The English critic and social theorist John Ruskin (1819-1900) more than any other man shaped the esthetic values and tastes of Victorian England. His writings combine enormous sensitivity and human compassion with a burning zeal for moral value.
John Ruskin's principal insight was that art is an expression of the values of a society. Though he sometimes applied this insight in a narrow—even a bigoted—way, it nevertheless gave him an almost messianic sense of the significance of art to the spiritual wellbeing of a nation. Ruskin awakened an age of rapid change, uncertain taste, and frequently shoddy workmanship to the meaning of art. But because art was for Ruskin the evidence of society's underlying state of being, he gradually turned his attention, with a reformer's zeal, more and more from art to the transformation of society itself. Though his prose tracts were much abused, they were important and influential contributions to radical criticism of the dominant social and political philosophy of the age. Ruskin's art criticism found the most likely focus to interest a people whose leading concerns were more moral than esthetic.
Ruskin was born on Feb. 8, 1819, in London. His parents were of Scottish descent and were first cousins. His father was a well-to-do wine merchant with a fondness for art. His mother was stern and devout. Both parents lavished attention and supervision on their only child, recognizing his precociousness, but Ruskin's childhood was isolated and his education irregular. He was encouraged in reading, however, and received some instruction in art. In 1837 Ruskin matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, but his studies were interrupted by ill health and consequent travel abroad so that he did not receive his degree until 1842.
Ruskin had early begun to write both poetry and prose, and by the time he left Oxford he had already published articles on architecture and on other subjects. After leaving Oxford, he undertook his first major work, Modern Painters; it testified to his love of nature, especially of Alpine scenery, and to his reverence for J.M.W. Turner as the supreme modern interpreter of "truth" in landscape. The first volume of Modern Painters, published anonymously in 1843, was a success with the discerning public, but it was attacked by professionals, who spotted the author's tendency to dogmatize on an insufficient foundation of experience and technical study. Ruskin then set about to remedy his deficiencies through a firsthand study of the Italian painters, particularly those of the Florentine and Venetian schools. Ruskin's Italian tour of 1845 culminated in his discovery of Tintoretto, who, together with Fra Angelico, displaced Turner to become the heroes of volume 2 of Modern Painters (1846).
In 1848 Ruskin married Euphemia Chalmers Gray. The parents of the bridal couple were old friends, and the match was arranged without any bond of deep affection on either side. Ruskin and his bride honeymooned in Normandy, where he studied the Gothic cathedrals. The pair, unfortunately, were not suited to one another, and the marriage was annulled in 1854. Euphemia Ruskin had by then fallen in love with the painter John Everett Millais, whom she subsequently married.
The weight of Ruskin's interest had now shifted to architecture as the most public of the arts. If, as Ruskin thought, all art expresses the spirit of its maker, architecture then most fully expresses the whole spirit of a people. His religious emphasis was implicit in the title of his next book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), as well as in his emphasis upon "truth of expression" in materials and in structure. This book and its successor, The Stones of Venice (1851-1853), a great Protestant prose epic of the decline and fall of the Venetian Republic, became the bibles of the Victorian Gothic revival. Ruskin's style in this period was powerfully evocative and readily expanded into sermonic flourishes that cloaked many historical inaccuracies. Once again professionals, though fascinated by his works, were moved to demur on many points where theory had replaced a concrete knowledge of the facts of architectural practice. Perhaps Ruskin's most enduring contribution to the development of modern style was his hostility to classicism. He himself was too devoted to ornament and too hostile both to the machine and to standardized construction ever to figure as a grandfather of functionalism. However, his celebrated chapter on the nature of Gothic in The Stones of Venice can be taken as the main testament of Victorian esthetic values.
Ruskin had interrupted the composition of Modern Painters for his architectural studies. He now returned to the earlier work, completing it with volumes 3 and 4 in 1856 and volume 5 in 1860. He also lectured on art and defended the Pre-Raphaelites, but his concerns were inevitably drifting further toward social criticism as a way of transforming society. In reality, he had dropped the integument of art from his sermons, and following the lead of Thomas Carlyle, he began to inveigh directly against the values of the political economists. The year 1860 marks the official turning point in his interests, for Ruskin published a series of social essays in the Cornhill Magazine that he later collected as Unto This Last. Ruskin's attack on the dehumanized ethic of modern industrial capitalism drew a bitter response from readers, but it influenced the thinking of many reformers in the developing Labour movement.
Another series of articles on economic subjects, published in Fraser's Magazine (1862-1863) and collected as Munera pulveris (1872), drew a similar outcry from the public. Ruskin now began to lecture frequently, and he later published two collections derived from his lectures, Sesame and Lilies (1865) and The Crown of Wild Olive (1866). Both volumes circulated widely and brought him a popular following. In 1869 Ruskin was appointed the first Slade professor of art at Oxford, a post that he held with some interruption until 1885. These years, however, were turbulent and troublesome for Ruskin. His religious faith had been undermined, and he was tormented by frustrated love for Rose LaTouche, a girl 30 years his junior, whom he had first met when she was a child.
On the death of his father Ruskin became independently wealthy. The variety and fever of his activities were an indication of his deeply disturbed condition. In 1871 he began to publish Fors clavigera, a periodical that lasted until 1884. An attack on James McNeill Whistler in Fors in 1887 occasioned a celebrated libel suit which was decided against Ruskin. He also endowed and led a variety of welfare and socialist schemes, thereby consuming most of his inheritance. In 1878 Ruskin suffered his first clear attack of mental illness. Seizures recurred until 1888, when he fell victim to a severe mental breakdown which confined him to his house at Brantwood in the Lake District until his death. In lucid intervals between 1885 and 1889 Ruskin worked on his unfinished autobiography, Praeterita, one of the most moving and revealing of his works. He died on Jan. 20, 1900.
The standard biography of Ruskin is E. T. Cook, The Life of John Ruskin (2 vols., 1911). Important, more recent works are Derrick Leon, Ruskin: The Great Victorian (1949), and Joan Evans, John Ruskin (1954). The best introductions to Ruskin's thought and work are R. H. Wilenski, John Ruskin: An Introduction to Further Study of His Life and Work (1933), and John D. Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Genius (1961). The chapter on Ruskin in Graham Hough, The Last Romantics (1947), is very helpful. For intellectual and social background see G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (1936; 2d ed. 1953), and Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Victorian Temper (1951).