The leading English art critic of the 19th century, John Ruskin was also a brilliant draftsman. An amateur who never intended to sell his works, he made drawings to gain a better understanding of what he observed, but also to have images to consult as he wrote. Watercolor was his preferred medium.
Ruskin was born in London in 1819 to a prosperous wine merchant, John James, and his pious evangelical wife, Margaret, who dedicated themselves to cultivating their only child’s genius. A present, on his 13th birthday, of a volume of Samuel Rogers’s poem Italy with vignettes engraved after watercolors by J. M. W. Turner sparked an early and lifelong devotion to the artist. In 1835 Ruskin made his first journey to Venice, a city that would occupy his intellect and imagination for decades.
After completing his studies at Oxford he took up art criticism, anonymously publishing the first volume of his magnum opus, Modern Painters, in 1843 to general acclaim. He spent years on the project, publishing the fifth and final volume in 1860. Architecture—primarily Gothic—was another pressing concern, which he addressed in his pamphlet The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and the influential three-volume The Stones of Venice (1851–1853).
In the early 1850s Ruskin established a relationship with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Painters from the group had drawn inspiration from Ruskin’s admiration of 14th- and 15th-century art, as well as his exhortation that artists should “go to Nature, rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.” Ruskin in turn championed their work, defending their hyperrealist transcriptions of the world against fierce criticism.
Ruskin became increasingly preoccupied in the 1860s with the societal conditions in which works of art and architecture were made. He decried modern means of production, lamenting the negative effects of industry on the relationship between laborers and their craft. His elevation of the handmade over the machine-produced influenced William Morris in his efforts as leader of the arts and crafts movement. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s Ruskin continued to publish and give lectures, but these were also troubled decades filled with a series of psychological breakdowns and a libel suit by James McNeill Whistler. Ruskin spent his final years in ill health, occasionally receiving visitors at his secluded home in Cumbria, where he died in 1900.
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