Ruskin, John. "Mr. Ruskin on Generalization and the Scotch Pre-Raphaelites." Witness 19.1962 (27 Mar. 1858), [2].

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To the Editor of the "Witness."

I was very glad to see that good and firm defence of the pre-Raphaelite Brothers in the Witness the other day; only my dear Editor, it appears to me that you take too much trouble in the matter. Such a lovely picture as that of Waller Paton’s must either speak for itself, or nobody can speak for it. If you Scotch people don’t know a bit of your own country when you see it, who is to help you to know it? If, in that mighty wise town of Edinburgh, everybody still likes flourishes of brush better than ferns, and dots of paint better than birch leaves, surely there is nothing for it but to leave them in quietude of devotion to dot and faith in flourish. At least I can see no other way of dealing. All those platitudes from the Scotsman, which you took the pains to answer, have been answered ten thousand times already, without the smallest effect–the kind of people who utter them being always too misty in their notions ever to feel or catch an answer. You may as well speak to the air, or rather to a Scotch mist. The oddest part of the business is, that all those wretched fallacies about generalization might be quashed or crushed in an instant, by reference to any given picture of any great master who ever lived. There never was anybody who generalized, since paint was first ground, except Opie, and Benjamin West, and Fuseli, and one or two other such modern stars–in their own estimates,–night-lights, in fact, extinguishing themselves, not odoriferously at daybreak, in a sputter in the saucer. Titian, Giorgione, Veronese, Tintoret, Raphael, Leonardo, Correggio–never any of them dreamt of generalization, and would have rejected the dream as having come by the horn gate, if they had. The only difference between them and the pre-Raphaelites is, that the latter love nature better, and don’t yet know their artist’s business so well, having everything to find out for themselves athwart all sorts of contradiction, poor fellows; so they are apt to put too much into their pictures–for love’s sake, and then not to bring this much into perfect harmony; not yet being able to bridle their thoughts entirely with the master’s hand. I don’t say therefore–I never have said–that their pictures are faultless–many of them have gross faults; but the modern pictures of the generalist school, which are opposed to them, have nothing else but faults: they are not pictures at all, but pure daubs and perfect blunders; nay, they have never had aim enough to be called anything so honorable as blunders; they are mere emptinesses and idlenesses–thistledown without seeds, and bubbles without color; whereas the worst pre-Raphaelite picture has something in it; and the great ones, such as Windus’s "Burd Helen," will hold their own with the most noble pictures of all time.

Always faithfully yours,

J. Ruskin.

By the way, what ails you at our pre-Raphaelite Brothers’ conceits? Windus’s heart’s-ease might have been a better conceit, I grant you; but for the conceits themselves, as such, I always enjoy them particularly; and I don’t understand why I shouldn’t. What’s wrong in them?


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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