John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, also an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political economy.
John Ruskin left a legacy of influence that stretches from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mahatma Gandhi. He championed many of the tenets of the welfare state, and inspired the founders of the National Health Service, the formation of Public Libraries, the National Trust and many other cornerstones of civil society in the last one hundred years. His influence reached abroad in such areas as women’s education, the minimum wage, child labour, and environmental protection and has served both as a restraining influence on unbridled capitalism and a moral conscience for the nations of the world.
This is not to say that Ruskin criticized his age merely because its ugliness offended him. His condemnation of modern culture implied a condemnation of more deeply rooted social failures. What he sought to expose was a society statistically rich that could find no employment for its workers, lamented over-production as a cause of poverty, accepted the notion of planned obsolescence, encouraged an arms race as a source of economic growth, allowed extremes of poverty and starvation to co-exist with ostentatious luxury, professed Christianity but saw such poverty as a law of nature not to be tampered with, and expected the majority of its people to rest content in conditions of squalor and brutal ugliness. The responsibility for these evils could not simply be laid at the door of wicked individuals who cared nothing for their fellow-humans. The causes were to be found in the great European apostasy he had begun tracing in the history of Venice.
Ruskin's key insight was that you couldn't divorce money from morality. He also knew how to use the full power of biblical wrath. The Bible, he wrote, "not only denounces the love of money as the root of all evil, but declares mammon service to be the … irreconcilable opposite of God's service". To a (nominally) Christian nation, he thundered: repent! Ruskin's appeal to God gave his appeals to social reform the flavour of divine edict, of lightning from Mount Sinai.
[Ruskin's] ideas inspired the Arts and Crafts Movement and the founding of the National Trust, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and the Labour Movement. He fiercely attacked the worst aspects of industrialisation and actively promoted art education and museum access for the working classes. His prophetic statements on environmental issues speak to our generation as well as to his own.
The unifying factor in Ruskin's writings, as we have seen, appears in his career-long drive to interpret matters for his contemporaries. The interpretations of painting and architecture with which he began his career met with early and lasting success. Drawing upon the rhetoric and techniques of the Victorian preacher, Wordsworthian conceptions of the poet, and Neoclassical theories of painting and the beautiful, Ruskin offered his Victorian audience convincing arguments for the essential earnestness, the relevance and moral importance, of the visual arts. Arguments of this kind couched in this kind of language were what his contemporaries wanted to hear.
[Ruskin's] essay Of Queen's Gardens (1865), published in Sesame and Lilies, has been taken as an eloquent statement of the conservative ideal of Victorian womanhood. However, the essay also urges women to abandon trivial feminine pursuits in order to act as a moral force in countering the ills of society.
Modern Painters would be less perplexing if Ruskin had own mire about art when he began to write it, or learned less in the course of its composition. The first volume appeared in 1843, when he was twenty-four and still quite ignorant of art. The fifth and final volume was punished in 1860, when his interest had shifted from art and nature to society and man. The point of view remained constant; the range of vision widened enormously.
[Ruskin] became the most influential writer and critic of his day, with his five volume 'Modern Painters' published from 1843-1860. Ruskin met John Everett Millais (1829-1896) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) respectively in 1851 and 1851. Having promoted the work of Joseph M W Turner (1775-1851), Ruskin became a great defender of the Pre-Raphaelites.
In a prose style peculiarly well adapted to the discussion of the visual arts, [Ruskin] argued that modern landscape painters were superior to neoclassical Masters who, according to him, lacked of attention to natural truth. Ruskin's first major achievement was to bring the assumptions of Romanticism to the practice of art criticism and to the understanding of the public who was thus introduced to the possibility of enjoying and collecting art. By this time, he had become the most famous cultural theorist of his days.
His works Modern Painters (1843), which hotly supported Turner’s art, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848), The Stones of Venice (1851-53) made him critic of the day, later he became the most influential art critic of the Victorian era. Supported artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1867, held the post of Rede Lecturer in Cambridge, and from 1869-1884 a professorship of fine arts in Oxford. Founded a museum and a drawing school in Oxford, and in Meersbrook a night school for craftsmen. Towards the end of his life Ruskin increasingly suffered from a severe nervous illness. His watercolors and drawings were exhibited from 1873 to 1884 at the Old Water-Color Society.