John Ruskin and Modern Painters

John Ruskin goes hand-in-hand with the work of J.M.W Turner, because as critics ravaged Turner’s new, non-traditional approach to art, it was Ruskin who defended him and other artists like him, with the release of the book Modern Painters.

The well-reasoned critique within Modern Painters helped set the stage, or at least, provided enough rationale to new and different approaches to art, that it is a variable that needs to be accounted for in the transition from Romanticism to Impressionism.  There is much in the book that should be devoured with glee, but I want to point out a specific quote: There is a moral as well as material truth – a truth of impression as well as of form – of thought as well as of matter.

In other words, there is truth in perception as there is in reality.  A mountain exists in the landscape whether I see it or not. It is true by its nature. But when I do finally see that mountain, my impression of it is equally true, regardless of how it measures up to its nature.

What Ruskin states in Modern Painters is that an artist is obliged to be truthful to the thought of the mountain as to the mountain itself.  And if the techniques of paintings used to convey the truth of the thoughts run counter to the techniques employed by the Italian and Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, than so be it.   For an artist, it is truth one is after, not a specific technique or approach to the truth.

So when J.M.W. Turner showed this piece…

…yes, it was different, new, and non-traditional in its approach.  But from Ruskin’s point of view, Turner was being truthful to the impression of what he saw,  and was effective enough in his technique to convey it. This is, in part, what makes Turner great.

There’s far more to Modern Painters than that simple idea. His take down of the painters who we deem “The Masters” is, in of itself, masterful. From an art history perspective, however, just know that this book exists and that it challenged the notion of what “art” was at the time of its release in 1843.


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