Edinburgh Review, April 1856

(Go to Summary of review by H. F. Chorley, 'Ruskinism' - Reviews of Modern Painters I (1843), Modern Painters II (1846), Modern Painters III (1856), Pre-Raphaelitism (1851), Academy Notes (1855), Giotto and his Works in Padua (1854), Edinburgh Review, April 1856, 103, pp. 535-557.)

This third volume of 'Modern Painters', if viewed in context with its writer's former works, shows the extent to which excessive pretensions and imperfect acquirements have bewildered and corrupted a mind rich in ingenious knowledge of detail, and gifted with rhetorical powers which ought, if better guided, to have done service to the study and the philosophy of Art. If we examine how far, in Mr Ruskin's writings, desire for display has superseded the love of truth, the task is entered on, not because it is agreeable, but because it is seasonable. After having made a fame, by hanging on to the skirts of a famous artist - after deluding those craving for novelty into the belief that a dashing style must imply precious discoveries - after having met the humour of the time, by preaching the religion of architecture with a freedom in the use of sacred names and sacred things from which a more reverential man would have shrunk - after having served as an eloquent though too flattering guide to the treasures of Venice, - after having enriched the citizens of this Scottish metropolis with receipts how to amend the architecture of our city by patching Palladian squares, streets, and crescents with Gothic windows, balconies and pinnacles, - after having lectured to decorators on the beauty and virtue of painting illegible letters on signboards and shop-fronts, - the wisdom of Mr Ruskin has of late begun to cry in the streets. He attempts to erect the most extravagant paradoxes into new canons of taste; and the virulence of his personalities is only exceeded by the eccentricity of his judgment. He now periodically enters the exhibition-room as an overseer, summoning gallery-loungers to stand and deliver their sympathies, - calling on bad painters to tremble, - and assailing those whom he dislikes with menaces and insults. (p. 536)

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Accordingly, the landscape painters, from whom Turner had derived many of his models, and learned many of his secrets - the Vanderveldes, Salvators, and Claudes - were branded by Mr Ruskin as idiots, ruffians, liars; and the preacher snatching up Truth and Nature as his watchwords... rushed into the arena - Malay fashion - thrusting here, smiting there, foaming at the mouth, to establish his professional sanctity; yet resting adroitly, by fits and starts, to utter some old truth that sounded like a new revelation, or to relieve himself after his bursts of rant by some outpouring of genuine poetry. Gorgeous and delicious descriptions of Nature, high-flown appeals to conscience, religious faith and duty... seduced some readers, - awed others. (p. 538)

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His next device was to transfer to the newest eccentricity of the day - that of what are called the Pre-Raphaelites - the devotion he had hitherto paid to a Painter who was not only their superior by their opposite. (p. 540)

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We have already bestowed on this volume [ Modern Painters III], more space than its merits deserve, but its gross and glaring extravagancies and defects constitute a strong claim to notice. It is the worst book of a bad series of books, mischievous to art, mischievous to literature, but mischievous above all to those young and eager minds, animated by the love of art and of literature, which may mistake this declamatory trash for substantial or stimulating food. We are the less disposed to acquit Mr. Ruskin because he is not altogether without faculties which might have made him a useful and an elegant writer. His style, when it is not too inflated, is generally perspicuous and sometimes forcible: his perceptions are acute; he is not devoid of industry or even of taste. But all these qualities are perverted and destroyed by the entire absence of masculine judgment, by the failure of the logical faculty, and by a strange propensity to mistake the illusions of his own fancy or his own vanity for the laws of reality and the principles of truth. (p. 557)