Ruskin's depreciation of Rosa

Ruskin 's earliest references to Salvator Rosa followed the well-established consensus. He conveyed 'the prevailing spirit of energy' of a place ( Letters to a College Friend Works, 1.421). As had been the tradition Ruskin linked Rosa with Claude and Gaspar Dughet/Poussin, and he wrote of them that people had been 'habituated to consider these compositions as perfect models of the beautiful' ( The Poetry of Architecture Works, 1.112), and it is this habituation which became the reason for Ruskin's consistently hostile assessment of Rosa's painting. Ruskin's depreciation of Rosa, like Ruskin's depreciation of Claude, Gaspar and Canaletto, all of them defined by Ruskin as members of the Italian school, derives from his conviction that those who admired his work had been 'fettered' from 'all healthy or vigorous perception of truth', and that this had been of 'general detriment to all subsequent schools' (see MP I:110).

Rosa's reputation provided the focus for the depreciation, not least because of the implications for art education of thinking (see, for example Reynolds on Rosa, which stressed the importance of the general idea as perceived by the great masters of the past, rather than nature, as a guide for the painter (See MP I:xxxi)).

Ruskin admits that Rosa 'naturally had acute feeling for truth' ( MP I:384), but, despite being 'originally endowed with far higher power of mind than Claude', he 'mistakes distortion for energy and savageness for sublimity' ( MP I:88). There is vicious execution based on 'too great fondness for sensations of power' ( MP I:38), and, in a passage excluded from the third edition of Modern Painters I he is always wrong in the treatment of chiaroscuro (except in a few exceptional circumstances ( Works, 3.317)). Ruskin's later judgements of Rosa's moral character focus on Rosa's moral struggles as revealed in his painting, and the implications for his work as an artist.

Despite Rosa 's reputation for 'naturalezza e verità' ( Baldinucci, Notizie de' Professori del Disegno da Cimabue III (published 1728 quoted in Conisbee, 'Salvator Rosa and Claude-Joseph Vernet'), Ruskin argues that Rosa's rocks and mountains, Rosa's clouds and skies, Rosa's trees and Rosa's water are all false - though 'if his trees and rocks had been good, the rivers might have been generally accepted without objection' ( MP I:341). In The Elements of Drawing (1857) ( Works, 15.116), Rosa is allowed to have 'great perception of the sweep of foliage and rolling of clouds', but he 'never draws a single leaflet or mist wreath accurately'.

Rosa 's moral character and the fact that his painting is 'false' are linked at Works, 3.517 where there is an extract from Ruskin 's 1845 notebook in which Ruskin writes that Rosa 'wanted not capacity, and that his powers of observation were keen, but all in vain owing to his shallow, desultory, and vulgar character'. In a letter of 8 June 1845 there is an account of Ruskin's disappointment at the pictures in the Pitti Palace, particularly those of Salvator Rosa. Ruskin's diary entry of 8 September 1849 suggests that Rosa represents everything that 'has sunk or will sink Humanity to Hell'.

See Ruskin and the Italian School.