RUSKIN, JOHN (1819-1900, art critic, author, poet, artist and social reformer)
ALMOST ENTIRELY ABOUT TURNER, NATURE, ARTISTS, COLOUR AND UNITY IN THE YEAR OF THE PUBLICATION OF THE FIRST VOLUME OF MODERN PAINTERS. '...Now - as regards Turner - I should like to see the points in which you feel falseness of perspective - I will not say he is immaculate - but wherever he errs - he errs I think not palpably - certainly not in ignorance but to obtain some particular grace or harmony of line in places where he thinks the error will not be detected...I think when you see the second part of Modern Painters you will be quite satisfied with the importance therein given to "unity" as a sine qua non in art. But you know unity does not mean singleness of object - but binding together of objects - and I believe I shall be able to prove that no man ever possessed this great quality in a higher degree than my favourite...Turner takes it for granted that more is to be learned by taking his lessons individually - & working out their separate intent & thus bringing together a mass of various impressions which may all work together as a great whole - fully detailed in each part, than by cooking up his information in the sort of "potage universelle" of Claude...I am aware of nothing in nature which Turner has not earnestly painted. Nothing - on the surface of the earth - has either been rejected by him as too little or shrunk from as too great. He has made a most careful study (it is in the Liber Studiorum) of Cocks & hens on a dung hill - of dock leaves in a ditch - of broken stones by the road side - of pollard willows - of every tree or bush that grows - in England, France or Italy - of every kind of rock - of lakes - torrents - reedy rivers - the Thames at Putney - the Rhine at Schaffhausen - the river by the Isle of dogs - & the Bay of Naples - Richmond Hill - and Mount Etna - the chimnies at Dudley - & Mount Vesuvius - sea at all times - in all places - on the coast - and in the Atlantic - muddy - clear - calm - disturbed - or in the fury of the wildest tempest. You cannot name one element - object - or effect - you can name no time - no season - no incident of weather - of which I cannot name you a study - not accidentally or incidentally made, but earnestly & with reference to itself alone, & most laboriously. Hence you are not to think - whether such and such a subject was adapted for a picture - but whether any good is to be got out of it - whether there is any meaning in it - whether it has any bearing on his great system - and if no - then you are to look for the power of the artist in making this unpromising but necessary part of his system - as beautiful as in the nature of things - it is capable of being. Further you are to look upon Turner as distinguished from the common painter of familiar objects by his doing it only as part of a system - Thousands of Dutch painters paint Cocks & hens - but they do so habitually & as cocks & hen painters - Turner does it once - once only - in order that he may know his subject thoroughly - & secure any good - or any knowledge - or any lesson whatsoever - which there may be in the forms of the birds. So in the view of Edinburgh he desires to give you - not an ideal scene - not a pleasant scene, but a Scotch scene - He wants to make you feel that it is scattered - uncomfortable - & vast, & windy. If he had not scattered his sheep all over the hill - the size of it would not have been expressed - or - if he had grouped them in a line - the comfortless - open - exposed character of the scene would have been lost. Nay - little as you may feel it - these very sheep become a species of unity. Conceal them, & you will find that the dark hill separated from the rest of the picture, as a moonshaped mass of which the edge is unbroken. Put on the sheep again, and you will find that the hill becomes united (- or confused, if you like to call it so) with the rest of the picture. I think that whatever is worth contemplating in nature, & can be contemplated without pain - is a good subject for the artist - and that his powers may - & ought - to be exhibited upon it - powers of turning all he touches to gold - but that - towards the close of his life - he ought to devote himself to weaving out of the stories of his accumulated knowledge - the ideal pictures which common artists fancy they can produce when they are just fledged. Until he is forty an artist ought to paint everything with intent to learn it. After forty with intent to teach it. All this however is so far - matter of taste & opinion. Not so the question of colour. It is found invariably that young and inexperienced artists use their colours pure, and yet never make their pictures look bright - they only look raw. Experienced artists - and masters of colour use their colours dead - & yet their effect is dazzling. I am myself in the habit of using cobalt off the cake - & yet I can never get my skies to look blue. Turner will make a sky look bright blue which is painted with grey - yellow- & black in it. There is another kind of fine colouring which is dependent on the intensity of the blue - and its qualities of transparency & depth. This is Titian's qual[ity] but even he cannot use colour fine except in small spaces...in landscape where every hue is pale - the power of a colourist & the excellence of a picture is entirely dependent on the vividness of the effect gained with dim & mixed colour. Ley [Frederick Richard Lee] - one of our common & ignorant landscape painters will paint a distance in pure cobalt - and not make it look blue. Turner will make it look deep blue with four hairbreadths of colour. Every painter will assure you of this being an attainment only of consummate art - it is right because it is nature. Distances when you look at them - are not made up of blue in parts - they are blue only in effect...'
The present letter is almost a parallel text to Modern Painters, dealing with much of the same subject matter, written with the same passion and pace, and championing the art of Turner. It was probably written in relation to a section in Modern Painters headed 'General Remarks respecting The Truth of Turner' ('Turner's knowledge of perspective probably adds to his power in the arrangement of every order of subject; but ignorance on this head is rather disgraceful than knowledge meritorious' - a point in relation to which Ruskin made reference to 'Claude's sea-piece No 14 National Gallery').
PART OF THIS LETTER IS UNPUBLISHED: E. T. Cook and A.Wedderburn, The Library Edition of The Works of John Ruskin, 39 volumes, 1903-1912, volume XXXVI, pp. 33-36, omitted the passage on page one of the letter relating to Ruskin's criticisms of Brown's play, which amounts to eighteen lines.