It's not easy to relate John Ruskin (1819-1900) to the Victorian epoch, simply because most of his observations are timeless.
He was perhaps the greatest art critic (as well as a critic of society) of his epoch, if not one of the greatest art critics of all time. What is less known is that he was also an accomplished artist himself, although he never devoted enough time to develop this obvious talent as much as perhaps he would have liked.
His father, a successful wine-merchant, travelled a great deal, and often took his son with him. For a young boy such experiences are bound to have had a lasting influence. This is also evident in the endearing allusions he makes to his first view, at the age of fourteen, of the Swiss Alps at sunset, in his autobiography. 'The seen walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful.'
In spite of his profound love and respect for nature, Ruskin was also very religious, but real respect for nature would determine this in any case. His daily Bible readings were guided by his mother.
His life was spent lecturing, writing a great deal, and travelling.
He had always been deeply interested in art, and was a great admirer of Turner. This already seems proof enough of his high level of appreciation.
He also wrote on architecture, and particularly loved Gothic architecture. But his interest was focused just as much on the architecture as on the kind of society capable of creating it. He was an advocator of freedom. Individual freedom of expression to give free rein to one's imagination and creative ability.
This doesn't mean that Ruskin wanted architects to embellish industrial buildings with gargoyles. He advocated the same freedom for architects as was once enjoyed during the Medieval and Renaissance eras. This would make him visionary, and it's probable that some architecture of the twenty-first century would have pleased him. But it's just as probable that a great deal of 'modern architecture' would have had an adverse effect on him.
Indeed the use of the term 'modern,' applied to art and architecture, has no real bearing, at least in my view. It is either good, mediocre or bad. When it's good it defies time, therefore the term 'modern' could be regarded as superfluous and even degrading.
Ruskin's interest in architecture inevitably led him into the field of economics. Naturally he was against waste, laisser aller and laisser faire. He would also have liked to have seen greater co-operation and respect between employers and employees, but during his life time his social views were shunned as absurd.
By the decade beginning in 1860, his opinions were well known, but he was discouraged that society seemed to be going in the wrong direction. This began to cause him to suffer from serious depression and mental disorders which lasted from 1870 until the end of his life.
His doctors thought that his problems stemmed from overwork, but as he wrote himself: 'I went mad because nothing came of my work (...) because after I got published, nobody believed a word of them.' (his manuscripts).
But his distress was no doubt also due to his unsatisfactory relations with women. His marriage to Effie Gray (1848) was a complete failure. Later on he fell in love with a very young Irish girl, (Rose La Touche) but the enormous age gap and their differences of religion made it impossible. Tragically she died at the age of twenty five.
He made a moving reference to his apparent loveless fate: 'the men capable of the highest imaginative passion are always tossed on the fiery waves by it.'
Notwithstanding his health problems and his great sadness over the loss of Rose, he continued to lecture and write for the full remainder of his life. He wrote Fors clavigera (letters to the workmen). He wrote six volumes of art lectures, and his autobiography, Praeterita (1885-89).
A subject he became most preoccupied with was pollution of air and water, which follows his love and respect for nature, and is also another indication of his visionary attributes.
From Modern Painters A Definition of Greatness in Art from Vol. 1, part 1. chap. 2
(...) So that, if I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature; and I should cast out of the pale of criticism those pars of works of art which are not imitative, that is to say, intrinsic beauties of color and form, and those works of art wholly, which, like the Arabesques of Raffaelle in the Loggias,° are not imitative at all. Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.
If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.
°The arabesques - Loggia of the Vatican, were frescos designed by Raphael featuring patterns of intertwining leaves, animals and human figures.
From The Slave Ship, Turner
(...) I believe, if I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I should choose this. Its daring conception- ideal in the highest sense of the word- is based on the purest truth, and wrought out with the concentrated knowledge of a life; its color is absolutely perfect, not one false or morbid hue in any part or line, and so modulated that every square inch of canvas is a perfect composition; its drawing as accurate as fearless; the ship buoyant, bending, and full of motion; its tones as true as they are wonderful; and the whole picture dedicated to the most sublime of subjects and impressions- completing thus the perfect system of all truth we have shown to be formed by Turner's works- the power, majesty, and deathfulness of the open, deep, illimitable Sea. (1843)
Intro text © Mirino (PW). Images from top: self-portrait by John Ruskin (1847). Pencil and water-colour portrait of Rose La Touche by John Ruskin (1860/61). The Slave Ship by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Images, (Ruskin's modified) with thanks to Wikimedia Commons. Source and excerpts of Ruskin's written works from The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume two. With thanks. December, 2012