John Ruskin was Britain’s first contemporary art critic. His support of Turner and pre-Raphaelite artists such as Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Holman-Hunt had a profound effect on mid-Victorian taste and resulted in a reversal of fortune for these artists.
Ruskin famously championed Turner in his first book Modern Painters, written at the age of twenty-four, and gave vocal support to the pre-Raphaelites throughout the 1850s. But Ruskin could also be damning. In his Academy Notes of the 1850s, he abandoned the anonymity typical of the period, and, a bit like a nineteenth-century Brian Sewell, set about castigating as well as praising the painters of his day.
The inaugural exhibition at the Tate Britain, “Ruskin, Turner and the pre-Raphaelites” (9 March-28 May) explores the modernity of Ruskin’s views on art. Curated by Robert Hewison, Slade professor of art at Oxford University, Stephen Wildman, curator of the Ruskin Library, and Ian Warrell at the Tate Gallery, it traces the development of Ruskin’s taste and of his own art. Thus artists that he ardently supported, such as Turner, Millais, Holman Hunt, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Elizabeth Siddal, as well as some that he virulently criticised, such as Whistler and Ford Madox Brown, will be shown alongside Ruskin’s own drawings.
The opening section of the exhibition confronts the paradox of Ruskin’s admiration for both the near-abstraction of Turner’s stormy mountains and seascapes and the detailed realism of a pre-Raphaelite artist such as Millais. These apparently contrasting painters were connected in Ruskin’s mind by their commitment to truth. Believing that God’s truth was manifest in nature, Ruskin felt the landscape artist had a duty to render this truth, be it through Turner’s imaginative powers or Millais’ attention to detail.
Ruskin’s taste is explored further in his drawings of Venetian and Gothic architecture; his activities as a patron and collector (paintings by Verrochio and Botticelli are on display); and a large section devoted to his detailed botanical studies, mountain scenes, and copies of Renaissance paintings and Gothic architecture.
In the 1860s, after experiencing a crisis of faith, Ruskin turned his focus towards social criticism and appears to have fallen behind with developments in modern art. Disapproving of an art that lacked moral purpose, he notoriously accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, after seeing his “Nocturne in black and gold” at the Grosvener gallery in 1877. He lost the ensuing libel case and was ordered to pay Whistler one guinea. However, the exhibition argues that Ruskin’s relationship with the burgeoning Aesthetic Movement was more complex than this anecdote suggests.
Even Turner sometimes found Ruskin’s criticism over-zealous, and in his later years Ruskin lost touch, focusing on minor figures like the illustrator Kate Greenaway. Yet his unflinching support of modern, British painting changed the face of Victorian art. (See also pp.40-42)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Modern painters'