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John Ruskin: 


A Capital in the 
Upper Arcade of 
the Fondaco 
dei Turchi,
Venice, c. 1850 

Dawn at 
Neuchatel, 1866

 The Grand Canal, 
Venice, from 
Ca'Bernardo to
Ca'Grimani, c. 1875 

Passage of Gruntel, 
john ruskin 
at salander-o'reilly  
by John Mendelsohn
John Ruskin (1819-1900), the English art critic, 

wrote books that were enormously influential during 

his lifetime, including Seven Lamps of Architecture 

and the multi-volume studies Modern Painters and 

The Stones of Venice. His influence was 

particularly strong in Victorian England, but 

through Walter Pater and other writers (including 

his celebrated opponents), he helped shape the 

debate over the nature of esthetic experience in 

modern art. 

Throughout his life Ruskin made numerous drawings 

and watercolors, both in conjunction with his 

writing and as independent works. Thirty-three 

examples of this rarely seen work were on view 

during September at Salander-O'Reilly.

Ranging from architectural studies to urban and 

landscape travel sketches, the pieces on view 

reveal Ruskin as a sensitive and highly skilled 

draughtsman. Beginning with View of Coblentz, drawn 

when he was 14, Ruskin prized literal 

transcription, fine detail and exactitude of form. 

The illustrative quality of his drawings had its 

origin both in their role as scholarly 

documentation and in Ruskin's devotion to the "old 

cult of nature," in the words of Paul Walton's 

excellent catalogue essay. This faith in the 

visible world comes through in everything from 

grand mountain landscapes, to architectural 

ornaments, to minute studies of feathers and 


Especially in the early, classical phase of his 

work, elegantly detailed passages are set against 

stretches of blank paper, indicating sky or water. 

This gambit flatters what is closely observed, like 

a jewel against velvet. It connects Ruskin's work 

with, in Walton's words, "the tradition of the 

picturesque." Especially favored are "the sweeping 

expanse of sky around his favorite mountains, 

vertiginous recession along a Venetian canal or 

plunging down a twisting street." For all its 

drama, this unpeopled world is seen in ways that 

strictly conform with the then-current protocols of 


For Ruskin, "the cult of old nature" is 

inextricably bound with the cult of beauty. To be 

esthetically sensitive before nature was to 

receive, in his words, "the impression of the 

mystery which, in our total ignorance, we call 

beauty." It is this preoccupation with beauty that, 

beginning with Pater, is transformed into the 

modernist devotion to pure esthetic experience. 

Ruskin, especially in the second phase of his 

visual work, is concerned with the play of light on 

surfaces, and with the rhythmic, curvilinear 

abstraction of natural form. A rather stirring 

example is his Tintoretto-influenced Thunder 

Clouds, Turin, with its huge clouds leaping like 

waves above the miniature landscape below.

In many of his watercolors and drawings, color is 

reduced to pale washes or limited to monochromes. 

Ruskin seems reluctant to compromise the clarity of 

his observations with the expressiveness of color. 

At times, as in Lucerne, a watery view of the city, 

color while still understated, is used with great 

warmth and charm. There are, however, a number of 

examples of Ruskin fully under the sway of Turner, 

his hero in Modern Painters. In these vivid 

watercolors, sky and water is fired by the rising or 

setting sun. Ruskin allows yellow, magenta and 

cobalt blue in delicate washes to describe the 

scene and to become themselves the subject of our 

contemplation. Intoxicated with beauty, some are 

nearly over the top with picturesque intensity.

The final stage of Ruskin's work, interrupted by 

intervals of mental illness, takes on a sketchier, 

more atmospheric cast. These works focus primarily 

on Alpine and Venetian themes, as well as Gothic 

architecture. In Ruskin's visual work are 

intimations of the "intensity of esthetic feeling" 

that, in Walton's estimation, was one of his unique 

contributions to art criticism. This reliance upon 

one's deeply felt response was formative not only 

to the esthetic movement of the 1870's, but to the 

modern notion of what constitutes the experience of 


"John Ruskin: Watercolors and Drawings" at 

Salander-O'Reilly, 20 E. 79th Street, New York, 

N.Y., Sept. 5-28, 1996.
JOHN MENDELSOHN is a New York artist who 

occasionally writes on art.