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J. M. W. Turner (1775—1851) landscape and history painter


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Modern Painters

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By Ruskin, a work of encyclopaedic range in five volumes: I, 1843; II. 1846; III and IV, 1856; V, 1860.

It began as a defence of contemporary landscape artists, especially Turner. Volume I deals with the true. Turner had been accused of defying nature. For Ruskin he was the first painter in history to have given ‘an entire transcript of the whole system of nature’.

In vol. II the logical framework of ideas was rapidly constructed. Beauty is perceived by the ‘theoretic’, i.e. contemplative faculty (as opposed to the aesthetic, which is sensual and base). It consists of the varied manifestations, in natural forms, of the attributes of God. But Ruskin now wanted to write of the functions of all art. Two years' study of old art brought revelations: Tuscan painting and sculpture of the 13th and 14th cents, Venetian Gothic architecture, and oil painting of the Renaissance. The outcome was that Modern Painters II belies its title and exalts the ‘great men of old time’.

In the third and subsequent volumes the earlier systematic treatment gives way to a looser structure. An unrelentingly detailed analysis of mountain beauty takes up most of Modern Painters IV, to Ruskin ‘the beginning and the end of all natural scenery’. Part of Turner's greatness lies in his representation of the gloom and glory of mountains to express the wrath of God.

Modern Painters V is the work of a man embarking on a vital old age. The volume reflects a new interest in myth as a source of wisdom and instrument of interpretation. Turner's greatness is finally revealed in his mythological paintings, which express despair at the triumph of mortifying labour over beauty.

Subjects: Literature

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John Ruskin (1819—1900) art critic and social critic