Only a few days ago we were
fearing for the life of Tolstoy; that misfortune did not come to
pass; but the world has been dealt a no lesser loss: Ruskin is
dead. Nietzsche is insane, Tolstoy and Ibsen appear to be nearing
the end of their life; one after another Europe is losing her
"directors of conscience". Ruskin was certainly the
director of conscience of his times, but he was also its
professor of taste, its initiator into that beauty condemned by
Tolstoy in the name of morality and which Ruskin had fully
poeticized, to the extent of morality itself.
He was born in 1819 at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, to a father who was a wine merchant, who later he liked to portray as the model of commercial shrewdness and probity, and an ardently Calvinist mother. His father was in the habit of taking trips every year in a rented carriage that would drop off the family anywhere, whether at natural sites or artistic monuments, that he thought capable of moulding their taste. From an early age Ruskin's taste was always fervent and sure, and M. de la Sizeranne has recounted the emotions that the young child experienced when he saw mountains for the first time. He already felt a passion for things at an age where generally we only experience them for people. And, as often happens, it was in his last books that he belatedly described his early years. They had retained an indelible charm in his memory and have been fixed for ever in his book Praeteria, a sort of autobiography such as he had already sketched out in Fors Clavigera, and which corresponds, in Ruskin's work, to Dichtung und Wahrheit in Goethe's.
The Gazette des Beaux-Arts will have the honour, in an upcoming issue, of presenting an outline of Ruskin's work, which if not complete will be at least faithful, and without doubt if not a total analysis then sufficient to give a true impression of it. Here we could not try even to give a resumé of the catalogue, which, such as we have before us, arranged methodically by Ruskin's preferred disciple, his learned friend Mr Collingwood, comprises more than 160 different titles. Always full of imagery and as if shrouded by design in a sort of mysterious obscurity, several of these titles, however, are familiar today to scholars and artists. The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Two Paths (1859), Munera Pulveris (1862-1863), Sesame and Lilies (1865), The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), The Queen of the Air (1869), Aratra Pentelici (1872), Ariadne Florentina (1873), Deucalion (1875-1883), Mornings in Florence (1873-1877), Proserpine (1873-1886), The Laws of Fésole (1877-1878), St Mark's Rest (1878-1884), The Three Pillars of Pre-Rapaelitism (1878), are now, just as much as Modern Painters (1843), or The Stones of Venice (1851), veritable breviaries of wisdom and aestheticism. The vehement polemics that they excited at the time of their publication (it is futile to recall the lawsuit between Ruskin and Mr Whistler as the memory of it is ever present in all our minds) abated bit by bit; and when Ruskin was struck down by the illness that forced him to abandon his studies in Oxford and retire to Brantwood with Mr and Mrs Severn, England, as The Times observed in a remarkable article dedicated to Ruskin in its 22nd January edition, all England had become Ruskinian, and the celebration of his eightieth birthday became a sort of national holiday. His ideas about the Pre-Raphaelites had been vulgarized to the extent of banality. His admiration for Turner, to whom he had dedicated so many books (and as we know Modern Painters was seen initially as nothing more than a sort of defence and apology for the painter Turner) and who, at the end of his life, in which he had shown so much versatility that there seemed nothing left to do1, crossed the channel, from the other side of which M. Groult had assembled a magnificent collection of his work.
Venice, Pisa, Florence, these are veritable places of pilgrimage for Ruskinians and, in so many works, works of art, contemporary opinions, it is Ruskin himself who we can recognize, just as a coin of the realm displays the image of the sovereign of the day.
1. When, in 1883, Ruskin resigned from his teaching in Oxford for the second time, one of the two reasons for his decision was that the university had refused to buy Turner's Crescent Moon for £1,200.
Printed in La
Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 27 January 1900.
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