English art and social critic. Much of his finest art criticism appeared in two widely influential works, Modern Painters (1843–60) and The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). He was a keen advocate of painters considered unorthodox at the time, such as J M W Turner and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. His later writings were concerned with social and economic problems.
Ruskin was one of the major figures of 19th-century British intellectual life. Like his contemporaries Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, he was an outspoken critic of Victorian society, and, like them, called for a renewal of British moral, intellectual, and artistic life. His early works were concerned with architecture and painting: his support both for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Gothic Revival had a profound effect on Victorian art, architecture, and crafts.
From these aesthetic concerns he increasingly drew social and moral views, and from the 1860s he devoted himself to political and economic problems, condemning laissez-faire economics, and extolling both the dignity of labour and the moral and aesthetic value of ‘craftsmanship’. His beliefs took a practical turn, and he played a leading role in providing education and decent housing for working people.
Ruskin was born in London. His upbringing was abnormally strict; from childhood he was encouraged to read, write, and draw, and to appreciate the beauties of nature. He studied at Oxford, where he won the Newdigate prize for English verse in 1839, and took his degree in 1842.
He had already contributed articles to several magazines, but he became widely known in 1843 when he published the first volume of Modern Painters, in which he came forward with a defence and appreciation of Turner. The second volume, published 1846, attracted even wider attention. The third and fourth volumes appeared in 1856, and the fifth and last in 1860. Modern Painters contained the famous statement that the artist should ‘go to Nature in all singleness of heart ... rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing’.
In 1848 he married Euphemia Chalmers Gray, but the marriage was extremely unhappy. In 1855 his wife obtained a decree of nullity in an undefended suit and married the painter John Millais.
Ruskin's publications had made him famous. In 1851 he had effectively defended the Pre-Raphaelites in letters to The Times. He both wrote and illustrated The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice (1851–53), which established him as the leading authority on architecture as well as art, both of which he concluded were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in relation to national social and economic health. During 1854–59 he taught drawing at the Working Men's College, Red Lion Square (and persuaded Dante Gabriel Rossetti to do likewise), and produced The Elements of Drawing in 1857.
During the 1850s Ruskin turned his attention more and more to social, economic, and educational questions. During the years 1858–69 he taught at a school in Cheshire, and produced his controversial essays on economics for the Cornhill Magazine (subsequently issued as Unto This Last, 1862). Under the headings of education and political economy he wrote Sesame and Lilies (1865), The Ethics of the Dust (1866), and The Crown of Wild Olive (1866). His conclusions were not orthodox, but in all these publications Ruskin showed himself an ardent critic of modern civilization and the prophet of a spirit of regeneration. From 1855 he lectured all over the country on art, architecture, and economics. When his father died in 1864 he inherited a fairly substantial fortune, out of which he gave generously: he assisted and employed struggling artists, and gave money for a housing campaign.
In 1871 he moved to the Lake District, and founded his Utopian Guild of St George, whose members were supposed to establish land communities. The Guild's aims, and much invective against contemporary society, appeared in Fors Clavigera, monthly pamphlets addressed to the working men of Great Britain in the 1870s and 1880s. Ruskin was first Slade professor of Fine Art at Oxford from 1870–79 and he again occupied the chair from 1883–85. From 1885 he published from time to time Praeterita, an autobiography which he never completed. His health gave way in 1878, and from then on he had occasional periods of insanity.
Ruskin on Turner
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