Modern Painters was seventeen years in the writing, and John Ruskin was only twenty-three years old when he began the book. Of course he changed in the meantime.
Still, it is a surprise to read, almost at the end of the final volume, this reflection on the purpose of the book:
I have written it to show that Turner was the greatest landscape painter who ever lived; and this it has sufficiently accomplished. What the final use may be to men, of landscape painting, or of any painting, or of natural beauty, I do not yet know. (Vol. 5, Ch. 11, “The Hesperid Æglé”)
The sense, or possibility, of despair is perhaps more evident on the previous page:
Once I could speak joyfully about beautiful things, thinking to be understood;- now I cannot any more; for it seems to me that no one regards them. Wherever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty. They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large houses and to be able to move fast. Every perfect and lovely spot which they can touch, they defile.
One reason to spend time with Ruskin – not at all my reason – is his relevance. Among the concluding passages of Modern Painters are a number of social reforms. Some of the rhetorically brilliant and argumentatively exasperating essays that would make up Unto This Last: Four Essays on the First Principles of Political Economy (1862) were published in 1860, almost alongside Modern Painters V, and in the book of what is nominally art criticism the transition is evident. From now on, Ruskin would be a social critic as much or more than an art critic.
I say, first, that due economy of labor will assign to each man the share which is right. Let no technical labor be wasted on things useless or unpleasurable; and let all physical exertion, so far as possible, be utilized, and it will be found no man need ever work more than is good for him. I believe an immense gain in the bodily health and happiness of the upper classes would follow on their steadily endeavoring, however clumsily, to make the physical exertion they now necessarily take in amusements, definitely serviceable. It would be far better, for instance, that a gentleman should mow his own fields, than ride over other people’s. (still in Vol. 5, Ch. 11)
This just as an example, although I picked it first for its clarity, second for its distance from any argument about landscape painting, and third because it ends with Thomas Carlyle’s old hobbyhorse, scattered throughout The French Revolution and elsewhere, about the worthlessness of an upper class that devotes all its energy to hunting. Any arguments with the vagueness of the terms is best taken up with the shorter, punchier Unto This Last.
Modern Painters is a defense not simply of Turner but of beauty. By 1860, Ruskin had begun to fear that a defense of beauty through art was no defense at all. In Volume 4, Ch. 8, Ruskin argues that rocks and more generally “the natural ordinances seem intended to teach us the great truths which are the basis of all political science,” but a few years later he had concluded that the message of the rocks was not getting through. Social and economic reform had to precede aesthetic reform.
I, by contrast, say aesthetic reform first. One more post on Ruskin. His defense of beauty is not so bad.