Ruskin's modern painters and the visual language of reality

Peter Garratt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Ruskin, the most influential mid-Victorian aesthetician, has typically been affiliated by critics with one of two incongruous regimes of thought; late English romanticism or an emerging counter-paradigm of factual science. Unwilling to refine this opposition, criticism has failed so far to address the relationship Ruskin bears to a native British intellectual tradition of sceptical empiricism. Beginning by arguing that his early writing on aesthetics ought to be distanced from the cultural legacies of romanticism (intuitive psychology, transcendental order, mysticism), this article offers a re-examination of Modern Painters (1843–60) as a work that intersects instead with the associationist tradition represented in the mid-century by writers like Alexander Bain and G. H. Lewes. Ruskin's realism, I argue, can be rethought in these terms as it dramatises a similar model of subjectivity to that found in their key psychological works; a model whereby the self must paradoxically be sacrificed before the object it seeks to know while also authenticating art's truthfulness through the testimonies of perspective and personality. Discussion ranges from visual art, including Turner and Canaletto, to the psychological theory of Lewes and Bain, to detailed analysis of the form and meaning of Modern Painters itself, uncovering the powerful critique of mimesis that its surprising philosophical inheritance implies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-71
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2009


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