of us whose heart is rightly tuned, or whose mind is clearly and surely sighted.
Throughout the whole of the organic creation every being in a perfect state exhibits certain appearances or evidences of happiness; and is in its nature, its desires, its modes of nourishment, habitation, and death, illustrative or expressive of certain moral dispositions or principles. Now, first, in the keenness of the sympathy which we feel in the happiness, real or apparent, of all organic beings, and which, as we shall presently see, invariably prompts us, from the joy we have in it, to look upon those as most lovely which are most happy; and, secondly, in the justness of the moral sense which rightly reads the lesson they are all intended to teach . . . consists, I say, the ultimately perfect condition of that noble Theoretic faculty, whose place in the system of our nature I have already partly vindicated with respect to typical, but which can only fully be established with respect to vital beauty.
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Ruskin" https://englishhistory.net/victorian/famous-people/john-ruskin/, January 12, 2022