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John Ruskin’s Definition of Greatness in Art: Text from Modern Painters

ruskin-cartoon-as-teacher-an01150308_001_lJohn Ruskin as a Teacher. Contemporary Cartoon.

October 26, 2016

The next several blog posts on John Ruskin will relate to this excerpt from one of the massive works of art criticism and scholarship that primarily make John Ruskin’s reputation of one of the greatest thinkers of Victorian England and beyond. What Ruskin says here in relation to visual art has relevance to literary art as well.

from MODERN PAINTERS, “A Definition of Greatness in Art”

The Text from vol. 1, part 1, section 1, chapter 2

Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing. He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed. He has done just as much towards being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learnt how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has towards being a great poet. The language is, indeed, more difficult of acquirement in the one case than in the other, and possesses more power of delighting the sense, while it speaks to the intellect; but it is, nevertheless, nothing more than language, and all those excellences which are peculiar to the painter as such, are merely what rhythm, melody, precision, and force are in the words of the orator and the poet, necessary to their greatness, but not the tests of their greatness. It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined….

***

[If] I say that the greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas, I have a definition which will include as subjects of comparison every pleasure which art is capable of conveying. If I were to say, on the contrary, that the best picture was that which most closely imitated nature, I should assume that art could only please by imitating nature; and I should cast out of the pale of criticism those parts of works of art which are not imitative, that is to say, intrinsic beauties of colour and form, and those works of art wholly, which, like the Arabesques of Raffaelle in the Loggias, are not imitative at all. Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas; and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received.

   If this, then, be the definition of great art, that of a great artist naturally follows. He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.

 

 

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Desdemona: “Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?”

Desdemona012310

Othello

That death’s unnatural that kills for loving.
Alas, why gnaw you so your nether lip?
Some bloody passion shakes your very frame:
These are portents; but yet I hope, I hope,
They do not point on me.

Painting By Frank Dicksee (1896) Public Domain

 

Beatrice– What fire is in mine ears?

Beatrice012317

Much Ado About Nothing

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?
Stand I condemn’d for pride and scorn so much?
Contempt, farewell! and maiden pride, adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee —
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand;
If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band:
For others say thou dost deserve; and I
Believe it better than reportingly.

Painting By Frank Dicksee (1896) Public Domain

Mariana: “This is that face, thou cruel Angelo”

MarianaWaterhouse_Mariana_in_the_South_BMJ

Measure for Measure

My husband bids me; now I will unmask.
[Unveiling]
This is that face, thou cruel Angelo,
Which once thou sworest was worth the looking on;
This is the hand which, with a vow’d contract, 2615
Was fast belock’d in thine; this is the body
That took away the match from Isabel,
And did supply thee at thy garden-house
In her imagined person.

Painting by John Everett Millais (1851)

Katherine of The Taming of the Shrew: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper.”

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A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled- 2650
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, 2655
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands 2660
But love, fair looks, and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;

Painting by James Dromgole Linton : Katherine, from the Taming of the Shrew 1896

Ophelia: “He took me by the wrist and held me hard.”

Ophelia 0243b4c23bfd37616be1b78cba2cc275

Hamlet

He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm,
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so.

At last, a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He rais’d a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being. That done, he lets me go,
And with his head over his shoulder turn’d
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes,
For out o’ doors he went without their help
And to the last bended their light on me.

Painting by Pierre Auguste Cot (1870)

Cordelia: “Sure I shall never marry like my sisters, To love my father all.”

Cordelia012321

King Lear

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me; I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty.
Sure I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

Painting By Frank Dicksee (1896) Public Domain

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