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WHATEVEE lie may call himself, it is as a painter
Some twenty years ago, I had occasion to state, in print, my estimate of the value and importance of Euskin's wordpainting of nature. The passage was received by some with ridicule as mere enthusiastic extravagance; but I have never seen cause to modify it; and I have the more satisfaction in recurring to it now, because I wish to say that, however much I may have disagreed with some of his recent opinions, I have never harboured a doubt as to the greatness and the splendour of his service in delineating the facts of nature.
After an introductory word or two upon the ministry of mind to mind, so that an original thinker inspires multitudes with thought, and "the delight first felt in a single breast is communicated by sympathy, and thrills through a thousand," I proceeded as follows:—" A man gifted with pre-eminent sensibility to nature's beauty, with pre-eminent ability to perceive nature's truth, lends a voice to the hills, and adds a music to the streams; he looks on the sea, and it becomes more calmly beautiful; on the clouds, and they are more radiantly touched; he becomes a priest of the mysteries, a dispenser of the charities of nature; and men call him poet. Ruskin stands among a select and honoured few who have thus interpreted nature's meaning, and conveyed her bounty to mankind. He has spoken with a voice of fascinating power of those pictures which never change, yet are ever new; which are old, yet not dimmed or defaced; of the beauty of which all art is an acknowledgment, of the admiration of which all art is the result, but which, having hung in our view since childhood, we are apt to pass lightly by. He has reminded us that morning, rosy-fingered as in the days of Homer, has yet a new and distinct smile at each arising; and that, as she steps along the ocean, its foam is still wreathed into new broideries of gold and roses. He has shown us, by evidence which none can resist, that no true lover ever trysted with Spring, by her own fountains or in her own woods, without seeing some beauty never seen before. At his bidding we awake to a new consciousness of the beauty and grandeur of the world. We have more distinct ideas as to what it is; we know better how to look for it. Summer has for us a new opulence and pride; Autumn—which is Summer meeting death with a smile—a new solemnity and a more noble sadness. Even to Winter we learn to look for his part in nature's pageantry, in nature's orchestral beauty; we find a new music in his storms, a new majesty His Description of Nature. 389
in his cataracts, a more exquisite pencilling in his frostwork." There are multitudes now who, without fear of ridicule, would apply these words to Ruskin, and declare that he had either opened their eyes to the grandeur and loveliness of nature, or enabled them to see more of the beauty than they had ever seen before; but there were not so many twenty years ago.
In order to understand and appreciate Buskin's descriptions, we must exactly apprehend the object with which they were produced. They were intended to vindicate Turner's knowledge, not his art—to prove that he knew more, and recorded more, of the facts of nature than any other painter. The critics, Ruskin tells us, had denied that Turner could draw. They alleged that they saw less of nature in Turner's pictures than in those of other men. Ruskin met them on the issue of fact, putting aside or postponing questions respecting the use Turner had made of his facts in creating imaginative pictures. The mistake of the critics, judging as they did by Turner's latest works, was hardly surprising, inasmuch as the intense imaginative brilliancy of Turner's final manner hid the accurate realism that lay beneath. If you see the Lake of Lucerne and its encompassing mountains, rendered in perfect harmony of rose-light and blue, looking as if the whole were one finely-veined jewel, you are apt to think that the work is but an abstract harmony of colour, such as might be seen in a prism, and to overlook the veracity of mountain line, the faultless lightness of lake surface, which no man in Europe except Turner could have given with the same consummate truth. I heard a man in the crowd, at the exhibition of the Novar Turners, making this very comparison of the Lucerne to the colour of a prism, and pooh-poohing the work in consequence. What this man wanted was an instructor who could lift the veil of imaginative radiance from Turner's drawing, and show him the truth lying below. This was what Ruskin undertook to do; and therefore, whatever quality his descriptions might lack, they were bound, if fitted to serve their purpose at all, to be literally true to nature. Hence their unparalleled accuracy. There is a more minute and extensive knowledge in them than can be claimed for the corresponding word-pictures, either of descriptive poets, like Tennyson, Shelley, Scott, Keats, and Wordsworth, or of authors who elaborately describe nature in prose, like Jean Paul Richter and Christopher North. He has such a knowledge of nature as Tennyson would have had if he had devoted himself to landscape painting; and he has a command of words such as only the greatest authors, prose or poetical, have possessed. He says modestly that no description of his is worth four lines of Tennyson; but highly as I prize Tennyson's descriptions, I cannot assent to that. Tennyson is faultlessly true, but his knowledge is not so wide as Ruskin's.
It is in the extent combined with the precision of his observation, and the unprecedented tenacity with which he has stored up in memory the record of what he has seen, that Ruskin stands alone. You are apt, when you read his account of one series of natural appearances, to conclude that he must have devoted all his time and all his attention to that particular series. Listen to his description of the sea, and you figure him as standing for hours on the seashore, or on some pier-head above the line of breakers, watching the waves in their race up the beach, and the backward flow of the recoiling billow, its surface " marbled" by the foam, which has partly entered into its substance and shows in it Like the air in effervescing wine, and partly floats upon it, opening into " oval gaps and clefts." Again and again, as you read Ruskin's descriptions of the sea, you exclaim,—if you have yourself been a haunter of the shore, a watcher of the waves from pier-head, cliff, or deck,—" Ah, I have seen that!" In the first volume of Modern Painters, On the Sea. 391
he criticises, in a single sentence, the treatment of the sea by the Dutch school, and we cannot but feel, as we read it, that, though he by no means recognises the whole merit of Vandevelde and his fellows, who painted grey quiet sea and drooping sails with what seemed, I believe, to Turner, the highest possible perfection, he has acquired a far more thorough acquaintance with the sea in motion and in sunlight—with all that is the sea's peculiar glory—than those wonderful and indomitable Hollanders. "Foam," he says," appears to me to curdle and cream on the wave sides, and to fly flashing from their crests, and not to be set astride upon them like a peruke; and waves appear to me to fall, and plunge, and toss, and nod, and crash over, and not to curl up like shavings; and water appears to me, when it is grey, to have the grey of stormy air mixed with its own deep, heavy, thunderous, threatening blue, and not the grey of the first coat of cheap paint on a deal door; and many other such things appear to me, which, as far as I can conjecture by what is admired marine painting, appear to few else."
To point out wherein artists have misrepresented nature is an important part of the duty of a critic, but it is a more difficult part of his duty to discover, in the works of an artist who is misrepresented or misunderstood, instances of truth to nature which escape the common eye. Nothing is more likely to strike the careful and observant painter, who makes it his business to watch nature and who perpetually witnesses effects which none but a watcher of nature will notice, with despair than to find, when he has recorded his original and exquisite observation, either that no one discovers him to have done anything unusual, or that some critic, ignorant, impudent, and unfeeling, sure only that he never saw the effect in question, accuses him of painting falsely. It is in pointing out unnoticed truths in Turner's works, and thus, at one and the same moment