Ruskin is best known for for his work as an art critic and social
critic, but is remembered as an author, poet and artist as well.
Ruskin's essays on art and architecture were extremely influential
in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
was born in London, and raised in south London. He was educated
at the University of Oxford (Christ Church), where he was awarded
a prize for poetry, his earliest interest. In 1848, Ruskin married
Effie Gray. Their marriage was annulled in 1854 on grounds of
non-consummation. (She later married the artist John Everett Millais).
Ruskin later fell deeply in love with Rose la Touche. He met her
in 1858, when she was only nine years old, proposed to her eight
years later, and was finally rejected in 1872.
taught at the Working Men's College in London and was the first
Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, from 1869 to 1879. There
he became friendly with Lewis Carroll, another don, and was photographed
by him. After the parting of Carroll and Alice Liddell, she and
her sisters pursued a similar relationship with John Ruskin, as
detailed in Ruskin's Praeterita. Ruskin College, Oxford is named
the death of his father (who was a wealthy wine merchant), Ruskin
declared that it was not possible to be a rich socialist and gave
away most of his inheritance. He was friends with Sir Henry Acland.
He founded the charity known as the Guild of St George in the
1870s and endowed it with large sums of money as well as a remarkable
collection of art. He also gave the money to enable Octavia Hill
to begin her practical campaign of housing reform.
spent much of his later life at a house called Brantwood, on the
shores of Coniston Water located in the Lake District of England.
still a student at Oxford, Ruskin met Joseph Mallord William Turner,
whom he began to defend against critics in an 1836 essay. His
Modern Painters series was responsible for the early popularity
of the artist as well as the pre-Raphaelite movement.
also worked with the artists Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, John
Brett, Burne-Jones and John William Inchbold.
1878 he wrote a review of a painting by James Whistler in which
he accused the painter of "throwing a pot of paint in the
face of the public" that led to a famous libel case. Ruskin
lost, though the award of damages was only one farthing, and his
reputation was tarnished which may have accelerated his mental
decline. He suffered from a number of mental breakdowns as well
as delirious visions.
later works influenced many Trade Union leaders of the Victorian
era. He was also the inspiration for the Arts and Crafts Movement,
the founding of the National Trust, the National Art Collections
Fund and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
wrote over 250 works, which tended to connect art history to topics
ranging from science, literary criticism, environmental conditions,
and mythology. He is well known for his essay on economy Unto
This Last, the essay The Nature of Gothic, and the early fantasy
novel The King of the Golden River.
views on art, wrote Kenneth Clark, "cannot be made to form
a logical system, and perhaps owe to this fact a part of their
value." Certain principles, however, remain consistent throughout
his work and have been summarized in Clark's own words as the
That art is not a matter of taste, but involves the whole man.
Whether in making or perceiving a work of art, we bring to bear
on it feeling, intellect, morals, knowledge, memory, and every
other human capacity, all focused in a flash on a single point.
Aesthetic man is a concept as false and dehumanizing as economic
2. That even the most superior mind and the most powerful imagination
must found itself on facts, which must be recognized for what
they are. The imagination will often reshape them in a way which
the prosaic mind cannot understand; but this recreation will be
based on facts, not on formulas or illusions.
3. That these facts must be perceived by the senses, or felt;
4. That the greatest artists and schools of art have believed
it their duty to impart vital truths, not only about the facts
of vision, but about religion and the conduct of life.
5. That beauty of form is revealed in organisms which have developed
perfectly according to their laws of growth, and so give, in his
own words, 'the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function.'
6. That this fulfilment of function depends on all parts of an
organism cohering and cooperating. This was what he called the
'Law of Help,' one of Ruskin's fundamental beliefs, extending
from nature and art to society.
7. That good art is done with enjoyment. The artist must feel
that, within certain reasonable limits, he is free, that he is
wanted by society, and that the ideas he is asked to express are
true and important.
8. That great art is the expression of epochs where people are
united by a common faith and a common purpose, accept their laws,
believe in their leaders, and take a serious view of human destiny."
(Kenneth Clark, "A Note on Ruskin's Writings on Art and Architecture,"
from Ruskin Today 1964)
Ruskin's influence extends far beyond the field of art history.
The author Leo Tolstoy described him as "one of those rare
men who think with their heart." Marcel Proust was a Ruskin
enthusiast and translated his works into French. Mahatma Gandhi
said that Ruskin had been the single greatest influence in his