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JOHN RUSKIN AND HIS WORKS,
ALTHough novelty is generally a source of pleasure, yet what is new sometimes meets with opposition, merely because it is new. About twenty years ago a book appeared in London, entitled, “Modern Painters: By a Graduate of Oxford;” the main object of which was, to vindicate the reputation of the landscape-painter Turner, whose pictures had been ruthlessly assailed by the Reviewers. The author confesses that the book originated “in indignation at the shallow and false criticism of the periodicals of the day on the works of the great living artist.” And who was the presumptuous “Graduate,” who thus threw down the gauntlet, and defied the mighty host of Reviewers ? A young man unknown to fame ! A mere fledgeling from the University' Yet in his book there was a bold originality, an uncompromising independence, quite startling to the lovers of the old, beaten track—the devotees to precedent. The daring champion of Turner, not contented with asserting the painter's claims to universal admiration, announced, somewhat quthoritatively, certain principles of Art, neither derived from Alison nor from the IRoyal Academy. The “Graduate” says, “when public taste seems plunging deeper and deeper into degradation day by day, and when the press universally exerts such power as it possesses, to direct the feeling of the nation more completely to all that is theatrical, affected, and false in Art; while it vents its ribald buffooneries on the most exalted truth, and the highest ideal of landscape, that this or any other age has ever witnessed, it becomes the imperative duty of all who have any perception or knowledge of what is really great in Art, and any desire for its advancement in England, to come fearlessly forward, regardless of such individual interests as are likely to be injured by the knowledge of what is good and right, to declare and demonstrate, wherever they exist, the essence and the authority of the Beautiful and the True.” The “Graduate” fearlessly asserts that the old masters were not true to Nature, and claims to be capable of judging of these matters, for the very good reason, namely, that he has been devoted from his youth to the laborious study of practical art; and, moreover, that whatever he affirms of the old schools of landscape-painting has been “founded on a familiar acquaintance with every important work of Art, from Antwerp to Naples.” He, however, modestly apologizes for the imperfection of his first book, and keeps back a part of it from the public, for more mature reflection, and for careful revision.
The Reviewers, who had so severely handled the landscape painter, now pounced upon the painter's fiery advocate, who had challenged them to the encounter.
Undaunted by their fulminations, “the Graduate” comes out with a second edition of “Modern Painters.”
“Convinced of the truth,” says he, “and therefore assured of the ultimate prevalence and victory of the principles which I have advocated, and equally confident that the strength of the cause must give weight to the strokes of even the weakest of its defenders, I permitted myself to yield to a somewhat hasty and hot-headed desire of being, at whatever risk, in the thick of the fire, and begun the contest with a part, and that the weakest and least considerable part, of the forces at my disposal. And I now find the volume thus boldly laid before the public, in a position much resembling that of the Royal Sovereign at Trafalgar, receiving, unsupported, the broadsides of half the enemy's fleet, while unforeseen circumstances have hitherto prevented, and must yet for a time prevent, my heavier ships of the line from taking any part in the action. I watched the first moment of the struggle with some anxiety for the solitary vessel,-an anxiety which I have now ceased to feel,for the flag of truth waves brightly through the smoke of the battle, and my antagonists, wholly intent on the destruction of the leading ship, have lost their position, and cyposed themselves in defenceless disorder to the attack of the following columns.”
The enthusiasm of a man of genius appears to the multitude like madness. The fervor of his imagination and the intensity of his emotions, do, indeed, prevent him at times from perceiving clearly, not only what is for his own interest, but, what he would more earnestly deprecate, for the interest of the cause which he zealously advocates. Thus was it with the “Graduate,” when, stung to the quick like Byron, like him, he retorted upon the “Scotch Reviewer.”
“Writers like the present critic of Blackwood's Magazine deserve the respect due to honest, hopeless, helpless imbecility. There is something exalted in the innocence of their feeblemindedness; one cannot suspect them of partiality, for it implies feeling; nor of prejudice, for it implies some previous acquaintance with their subject. I do not know that even in this age of charlatanry, I could point to a more barefaced instance of imposture on the simplicity of the public, thin the insertion of these pieces of criticism in a respectable periodical. We are not insulted with opinions on music from persons ignorant of its notes; nor with treatises on philology by persons unacquainted with the alphabet; but here is page after page of criticism, which one may read from end to end, looking for something which the author knows, and finding nothing. Not his own language, for he has to look in his dictionary, by his own confession, for a word (chrysoprase) occurring in one of the most important chapters of the Bible; not the commonest traditions of the schools, for he does not know why Poussin was called “learned; not the most simple canons of art, for he prefers Lee to Gainsborough; not the most ordinary facts of Nature, for we find him puzzled by the epithet “silver, as applied to the orangeblossom—evidently never having seen anything silvery about an orange in his life, except a spoon.
“Nay he leaves us not to conjecture his calibre from internal evidence; he candidly tells us, that he has been studying trees only for the last week, and bases his critical remarks chiefly on his practical experience of birch.
* What is Christopher North about? Does he receive his critiques from Eton or Harrow, based on the experience of a week's bird's-nesting and its consequences? How low must Art and its interests sink, when the public mind is inadequate to the detection of this effrontery of incapacity. In all kindness to Maga, we warn her, that though the nature of this work precludes us from devoting space to the exposure, there may come a time when the public shall be themselves able to distinguish ribaldry from reasoning, and may require some better and higher qualifications in their critics of art, than the experience of a school-boy, and the capacities of a buffoon.”
“Moderation,” though subsequently highly commended by our author, is not the governing characteristic of poets or of painters, especially when their “eyes are in a fine frenzy rolling” with either inspiration or anger. The second volume of “Modern Painters” was not issued till the first had passed through several editions. The author still chooses to appear only as the “Graduate of Oxford.” The main topic of this second volume is the nature of Beauty, and its influence on the human mind. Again, the novelty and boldness of the writer's views startled and irritated the ice-bound advocates of precedent. Though no longer treated by the Reviewers with unmitigated contempt, he was still subjected to the lash of criticism. The banner, with the defiant inscription, Judea, damnatur cum nocens absolvitur, was again “hung out” at Edinburgh, but the “Graduate” probably quailed as little before it as Birnam Wood quailed before the banners of Dunsinane. However, this second volume could not fail to elicit warm and earnest admiration. The North British Review pronounced it “a very extraordinary and delightful book, full of truth and goodness, of power and beauty,” and “what is more and better than all,—everywhere, throughout this work, we trace evidences of a deep reverence and a godly fear;-a per