"Ruskin v. Raphael. Part I." Art-Journal 21 (1 Aug. 1859), 229-232.


We have a crow to pluck with Mr. Ruskin concerning Raphael; and why? The reason is "plain as the way to parish church." The general aspect of our recent Academy Exhibitions shows that the imagination of numbers of our painters has sunk into a weak, morbid, and painful condition. Notions of healthy moral, or intellectual, or even of personal beauty, are rare amongst us. Noble, refined invention seems almost to have died away, and subjects which require it are built up of the most commonplace, paltry, and offensively obtruded accessories. The character of Hamlet is, now-a-days, indeed left out by particular desire; yet "the trappings and the suits," and especially those "of woe," are rendered with a hideous vividness. But, far more commonly, worthy and interesting subjects themselves are neglected for those which are the least interesting conceivable. We have sunk to goggling phantasms, masquing in human form in the scenes of Shakspere, old ballads, and romance, to limping goats, to wretched stone-breakers, (pronounced by the oracle the two Art-heroes of last year,) to fantastical dryly painful versions of contemporaneous horrors, to homely scenes, and the meanest landscape objects, selected out of a cheerless ascetic sentiment, and the dullest perversion of Wordsworthian lowliness. It is scarcely possible imagination can be more feeble, trivial and spasmodic than it has become amongst painters. And in whom are we to seek the instructor most influential in their recent courses? Indubitably in Mr. Ruskin. It is he who has bound on them faster their heavy vexatious burden of petty material things, and urged them with a spirit intense but narrow, enjoining a morbidly close exactness at the cost of truth of impression, and of all free idea–who, in a spirit part monkish and part puritanical, slighting the human body, is left, except in landscape objects, without appreciation of that beauty, the harmonious union of which with character and feeling completes the painter’s loveliest poetry; and who partly, in consequence, become narrow, exclusive, ascetic, ungenial, has sentiments meagre, harsh, and fantastical, like the figures in the pictures he so praises, and utterly at variance with the true spirit and purpose of a liberal art. The true old rights and privileges of the imagination are unduly restrained: the pure is assiduously narrowed with an unmanly rigidity, and even here in our merry England, (heart of our forefathers!) there are to be "no more cakes and ale," a prohibition fraught with most awful consequences. When, on turning afresh to the works of this writer, we find that the most imaginative, intellectual, and delightful of all painters, is peculiarly the object of his restless aversion, our notions are strikingly illustrated. We have ourselves heard a favoured protégé of his speak with off-hand contempt of Raphael, the painter we of course allude to, when it was clear that Raphael is the most perfect example of all those beauties, the contrary of which made his own works operate through the eye, even as a harsh sourkrout [sic] operates through the palate. Indeed, so long as this depreciation of Raphael prevails–and we are assured it is widespread in certain corners–we believe there is not much hope in Art for the victim of the sorry delusion. Not that we would have Raphael or anyone else directly imitated; but we feel as if a few gentle aspersions of his spirit were the very thing wanted to calm our petty restlessness, to teach us something of beauty, simplicity, and grace, something of true depth and dignity, and even of the plain elements of good painting. That calm pure spirit still waits to help us. Therefore we think we shall devise for ourselves a good task in clearing away some of the rubbish recently raised around us, within which that delicate spirit cannot, if it would, penetrate with its wise remedial promptings. In plain words, we mean that we now design to examine the principal assertions against Raphael scattered through Mr. Ruskin’s writings. Chiefly they are embodied in a chapter in that compendium of illusory dogmatism, the third volume of "Modern Painters," entitled "The False Religious Ideal," and in the fourth of his "Edinburgh Lectures;" and therefore we shall be somewhat minute in our analysis of these two writings, believing, moreover, that the inquiry will not be uninstructive on broader grounds, since it may tend usefully to put inexperienced readers on their guard generally against violent and unscrupulous writers of the same pretentious and imposing tone. Nor is the plain truth here unamusing, for the solemn blunders and childish fallacies put forth with exquisite grave self-satisfaction in the linked stateliness, long drawn out, of a poetico-theological Hookerian diction, very often verge on the downright ludicrous.

In the first of the two essays alluded to, Mr. Ruskin gives, at the outset, some querulous, but more than questionable, propositions as to the ordinary use of the imaginative faculty amongst us. He begins with a general complaint that "we place our pleasure principally in the imagination, with a tendency to build all our satisfaction in things as they are not; to take delight in anything past, future, or far-off, rather than things present;" adding that, "nearly all artistic and poetical seeking after the ideal is only one branch of this base habit; the abuse of the imagination in allowing it to find its whole delight in the impossible and the untrue." Now, both these initiatory assertions are inaccurate, even as regards our literature and art–our only popular pictures, novels, and poems being those which either actually are, or are thought to be, strictly truthful, matter-of-fact, and illustrative of the peculiar dogmas, discoveries physical and metaphysical, and partial advancement of the present day; pure imaginations of the remote character having never been more neglected and depreciated than now. Our own personal experience certainly contradicts Mr. Ruskin’s views on this point, strikingly. It has been an old complaint with us that the conceptions and sympathies of people are but too commonly bounded by the next parish, or, at an rate, by the next county. In the popular tales which they read, no character has seemed in our eyes so much to interest them as the one that might be taken for a portrait of the Rev. Mr. So-and-so, or Miss Such-an-one, who is so charmingly self-sacrificing in all her ways. And with regard to the Arts, we have hanging up in our parlour fine proofs of Longhi’s Marriage of the Virgin, and Muller’s Madonna di San Sisto. Rarely can we get the ladies to take any sincere interest in them; but directly we produce any engraving, however indifferently executed, which can show them what Lady Clementina Villiers, or Lady Jocelyn were like, the eager vivacious enjoyment furnishes a contrast that has really often mortified us. Mr. Ruskin’s complaint here, that "nearly all artistical and poetical seeking after the ideal has been a delight in the impossible and untrue," is sufficiently answered by a host of illustrious works, including all the greatest.

Having disburdened himself of these preliminary fallacies, Mr. Ruskin proceeds to instruct us as to the legitimate uses of the imagination. He says that "its first and noblest use is to enable us, to bring sensibly to our sight the things that are recorded as belonging to our future state," (in direct opposition to Holy Writ, see especially I Corinthians xii. 12, and 1 John iii. 2), "or as invisibly surrounding us in this. It is given us," he adds, with superabundance of imposing expression, "to imagine the cloud of witnesses, and see, as if they were now present, the souls of the righteous waiting for us (?), the great army (?) of the inhabitants of heaven; to see the chariots of fire on the mountains that gird us round (?); but, above a1l, to call up the scenes in which we are commanded to believe, and be present, as if in the body, at every recorded event in the history of the Redeemer." (?) The sanctity of some of these words and separate images ought not to deter us from reprobating the absurdity with which they are put together and misapplied. Simply, this so-styled noblest use of the imagination is an impossibility. Try to imagine but one loved spirit who has departed from you, the one most familiar with yours when on earth, and you will soon perceive the vainness of the attempt; and reason, in alarm, will forbid a persistence in that which would but wrap you in morbid and delusive visions, destructive of the balance of mind, and likely to produce fruits worthy of Bedlam, rather than of any holier place. Indeed, the supposed realization by the writer of such metaphorical ideas as "the chariots of fire on the mountains that gird us round" shows (if anything) an imagination already partly disordered by such mental habits as he suggests. We affectionately entreat ardent young Ruskinians to pause before they think of dedicating their imagination to any of these, its highest offices, or, at all events, carefully to consult Dr. Conolly before they do so. . . .1

Even whilst we first penned this page, in the inclement season of mid-winter, when deep distresses arose, and thanks to our blessed press, the sigh of the poor–the craving looks of little breadless children could scarcely be excluded from the most luxurious boudoir, we seemed to see page after page of the Times newspaper daily covered with confessions of Christ, not simply in munificent subscription lists, but in letters full of precious charity of thought, sweet ingenuity, labour, and watchfulness. It is true, the name of the Saviour of Man appeared not frequently. But did not his benign influence and promptings of His spirit come forth with unmistakeable clearness in hundreds of these gentle ministrations? Benevolent works like these are not all He commands from us; but we could, we think, demonstrate logically that they declare Him with, literally, as much precision as those vaulted walls, tablets, and windows of our fourth Plantagenet, pictured with St. Margaret, the Evangelists, the Virgin, the guards of Solomon, and the story of Dives and Lazarus.2

1 The heavenly anticipations promised by the Gospel we humbly conceive to be purely spiritual conceptions and emotions, not distinct imaginative perceptions of the class alluded to by Mr. Ruskin; a foretaste of that enlargement and exaltation of spirit to be enjoyed hereafter, not an apprehension of heavenly imagery–the mind having absolutely no power that way, beyond the arbitrary and heterogeneous combination of such things as we have here seen. Dante’s "Paradiso" may well convince us how hopeless is the endeavour to imagine the glorious hereafter. His feelings are ecstatic, and sometimes exalted, but the visible things he meets with consist of but a few ordinary ornaments of our nether sphere, now and then combined with considerable beauty of fancy, but more commonly grouped into signs and emblems which have but the effect of theological puzzles. In the 1uminous rapture of his soaring, he smiles with contempt at the mean aspect of our little globe beneath him, and yet, in his highest heaven, the beauties are only combinations, and sometimes puerile and fantastical ones, of common little things in that little world so disdained. In so far as Dante can preserve his sympathies for his mother earth, and for sound humanity, he is great and delightful, but where it is otherwise, he abundantly illustrates the grand truth, that in ascetically abstracting ourselves from our appointed native sphere, we only soar to the contemplation of transcendental nothing, and a mere idealism of self. In his remotest flights, Dante, still accompanied by the arid tediousness of school divines, rises but to an excitement too much alloyed by his worst peculiarities to look like heavenly love, ending his sallies in a luminous blank–dazzled intoxication, and weak bewilderment. Let us, therefore, gently strengthen and multiply our ties with whatsoever is good and beautiful in the fair mother here below, from whom the heavenly Father raised us. At the least, those who abandon the world leave its virtues as well as its vices.

2 The first sentences of this paper, written before the last Royal Academy Exhibition, may remain as some record of 1858. With regard to the present year, our chief consolation is that Pre-Raphaelitism has no attained that prolonged and complete development of monstrousness and essential weakness, which must soon, surely, lead to its decay, and, in its place, to some return to better things. From woes and horrors, with now and then some force in them, though almost always unhealthy and fantastical, we have this year proceeded, naturally enough, to mere negative ugliness, ugliness for its own sake, and frivolities even more puerile; neither is there progress from over-minuteness to freedom and noble breadth, as admirers have predicted; but rather a divergence to the wayside mud of the crudest and most violent coarseness. This decline is manifest equally in the three leaders of the school who exhibited this year. Their works betray alike exhaustion and disorganization of mind, the inevitable consequence of a slavish drudgery, combined with that constant rejection of judgment and good taste, which (as in the case of all things unexercised,) must lead to the utter decay and loss of those qualities. Though regretting Millais’ general decline, Mr. Ruskin, nevertheless, palliates his picture of the Convent Grave-digging, but on untenable grounds, as we conceive. He assumes that the painter may not have meant it "to be pleasing to us," but only "strange and horrible"–no "sweet piece of convent sentiment," but a stern representation of that hard ghastly Living Death, which he imagines, and no doubt truly, to prevail in monasteries. Filled with this idea, Mr. Ruskin proceeds to repudiate conventual segregation in a strain of that overwrought sensitiveness of imagination, that hectic, "nervous" ardour, which is in spirit so much more akin to the condition reprehended, than to the temperateness, and stout health of mind, which are its most effectual opponents; and viewing the picture as expressive of this dire mortification of the heart, he considers it "a great work." But admitting all Mr. Ruskin assumes, neither that nor any other moral purpose would alone make a great, or even a respectable, picture. A mere intention to represent conventual horror is surely within the scope of the very trashiest painters and novelists, alike. It is the rendering it with pictorial ability that would alone make the attempt in any degree commendable; and here the artist fails in his coarseness and monstrousness of line and hue, as well as of expression. The death in life of that nun’s face, a staring skull thinly veiled with the semblances of vitality, is justifiable neither on Pre-Raphaelite pretensions of matter of fact, nor Raphaelite principles of poetic art. Neither Art nor nature will recognise or accept it; and the crude gross daubing is here little above the level of the village tyro who irradiates the rural beershop with his pencil. Critical writers, we hear, have attributed much power to the landscape; but, to the best of our judgment, it was a heavy, graceless strength, much tainted with the usual ugliness, and in many essential things wanting truth. That ugliness, for its own sake, is now the object of this most perverse of painters, receives sufficient proof from his other picture of those odious, heartless, little monsters of girls, in fopperies of the newest mode, eating syllabub under the apple blossoms. This is the very saturnalia of ugliness; a dull suicidal insult to that natural sense of beauty, which is the very heavenly grace of the imagination, and alone can keep it sweet–its divine preservative against harshness, and gloom, and extravagant violence. In the daintier puerilities of Mr. Hughes, we find a striking want of that physical objective truth, on which the Brotherhood so confidently, yet so delusively, rest their claims. Those king’s children taking their siesta under more of the apple blossoms, which Mr. Ruskin himself bespoke in his last year’s pamphlet, are 1ittle fantoccini puppets, or blue-eyed dolls, whose huge heads and shrivelled stuffed limbs, and idiotic types of form, outrage proportion and drawing: the colour, the flesh shades of pure lilac especially, is equally false. Mr. Hughes’s other picture, too, is devoid of modelling, and of the modifications of colour by light and shadow. But these monstrosities, and violations of what is universal in the aspects of nature, are quite ignored by Mr. Ruskin; and the painter is simply tutored, most mildly, on soft, luscious, apple-blossomy diction, to content himself with cottagers’ instead of kings’ orchards, and not to be quite so gay for the future. Never did the divinely enunciated truth, that those who strain at gnats may swallow camels, receive such copious and customary illustration, as in these criticisms. To see how our annual pamphleteer, standing before these pictures, will, as it were, put gross Pre-Raphaelite camels into his spoon, and swallow, and benignly with the mildest suavity digest them, one after another; and then to note how he will strain at some gnat, in the shape of any pretty old-fashioned "conventionalism," which is opposed to the ugly new-fashioned conventionalisms of the Pre-Raphaelites–this is one of the curious features of the time we live in, a something to which the annals of criticism supply no precedent or parallel. We should comment on other works executed under Mr. Ruskin’s particular directions, but there is no space.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

Return to the list of reviews