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RUSKIN AND HIS CRITICS.
OUR good friends the artists must not be too hard upon It would be pleasant, if one only could, to school our ideas exactly to their standard: to watch their cunning pencils, as they bring out lines and hues, too exquisite for our exoteric capacities; to follow their clever pens, as they set down artistic rules, according to which alone we ignoble vulgar must be pleased or displeased; to admire nothing but what they tell us is admirable; to believe nothing but what they tell us is credible; and to find vent for our free activity, only in the becoming and ennobling privilege of paying out the cash. If one could but do this, he might be lapped in the music of their most sweet voices, and bask in a sunshine as pure as Claude's. He might even be patted with benignant condescension on the back, pronounced a man of taste and culture, called a judicious critic and a felicitous collector. Then would gradually gather around him that delicate, translucent vail, that misty, mysterious garment, whose qualities precisely reverse those of the shirt of Hercules, for it thrills with exquisite pleasure the whole frame of the wearer, and causes his breast to swell with the sublime consciousness of connoisseurship, and flutters all bosoms in the dove-cots of fashion, and awakens, when it appears, a whisper, instinct
with veneration, spirit-stirring, that here is a veritable and most alarming lion, having no relationship to Bully Bottom the weaver. This might, indeed, be delightful; but the conditions of the enjoyment are hard. Admiration, sympathy, pleasure, are precisely the things that will not force: the very consciousness of our human freedom is bound up with them. Great, also, as the studio and the Art-gallery are, the world is, on the whole, neither a studio nor an Art-gallery. Interests manifold and important, religious, social, domestic, will not cease to play their parts there, in remarkable independence of the rules of the studio. Pictures, moveover, are there prepared for us, of a beauty wondrous, inexhaustible, older than those of the oldest masters, old as the mountains and the skies, with which we cannot help being rather impressed, but which we cannot perfectly see or understand, until some one show them unto us. We must not, therefore, consent to the consecration to Art of a little temple, not only apart from the great world, but shut against it; we must forego the proud honor of being connoisseurs; we must content ourselves with distinctions common to mortal men.
Ruskin must not be given up wholly to the artists. True it is, and let the fact be stated with due emphasis, that we believe him to be, in the province of Art, strictly defined, a critic of marvellous accuracy and of no less marvellous comprehensiveness, whose sympathy, universally acknowledged, is not one whit more remarkable than his science. True it is, that we think we hold in our hand the threads of a detailed and indubitable demonstration of this. Yet Ruskin cannot be viewed solely as a critic of what is generally understood as Art. Nay, he cannot be correctly judged of in the capacity of Art-critic, if he is contemplated in that alone. The nature of man is a unity, and no man
can engage long or earnestly in any work, without exibiting the essential characteristics which that unity comprehends. We must regard Ruskin in at least three aspects: as a poet of external nature, a revealer of its beauties, a narrator of its facts; as a thinker, impelled by sympathies of extraordinary power, to reflect on the general condition, religious and social, of mankind; and as a critic, who has brought the general capacities of his nature, primarily and systematically, to an examination of the mode in which the nations of Christendom have pursued and embodied the Beautiful, with special reference to that pursuit and embodiment in his own country, in his own time. It is distinctly to be understood that, if he has radically failed in this last department, he cannot be defended. He might have been a Richter to perceive the beauty of nature; he might have cast abroad, like a Luther, the seeds of moral and religious truth: but he came before the world as an Art-critic, and if he failed here, he failed in what he chose. and professed as his life-work. But, thus conceding that no excellence in other provinces could have redeemed failure in this, it may be allowed us to add, that an extraordinary power to perceive natural beauty, and a remarkable range and nobleness of human sympathy, might promote instead of counteracting ability to treat expressly of Art, nay, if not implying such ability, is indispensable to it. If Art had not a distinct character, separable both from physical beauty and human excellence, a distinct name. But can it be denied her own watch-tower, Art casts her the world of nature, now towards the world of man, for suggestion, instruction, and inspiration? The connection between Art and nature, be it what it may, is at least intimate and indissoluble; and a knowledge of nature, and a
it would not have that, standing on eye now towards
broad and earnest sympathy with human interests, furnish a presumption in favor of the Art-critic. It would surely be unnecessary to argue with any one who did not look upon an enthusiasm in Art, unable to connect itself with enthusiasm in nature and sympathy with men, as either partial, affected, or altogether unsound. The strong sense of humanity will always recognize, in those wider emotions, the best guarantee of excellence in every species of criticism; and in endeavoring to attain a correct understanding of any critical system, to form a sound estimate of the capacities and achievements of any critic, it will not fail to commend itself as the best mode of procedure, to commence with a survey, in relation to each, of such initial feelings. The artists, therefore, and connoisseurs, must for a little stand aside, while we consult, touching the critic they revile, the oracles of nature.
With an explicitness which was a duty, and with that scientific calmness, with which any man may recall and state the impressions of boyhood, Mr. Ruskin has informed us of the emotions, with which, in his earliest years, he looked upon nature. The passage to which we allude, occurring in the third volume of Modern Painters, may fearlessly be pronounced one of the most important, as well as interesting and beautiful, in the whole range of biography. We can quote but a part of it. "The first thing," he says, “which I remember, as an event in life, was being taken by my nurse to the brow of Friar's Crag on Derwentwater; the intense joy, mingled with awe, that I had in looking through the hollows in the mossy roots, over the crag into the dark lake, has associated itself more or less with all twining roots of trees ever since. Two other things I remember, as, in a sort, beginnings of life, - crossing Shapfells, being let out of the chaise to run up the hills,
- and going through Glenfarg, near Kinross, in a winter's morning, when the rocks were hung with icicles; these being culminating points in an early life of more travelling than is usually indulged to a child. In such journeyings, whenever they brought me near hills, and in all mountain ground and scenery, I had a pleasure, as early as I can remember, and continuing till I was eighteen or twenty, infinitely greater than any which has been since possible to me in anything; comparable for intensity only to the joy of a lover in being near a noble and kind mistress, but no more explicable or definable than that feeling of love itself. : Although there was no definite religious sentiment mingled with it, there was a continual perception of sanctity in the whole of nature, from the slightest thing to the vastest; an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit. I could only feel this perfectly when I was alone; and then it would often make me shiver from head to foot with the joy and fear of it, when after being some time away from hills, I first got to the shore of a mountain river, where the brown water circled among the pebbles, or when I saw the first swell of distant land against the sunset, or the first low broken wall, covered with mountain moss. I cannot in the least describe the feeling; but I do not think this is my fault or that of the English language, for, I am afraid, no feeling is describable. If we had to explain even the sense of bodily hunger to a person who had never felt it, we should be hard put to it for words; and this joy in nature seemed to me to come of a sort of heart-hunger, satisfied with the presence of a Great and Holy Spirit. These feelings remained in their full intensity till I was eighteen or twenty, and then, as the reflective and practical power increased, and the 'cares of