Modern Painters Volume I (of V)
by John Ruskin
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Sec. 7. Truth, a standard of all excellence.

Nor are we disposed to recede from our assertion made in Sec. I. Ch. I. Sec. 10, that this material truth is indeed a perfect test of the relative rank of painters, though it does not in itself constitute that rank. We shall be able to prove that truth and beauty, knowledge and imagination, invariably are associated in art; and we shall be able to show that not only in truth to nature, but in all other points, Turner is the greatest landscape painter who has ever lived. But his superiority is, in matters of feeling, one of kind, not of degree. Superiority of degree implies a superseding of others, superiority of kind only sustaining a more important, but not more necessary part, than others. If truth were all that we required from art, all other painters might cast aside their brushes in despair, for all that they have done he has done more fully and accurately; but when we pass to the higher requirements of art, beauty and character, their contributions are all equally necessary and desirable, because different, and however inferior in position or rank, are still perfect of their kind; their inferiority is only that of the lark to the nightingale, or of the violet to the rose.

Sec. 8. Modern criticism. Changefulness of public taste.

Sec. 9. Yet associated with a certain degree of judgment.

Sec. 10. Duty of the press.

Such then is the rank and standing of our modern artists. We have, living with us, and painting for us, the greatest painter of all time; a man with whose supremacy of power no intellect of past ages can be put in comparison for a moment. Let us next inquire what is the rank of our critics. Public taste, I believe, as far as it is the encourager and supporter of art has been the same in all ages,—a fitful and vacillating current of vague impression, perpetually liable to change, subject to epidemic desires, and agitated by infectious passion, the slave of fashion, and the fool of fancy, but yet always distinguishing with singular clearsightedness, between that which is best and that which is worst of the particular class of food which its morbid appetite may call for; never failing to distinguish that which is produced by intellect, from that which is not, though it may be intellect degraded by ministering to its misguided will. Public taste may thus degrade a race of men capable of the highest efforts in art into the portrait painters of ephemeral fashions, but it will yet not fail of discovering who, among these portrait painters, is the man of most mind. It will separate the man who would have become Buonaroti from the man who would have become Bandinelli, though it will employ both in painting curls, and feathers, and bracelets. Hence, generally speaking, there is no comparative injustice done, no false elevation of the fool above the man of mind, provided only that the man of mind will condescend to supply the particular article which the public chooses to want. Of course a thousand modifying circumstances interfere with the action of the general rule; but, taking one case with another, we shall very constantly find the price which the picture commands in the market a pretty fair standard of the artist's rank of intellect. The press, therefore, and all who pretend to lead the public taste, have not so much to direct the multitude whom to go to, as what to ask for. Their business is not to tell us which is our best painter, but to tell us whether we are making our best painter do his best.

Sec. 11. Qualifications necessary for discharging it.

Sec. 12. General incapability of modern critics.

Sec. 13. And inconsistency with themselves.

Now none are capable of doing this, but those whose principles of judgment are based both on thorough practical knowledge of art, and on broad general views of what is true and right, without reference to what has been done at one time or another, or in one school or another. Nothing can be more perilous to the cause of art, than the constant ringing in our painters' ears of the names of great predecessors, as their examples or masters. I had rather hear a great poet, entirely original in his feeling and aim, rebuked or maligned for not being like Wordsworth or Coleridge, than a great painter criticised for not putting us in mind of Claude or Poussin. But such references to former excellence are the only refuge and resource of persons endeavoring to be critics without being artists. They cannot tell you whether a thing is right or not; but they can tell you whether it is like something else or not. And the whole tone of modern criticism—as far as it is worthy of being called criticism—sufficiently shows it to proceed entirely from persons altogether unversed in practice, and ignorant of truth, but possessing just enough of feeling to enjoy the solemnity of ancient art, who, not distinguishing that which is really exalted and valuable in the modern school, nor having any just idea of the real ends or capabilities of landscape art, consider nothing right which is not based on the conventional principles of the ancients, and nothing true which has more of nature in it than of Claude. But it is strange that while the noble and unequalled works of modern landscape painters are thus maligned and misunderstood, our historical painters—such as we have—are permitted to pander more fatally every year to the vicious English taste, which can enjoy nothing but what is theatrical, entirely unchastised, nay, encouraged and lauded by the very men who endeavor to hamper our great landscape painters with rules derived from consecrated blunders. The very critic who has just passed one of the noblest works of Turner—that is to say, a masterpiece of art, to which Time can show no parallel—with a ribald jest, will yet stand gaping in admiration before the next piece of dramatic glitter and grimace, suggested by the society, and adorned with the appurtenances of the greenroom, which he finds hung low upon the wall as a brilliant example of the ideal of English art. It is natural enough indeed, that the persons who are disgusted by what is pure and noble, should be delighted with what is vicious and degraded; but it is singular that those who are constantly talking of Claude and Poussin, should never even pretend to a thought of Raffaelle. We could excuse them for not comprehending Turner, if they only would apply the same cut-and-dried criticisms where they might be applied with truth, and productive of benefit; but we endure not the paltry compound of ignorance, false taste, and pretension, which assumes the dignity of classical feeling, that it may be able to abuse whatever is above the level of its understanding, but bursts into genuine rapture with all that is meretricious, if sufficiently adapted to the calibre of its comprehension.

Sec. 14. How the press may really advance the cause of art.

To notice such criticisms, however, is giving them far more importance than they deserve. They can lead none astray but those whose opinions are absolutely valueless, and we did not begin this chapter with any intent of wasting our time on these small critics, but in the hope of pointing out to the periodical press what kind of criticism is now most required by our school of landscape art, and how it may be in their power, if they will, to regulate its impulses, without checking its energies, and really to advance both the cause of the artist, and the taste of the public.

Sec. 15. Morbid fondness at the present day for unfinished works.

Sec. 16. By which the public defraud themselves.

Sec. 17. And in pandering to which, artists ruin themselves.

Sec. 18. Necessity of finishing works of art perfectly.

One of the most morbid symptoms of the general taste of the present day, is a too great fondness for unfinished works. Brilliancy and rapidity of execution are everywhere sought as the highest good, and so that a picture be cleverly handled as far as it is carried, little regard is paid to its imperfection as a whole. Hence some artists are permitted, and others compelled, to confine themselves to a manner of working altogether destructive of their powers, and to tax their energies, not to concentrate the greatest quantity of thought on the least possible space of canvas, but to produce the greatest quantity of glitter and claptrap in the shortest possible time. To the idler and the trickster in art, no system can be more advantageous; but to the man who is really desirous of doing something worth having lived for—to a man of industry, energy, or feeling, we believe it to be the cause of the most bitter discouragement. If ever, working upon a favorite subject or a beloved idea, he is induced to tax his powers to the utmost, and to spend as much time upon his picture as he feels necessary for its perfection, he will not be able to get so high a price for the result, perhaps, of a twelvemonth's thought, as he might have obtained for half-a-dozen sketches with a forenoon's work in each, and he is compelled either to fall back upon mechanism, or to starve. Now the press should especially endeavor to convince the public, that by this purchase of imperfect pictures they not only prevent all progress and development of high talent, and set tricksters and mechanics on a level with men of mind, but defraud and injure themselves. For there is no doubt whatever, that, estimated merely by the quantity of pleasure it is capable of conveying, a well-finished picture is worth to its possessor half-a-dozen incomplete ones; and that a perfect drawing is, simply as a source of delight, better worth a hundred guineas than a drawing half as finished is worth thirty. On the other hand, the body of our artists should be kept in mind, that by indulging the public with rapid and unconsidered work, they are not only depriving themselves of the benefit which each picture ought to render to them, as a piece of practice and study, but they are destroying the refinement of general taste, and rendering it impossible for themselves ever to find a market for more careful works, supposing that they were inclined to execute them. Nor need any single artist be afraid of setting the example, and producing labored works, at advanced prices, among the cheap, quick drawings of the day. The public will soon find the value of the complete work, and will be more ready to give a large sum for that which is inexhaustible, than a quota of it for that which they are wearied of in a month. The artist who never lets the price command the picture, will soon find the picture command the price. And it ought to be a rule with every painter never to let a picture leave his easel while it is yet capable of improvement, or of having more thought put into it. The general effect is often perfect and pleasing, and not to be improved upon, when the details and facts are altogether imperfect and unsatisfactory. It may be difficult—perhaps the most difficult task of art—to complete these details, and not to hurt the general effect; but until the artist can do this, his art is imperfect and his picture unfinished. That only is a complete picture which has both the general wholeness and effect of nature, and the inexhaustible perfection of nature's details. And it is only in the effort to unite these that a painter really improves. By aiming only at details, he becomes a mechanic; by aiming only at generals, he becomes a trickster: his fall in both cases is sure. Two questions the artist has, therefore, always to ask himself,—first, "Is my whole right?" Secondly, "Can my details be added to? Is there a single space in the picture where I can crowd in another thought? Is there a curve in it which I can modulate—a line which I can graduate—a vacancy I can fill? Is there a single spot which the eye, by any peering or prying, can fathom or exhaust? If so, my picture is imperfect; and if, in modulating the line or filling the vacancy, I hurt the general effect, my art is imperfect."

Sec. 19. Sketches not sufficiently encouraged.

But, on the other hand, though incomplete pictures ought neither to be produced nor purchased, careful and real sketches ought to be valued much more highly than they are. Studies in chalk, of landscape, should form a part of every Exhibition, and a room should be allotted to drawings and designs of figures in the Academy. We should be heartily glad to see the room which is now devoted to bad drawings of incorporeal and imaginary architecture—of things which never were, and which, thank Heaven! never will be—occupied instead, by careful studies for historical pictures; not blots of chiaroscuro, but delicate outlines with the pen or crayon.

Sec. 20. Brilliancy of execution or efforts at invention not to be tolerated in young artists.

Sec. 21. The duty and after privileges of all students.

From young artists, in landscape, nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature. They have no business to ape the execution of masters,—to utter weak and disjointed repetitions of other men's words, and mimic the gestures of the preacher, without understanding his meaning or sharing in his emotions. We do not want their crude ideas of composition, their unformed conceptions of the Beautiful, their unsystematized experiments upon the Sublime. We scorn their velocity; for it is without direction: we reject their decision; for it is without grounds: we contemn their composition; for it is without materials: we reprobate their choice; for it is without comparison. Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God. Nothing is so bad a symptom, in the work of young artists, as too much dexterity of handling; for it is a sign that they are satisfied with their work, and have tried to do nothing more than they were able to do. Their work should be full of failures; for these are the signs of efforts. They should keep to quiet colors—grays and browns; and, making the early works of Turner their example, as his latest are to be their object of emulation, should go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth. Then, when their memories are stored, and their imaginations fed, and their hands firm, let them take up the scarlet and the gold, give the reins to their fancy, and show us what their heads are made of. We will follow them wherever they choose to lead; we will check at nothing; they are then our masters, and are fit to be so. They have placed themselves above our criticism, and we will listen to their words in all faith and humility; but not unless they themselves have before bowed, in the same submission, to a higher Authority and Master.

Sec. 22. Necessity among our greater artists of more singleness of aim.

Among our greater artists, the chief want, at the present day, is that of solemnity and definite purpose. We have too much picture-manufacturing, too much making up of lay figures with a certain quantity of foliage, and a certain quantity of sky, and a certain quantity of water,—a little bit of all that is pretty, a little sun, and a little shade,—a touch of pink, and a touch of blue,—a little sentiment, and a little sublimity, and a little humor, and a little antiquarianism,—all very neatly associated in a very charming picture, but not working together for a definite end. Or if the aim be higher, as was the case with Barrett and Varley, we are generally put off with stale repetitions of eternal composition; a great tree, and some goats, and a bridge and a lake, and the Temple at Tivoli, etc. Now we should like to see our artists working out, with all exertion of their concentrated powers, such marked pieces of landscape character as might bear upon them the impression of solemn, earnest, and pervading thought, definitely directed, and aided by every accessory of detail, color, and idealized form, which the disciplined feeling, accumulated knowledge, and unspared labor of the painter could supply. I have alluded, in the second preface, to the deficiency of our modern artists in these great points of earnestness and completeness; and I revert to it, in conclusion, as their paramount failing, and one fatal in many ways to the interests of art. Our landscapes are all descriptive, not reflective, agreeable and conversational, but not impressive nor didactic. They have no other foundation than

"That vivacious versatility, Which many people take for want of heart. They err; 'tis merely what is called "mobility;" A thing of temperament, and not of art, Though seeming so from its supposed facility.

* * * * *

This makes your actors, artists, and romancers; Little that's great—but much of what is clever."

Only it is to be observed that—in painters—this vivacity is not always versatile. It is to be wished that it were, but it is no such easy matter to be versatile in painting. Shallowness of thought insures not its variety, nor rapidity of production its originality. Whatever may be the case in literature, facility is in art inconsistent with invention. The artist who covers most canvas always shows, even in the sum of his works, the least expenditure of thought.[79] I have never seen more than four works of John Lewis on the walls of the Water-Color Exhibition; I have counted forty from other hands; but have found in the end that the forty were a multiplication of one, and the four a concentration of forty. And therefore I would earnestly plead with all our artists, that they should make it a law never to repeat themselves; for he who never repeats himself will not produce an inordinate number of pictures, and he who limits himself in number gives himself at least the opportunity of completion. Besides, all repetition is degradation of the art; it reduces it from headwork to handwork; and indicates something like a persuasion on the part of the artist that nature is exhaustible or art perfectible; perhaps, even, by him exhausted and perfected. All copyists are contemptible, but the copyist of himself the most so, for he has the worst original.

Sec. 23. What should be their general aim.

Let then every picture be painted with earnest intention of impressing on the spectator some elevated emotion, and exhibiting to him some one particular, but exalted, beauty. Let a real subject be carefully selected, in itself suggestive of, and replete with, this feeling and beauty; let an effect of light and color be taken which may harmonize with both; and a sky, not invented, but recollected, (in fact, all so-called invention is in landscape nothing more than appropriate recollection—good in proportion as it is distinct.) Then let the details of the foreground be separately studied, especially those plants which appear peculiar to the place: if any one, however unimportant, occurs there, which occurs not elsewhere, it should occupy a prominent position; for the other details, the highest examples of the ideal forms[80] or characters which he requires are to be selected by the artist from his former studies, or fresh studies made expressly for the purpose, leaving as little as possible—nothing, in fact, beyond their connection and arrangement—to mere imagination. Finally, when his picture is thus perfectly realized in all its parts, let him dash as much of it out as he likes; throw, if he will, mist around it—darkness—or dazzling and confused light—whatever, in fact, impetuous feeling or vigorous imagination may dictate or desire; the forms, once so laboriously realized, will come out whenever they do occur with a startling and impressive truth, which the uncertainty in which they are veiled will enhance rather than diminish; and the imagination, strengthened by discipline and fed with truth, will achieve the utmost of creation that is possible to finite mind.

The artist who thus works will soon find that he cannot repeat himself if he would; that new fields of exertion, new subjects of contemplation open to him in nature day by day, and that, while others lament the weakness of their invention, he has nothing to lament but the shortness of life.

Sec. 24. Duty of the press with respect to the works of Turner.

And now but one word more, respecting the great artist whose works have formed the chief subject of this treatise. All the greatest qualities of those works—all that is mental in them, has not yet been so much as touched upon. None but their lightest and least essential excellences have been proved, and, therefore, the enthusiasm with which I speak of them must necessarily appear overcharged and absurd. It, might, perhaps, have been more prudent to have withheld the full expression of it till I had shown the full grounds for it; but once written, such expression must remain till I have justified it. And, indeed, I think there is enough, even in the foregoing pages, to show that these works are, as far as concerns the ordinary critics of the press, above all animadversion, and above all praise; and that, by the public, they are not to be received as in any way subjects or matters of opinion, but of Faith. We are not to approach them to be pleased, but to be taught; not to form a judgment, but to receive a lesson. Our periodical writers, therefore, may save themselves the trouble either of blaming or praising: their duty is not to pronounce opinions upon the work of a man who has walked with nature threescore years; but to impress upon the public the respect with which they are to be received, and to make request to him, on the part of the people of England, that he would now touch no unimportant work—that he would not spend time on slight or small pictures, but give to the nation a series of grand, consistent, systematic, and completed poems. We desire that he should follow out his own thoughts and intents of heart, without reference to any human authority. But we request, in all humility, that those thoughts may be seriously and loftily given; and that the whole power of his unequalled intellect may be exerted in the production of such works as may remain forever for the teaching of the nations. In all that he says, we believe; in all that he does we trust.[81] It is therefore that we pray him to utter nothing lightly—to do nothing regardlessly. He stands upon an eminence, from which he looks back over the universe of God, and forward over the generations of men. Let every work of his hand be a history of the one, and a lesson to the other. Let each exertion of his mighty mind be both hymn and prophecy,—adoration, to the Deity,—revelation to mankind.


[79] Of course this assertion does not refer to the differences in mode of execution, which enable one painter to work faster or slower than another, but only to the exertion of mind, commonly manifested by the artist, according as he is sparing or prodigal of production.

[80] "Talk of improving nature when it is nature—Nonsense."—E. V. Rippingille. I have not yet spoken of the difference—even in what we commonly call Nature—between imperfect and ideal form: the study of this difficult question must, of course, be deferred until we have examined the nature of our impressions of beauty; but it may not be out of place here to hint at the want of care in many of our artists to distinguish between the real work of nature and the diseased results of man's interference with her. Many of the works of our greatest artists have for their subjects nothing but hacked and hewn remnants of farm-yard vegetation, branded root and branch, from their birth, by the prong and the pruning-hook; and the feelings once accustomed to take pleasure in such abortions, can scarcely become perceptive of forms truly ideal. I have just said (423) that young painters should go to nature trustingly,—rejecting nothing, and selecting nothing: so they should; but they must be careful that it is nature to whom they go—nature in her liberty—not as servant-of-all-work in the hands of the agriculturist, nor stiffened into court-dress by the landscape gardener. It must be the pure, wild volition and energy of the creation which they follow—not subdued to the furrow, and cicatrized to the pollard—not persuaded into proprieties, nor pampered into diseases. Let them work by the torrent-side, and in the forest shadows; not by purling brooks and under "tonsile shades." It is impossible to enter here into discussion of what man can or cannot do, by assisting natural operations: it is an intricate question: nor can I, without anticipating what I shall have hereafter to advance, show how or why it happens that the racehorse is not the artist's ideal of a horse, nor a prize tulip his ideal of a flower; but so it is. As far as the painter is concerned, man never touches nature but to spoil;—he operates on her as a barber would on the Apollo; and if he sometimes increases some particular power or excellence,—strength or agility in the animal—tallness, or fruitfulness, or solidity in the tree,—he invariably loses that balance of good qualities which is the chief sign of perfect specific form; above all, he destroys the appearance of free volition and felicity, which, as I shall show hereafter, is one of the essential characters of organic beauty. Until, however, I can enter into the discussion of the nature of beauty, the only advice I can safely give the young painter, is to keep clear of clover-fields and parks, and to hold to the unpenetrated forest and the unfurrowed hill. There he will find that every influence is noble, even when destructive—that decay itself is beautiful,—and that, in the elaborate and lovely composition of all things, if at first sight it seems less studied than the works of men, the appearance of Art is only prevented by the presence of Power.

"Nature never did betray The heart that loved her: 'tis her privilege, Through all the years of this our life, to lead From joy to joy; for she can so inform The mind that is within us, so impress With quietness and beauty, and so feed With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold Is full of blessings."


[81] It has been hinted, in some of the reviews of the Second Volume of this work, that the writer's respect for Turner has diminished since the above passage was written. He would, indeed, have been deserving of little attention if, with the boldness manifested on the preceding pages, he had advanced opinions based on so shallow foundation as that the course of three years could effect modification of them. He was justified by the sudden accession of power which the great artist exhibited at the period when this volume was first published, as well as by the low standard of the criticism to which he was subjected, in claiming, with respect to his then works, a submission of judgment, greater indeed than may generally be accorded to even the highest human intellect, yet not greater than such a master might legitimately claim from such critics; and the cause of the peculiar form of advocacy into which the preceding chapters necessarily fell, has been already stated more than once. In the following sections it became necessary, as they treated a subject of intricate relations, and peculiar difficulty, to obtain a more general view of the scope and operation of art, and to avoid all conclusions in any wise referable to the study of particular painters. The reader will therefore find, not that lower rank is attributed to Turner, but that he is now compared with the greatest men, and occupies his true position among the most noble of all time.


The above passage was written in the year 1843; too late. It is true that soon after the publication of this work, the abuse of the press, which had been directed against Turner with unceasing virulence during the production of his noblest works, sank into timid animadversion, or changed into unintelligent praise; but not before illness, and, in some degree, mortification, had enfeebled the hand and chilled the heart of the painter.

This year (1851) he has no picture on the walls of the Academy; and the Times of May 3d says, "We miss those works of INSPIRATION!"

We miss! Who misses?—The populace of England rolls by to weary itself in the great bazaar of Kensington, little thinking that a day will come when those veiled vestals and prancing amazons, and goodly merchandise of precious stones and gold, will all be forgotten as though they had not been, but that the light which has faded from the walls of the Academy is one which a million of Koh-i-Noors could not rekindle, and that the year 1851 will in the far future be remembered less for what it has displayed than for what it has withdrawn.

DENMARK HILL, June, 1851.


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Page xiii: 'attack of the following colums' corrected to 'columns'.

Page lxiii: (Table of Contents) Sec. 8. Monotony and falsehood... 239 corrected to 230.

Page 34: 'attained with greater porportional' corrected to 'proportional'.

Page 74: 'exquisite truths of specfic' corrected to 'specific'.

Page 84: 'things as in the right exhbition' corrected to 'exhibition'.

Page 89: 'man's working from nature comtinually' changed to 'continually'.

Page 146: 'But I allow this inferiority only with respect to the paintings,' superfluous comma omitted.

Page 277: 'But the vignette of Aosta, in the Italy', 'the' omitted.

Page 281: 'lateral chains separated rll' corrected to 'all'.

Footnote 41: Comma after Esq changed to period.

Footnote 74: 'is above stated refers, thoughout' changed to 'throughout'.


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