John Ruskin: His Key Ideas that Defined an Artistic Era

John Ruskin was an art critic who made an indelible impact on 19th-century art and architecture.

Dec 4, 2023By Hannah Kroes, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies

john ruskon key ideas


It is difficult to overstate the influence of John Ruskin, a prominent 19th-century art critic whose ideas irrevocably changed the face of painting and architecture during the Victorian period. From instigating the Gothic Revival to inspiring the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Ruskin’s ideas had such a profound impact on the art of the time that he became the most influential thinker of 19th-century Britain. Read on to learn more about Ruskin’s key ideas.


The Life of John Ruskin

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John Ruskin by John Everett Millais, 1853-54, via Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


John Ruskin, born in 1819 in London, England, lived a life driven by his passion for art. He had an insatiable intellectual curiosity. Growing up in a supportive environment that nurtured his talents, Ruskin developed a deep appreciation for the arts. Ruskin’s travels across Europe, particularly his visit to Italy, exposed him to the masterpieces of renowned artists and enriched his aesthetic sensibilities. He pursued higher education at the University of Oxford, where he delved into classics, history, and literature. Ruskin’s life was marked not only by his artistic pursuits but also by a strong sense of social responsibility. He confronted societal challenges arising from industrialization and advocated for the preservation of traditional craftsmanship. Ruskin’s social critique and emphasis on the moral implications of society’s actions became integral to his works.


Ruskin’s relevance to the 19th-century art world is vast. He was a champion of the Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. His writings on nature profoundly influenced the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and his beliefs in the importance of craftsmanship and the Gothic style fed into the ideology of the Arts & Crafts movement. He had a hand in changing the architectural landscape of Britain and was a key figure in the design of the Oxford Natural History Museum. Ruskin’s ideas are inextricable from the study of Victorian art and culture.


Ruskin as an Art Critic

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The Fighting Temeraire by JMW Turner, 1839, via National Gallery, London


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John Ruskin emerged as a prominent art critic in the 1840s when he published his series of essays titled Modern Painters. In this volume, he expounded on his ideas that art should be rooted in observation of nature as well as convey a deeper moral message. Ruskin firmly believed that art should be borne from observation of nature and serve as a vehicle for communicating moral content. Drawing inspiration from his encounters with the natural world, he championed the notion that artists should closely study and faithfully depict the intricacies of the natural environment. By observing nature attentively, artists could capture its essence and convey its profound significance in their works.


In Modern Painters, Ruskin also championed J.M.W Turner’s methods of painting. He had admired Turner’s work since he saw it as a teenager in the Royal Academy’s 1836 exhibition, even writing a treatise defending it to his father. Both Ruskin and his father went on to purchase several works painted by Turner. Turner’s style was unusual for the time but his Romantic landscape paintings were imbued with a sublime quality that resonated with his own aesthetic and moral sensibilities. Much of Ruskin’s early ideas were influenced by what he observed in Turner.


The Influence of Turner

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The Mill by Claude Lorrain, 1648, via National Gallery, London


Ruskin met Turner in the early 1840s when Ruskin was in his early twenties. Turner had an immeasurable impact on the young critic, cementing Ruskin’s ideas about the relationship between art and nature. Turner captured hazy sunlight and violent seascapes in a loose style, setting him apart from traditional landscape painters. He had a deep understanding of nature due to traveling extensively and painting en plein air to capture natural phenomena. He believed in the importance of firsthand observation as a primary source for his painting. Turner’s ability to translate the beauty and drama of nature onto the canvas had a significant influence on Ruskin’s ideas on the observation of nature in art.


In Modern Painters, Ruskin asserted the originality of Turner by comparing his works with those of the Baroque French painter Claude Lorrain. Ruskin argued that Claude’s paintings, constructed using formulaic methods to depict imagined landscape scenes, lacked the authenticity and emotional impact found in Turner’s works.


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Calais Pier by JMW Turner, 1803, via National Gallery, London


Claude’s paintings featured a combination of several things: a foreground with trees framing the Italianate landscape like a stage set, leading to receding middle and backgrounds recorded in atmospheric perspective. Instead of relying on a set of pictorial tools to construct a visually pleasing landscape, Turner looked to nature itself and captured its irregularity and drama. By looking at nature as a source of inspiration, Ruskin argued that Turner was able to infuse his art with a deeper sense of truth and meaning.


Truth to Nature

Our English Coasts by William Holman Hunt, 1852 via Tate, London


To clarify his ideas around the firsthand observation of nature, Ruskin delineated a concept known as Truth to Nature. An artist who is true to nature creates faithful and accurate depictions of nature. They closely observe nature firsthand and present it in art, as Ruskin said, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing. The language Ruskin used to define Truth to Nature likened an artist to a scientist. Ruskin believed that artists should understand the geology and history of a place, as well as have personal experience in it, in order to represent it truthfully. He urged artists to have a scientific and emotional understanding of the landscape, in order to present moral as well as material truth.


Ruskin promoted this approach because he believed it would prevent artists from falling into artifice. Although Turner was Ruskin’s primary influence, he did not practice the concept of Truth to Nature in the exact way that Ruskin put forward. He often painted watercolors outside and had deep personal experience with the sea, but he also did not shy away from using his imagination to create scenes with emotional impact.


It was the Pre-Raphaelites, who would band together in the 1850s, who more purposefully followed the doctrine of Truth to Nature. They applied Ruskin’s ideas by faithfully reproducing every detail of nature in sharp focus within their hyper-realistic paintings. Their attentiveness to nature inclined them to record the backgrounds of their paintings before the figures, subverting the traditional order and asserting a new modern way of painting. Ruskin was directly influential in this development in art.


Craftsmanship and Anti-Industrialisation

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John Ruskin by Benjamin Creswick, 1877, via Art UK


Ruskin was vehemently opposed to the rapid industrialization that Britain was experiencing, firmly believing that the process would alienate workers, diminish their sense of purpose in their skills, and lead to detrimental effects on both people and the environment. He also thought that industrial materials would be unhealthy for people and the environment and that they would negatively affect the morality of the populace.


Ruskin championed the imperfect nature of handmade objects. In The Stones of Venice (1853) he stated: To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. This highlights his belief that imperfections in craftsmanship were integral to its genuine expression. Ruskin’s advocacy for a return to traditional craftsmanship and handmade objects resonated with like-minded individuals, most notably William Morris and the burgeoning Arts & Crafts movement. His ideas inspired a revival of artisanal skills and a re-emphasis on the personal fulfillment derived from creating and interacting with handmade objects. The Arts & Crafts movement sought to combat the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, promoting the importance of skilled craftsmanship and the beauty found in handcrafted goods.


Morality in Architecture

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The Red House, designed by Phillip Webb and William Morris in Bexleyheath, 1859, via The National Trust


As the working class was increasingly forced into dilapidated tenements to work in urban factories, Ruskin was worried that the built environment would breed social issues. This was true in a literal way, in terms of disease and poverty. Ruskin extended this idea on a spiritual level, however. He believed that the upliftment of individuals in society could only come through moral and beautiful architecture.


To advocate for morality in architecture, Ruskin emphasized the principles of honesty and harmony with nature. This meant that he was opposed to arbitrary architectural ornamentation or structures which did not clearly express their function. For example, he would have opposed civic buildings like banks being built to resemble Classical temples. Instead, he believed that function and aesthetics should work hand-in-hand to create beautiful and honest structures.


Ruskin’s views on morality in architecture extended to gendered perspectives that aligned with Victorian ideals of separate spheres for men and women. He emphasized the significance of the home and women’s role as homemakers, shaping morally uplifting environments within the domestic sphere. Ruskin’s ideas on separate spheres reflected the prevailing ideology of the time.


Gothic Revival

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Loggia of the Ducal Palace, Venice by John Ruskin, 1849-50, via Metropolitan Museum of Art


Ruskin was partial to Gothic architecture and was highly influential in Britain’s Gothic Revival during the 19th century. He published The Stones of Venice between 1851 and 1853. In it, he examined Venetian Gothic architecture and argued that the city was a pinnacle of artistic achievement due to the fact that the architecture was imbued with spirituality and emotional richness. This was opposed to contemporary British architecture, which he saw as far too utilitarian, lacking aesthetic depth.


Gothic architecture, with its roots in Northern European Christianity, had a natural link to the concept of morality. The religious undertones of the style were clear, but in addition, Ruskin was hearkening back to a medieval guild method of working. The craftsmanship and communal harmony of workers who built each aspect of a Gothic cathedral together, with a clear purpose, appealed to Ruskin’s idea of morality in architecture and his belief in the power of craftsmanship.


Furthermore, the Gothic style utilized features such as pointed arches and ribbed vaulting which were beautiful as well as structurally honest. Their function was apparent through their appearance. Ruskin felt that this was a sincere expression of materials and their underlying structural principles. Alongside the architect Augustus Pugin who likewise promoted the style, Ruskin’s advocacy for the Gothic Revival fundamentally changed the architectural landscape of Britain.


The Legacy of John Ruskin

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Portrait of John Ruskin as a young man, from the water-color by G. Richmond, c. 1843, via Wellcome Collection, London


Towards the end of his career, Ruskin’s ideas faced some challenges and began to lose influence in certain circles. As the art world shifted towards new movements and aesthetic theories, some critics and artists found Ruskin’s emphasis on moral content and detailed observation to be outdated. The emergence of modernism and the growing interest in abstract and experimental art forms diverted attention away from Ruskin’s more traditional views.


Additionally, Ruskin’s social and political ideas faced criticism and resistance from those who disagreed with his perspectives on issues such as capitalism, industrialization, and gender roles. Some viewed his beliefs as overly idealistic or out of touch with the realities of the changing world. Despite these shifts in intellectual and artistic trends, Ruskin’s ideas still had a lasting impact on subsequent generations. His writings continued to inspire and influence individuals who valued the ethical and moral dimensions of art, architecture, and society. His ideas on craftsmanship, environmentalism, and social justice found resonance in later movements and continue to be studied and appreciated today.

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By Hannah KroesMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesHannah is an A level History of Art teacher in London, England focusing on 19th and 20th century art. She holds an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art in Russian Modernism, where she wrote a dissertation about Ukrainian embroidery workshops and the work of Hanna Sobachko. She is interested in the decorative arts and the intersection between art and gender. She also writes a blog about art and travel.