John Ruskin is celebrated as one of the most illustrious Victorian art critics and theorists of 19th century Britain, but his qualifications as an artist is little known. John Ruskin: Artist and Observer opens July 4, 2014 through September 28, 2014 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Ruskin was renowned for the scope of his subject matter and range of writing forms. However, he was also a draughtsman and watercolorist, who took inspiration from architecture and the natural world. Having acquired works from major private and public collections in the United States, Great Britain and Canada, the Edinburgh show will draw from Ruskin’s 60-year career. The exhibit highlights 140 watercolors, drawings and daguerreotypes such as Gothic palaces in Venice, detailed architectural renderings, skillfully colored ferns, trees, cloud studies and birds shown in meticulous detail, along with Scottish and Alpine landscapes.
The exhibit’s location is particularly relevant, as Ruskin came from a Scottish family, and was an impassioned activist for the splendor of its landscapes and literary traditions. Focusing on the aesthetic qualities, Ruskin’s renderings, with their expressive lyricism and grace, accurate detail and vibrant colors are like “a window in a brilliant and sometimes troubled soul.”
The critic’s creative works offer an observation on his remarkable academic projects and reveal the extent of his obsessive pursuits and spirits. His emotional breadth extended from “euphoric delight in pattern, color and texture” to utter hopelessness of what he distinguished as the eventual depravity of all things.
Photography played a critical role in Ruskin’s evolution. He considered it “a noble invention.” During the 1840s and 50s, he had assembled a substantial archive of daguerreotypes. The medium to Ruskin was an “aide-mémoire,” and functioned as an instrument that helped him identify areas of light and shadow in his drawings. It further helped him shape his awareness of landscape and architecture from which fostered an absolute philosophy of life; an opinion that reverberated throughout Britain during the Victorian era.
While he was not a professional artist, he sketched as a daily, journalistic exercise. For Ruskin, his drawings and watercolors were restorative. They allowed him to meditate on every facet of the physical world, to scrutinize the smallest details, to assemble data and bolster his knowledge and control of observation. He solely drew to witness and better understand the world around him. His theory of “truth to nature” was fixed in the conventions of fine art, but Ruskin also made use of the latest visual technologies. He stated, “Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.”
In 1871, Ruskin founded his Drawing School in Oxford. His purpose was not to instruct artists, but rather to guide ordinary people, who, if they adhered to his coursework, “might see greater beauties than they had hitherto seen in nature, and thereby gain more pleasure in life.” In essence, John Ruskin was eager to share a keener insight on his “philosophy of life” through artistic discovery.
Throughout his prolific career, the art critic changed his techniques “to suit his mood and preoccupation.” The artist, John Ruskin, strove to depict the power and the finest points in his continual probe of natural wonders and human identity. John Ruskin was not necessarily interested in the completed work of art, but more accurately in the process of seeing as both the artist and observer.
By Dawn Levesque