John Ruskin, Victorian Radical and Art Historian

A Houghton exhibition explores the thinker’s influences and impact. 

Portrait of Ruskin by Charles Herbert Moore
Portrait of Ruskin by Charles Herbert MooreCourtesy of the Harvard Art Museums

John Ruskin is hardly a household name, but the English artist, art critic, and social theorist was widely influential among his nineteenth-century contemporaries, and many intellectuals who followed. He was “the foremost polemicist of the Victorian Age,” notes one label in Houghton Library’s new exhibition, “Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal.” Beside it, a lithographic caricature from an 1872 issue of Vanity Fair brings out Ruskin’s distinctive physical features: his beak of a nose and bushy sideburns.   

The bicentennial of Ruskin’s birth prompted the exhibition, which also highlights his unique relationship with Harvard and influence on the institution’s history. Ruskin was close friends with Charles Eliot Norton, Harvard’s first professor of art history, who had persuaded his cousin—University president Charles William Eliot—to add such a course to the College’s curriculum. Norton had been inspired by Ruskin’s position as a professor of art at Oxford, and “It was through Norton that Ruskin had an impact on the United States,” says Anne-Marie Eze, director of scholarly and public programs at Houghton. Ruskin’s student Charles Herbert Moore was the first director of the University’s Fogg Art Museum. 

As one of Ruskin’s executors, explains exhibit curator Peter Accardo, Norton collected many of his friend’s works, which now form the foundation of Houghton’s Ruskin collection. Those holdings have been supplemented by donations from R. Dyke Benjamin ’59. The exhibition is also augmented by pieces from other Harvard libraries and the Harvard Art Museums, displaying Ruskin’s books, manuscripts, objects from his daily life, and those of people in his sphere of influence. Objects from Benjamin’s most recent gift, made last year, feature prominently in the exhibit; one of them, a letter Ruskin wrote about the 1867 Reform Act, which extended the vote to working-class men in Britain, reads: “[W]orking men of England must, for some time, be the only body to which we can look for resistance to the deadly influence of moneyed power.” The donation also includes letters by English social reformer Octavia Hill, who received art lessons from Ruskin and, with his financial support, acquired and renovated her first slum properties. 

Ruskin caricatured in Vanity Fair, captioned "The realisation of the Ideal," 1872
Courtesy of Houghton Library

Ruskin’s social views, as well as his philosophy of art, were shaped by the political environment of the nineteenth century: in particular, by the effects of the Industrial Revolution, “which he came to believe had threatened the dignity of everyday men and women,” says Accardo. “His career also coincided with the Darwinian revolution in science and the rise of socialism, most notably in the writings of Marx and Engels.”   

With the fortune he inherited from his father, a successful merchant, Ruskin supported a range of utopian projects, such as the Guild of St. George (today an educational trust), a community that aimed to “return to an agrarian way of life” as a tonic against urbanization and mass production. In his four-installment essay Unto This Last, an early copy of which appears in the exhibition, Ruskin censures eighteenth- and nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics and condemns industrialism and capitalism for its attacks on the environment and human well-being. The work was immensely influential on Mahatma Gandhi, and also made an impact, through Gandhi’s paraphrase, on Martin Luther King Jr.   

Ruskin’s critique of the industrial economy is connected to his writing on the history of art and architecture: “I am forced by precisely the same instinct to the consideration of political questions that urges me to examine the laws of architectural and mountain forms,” he wrote. He was associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, an artistic movement that stressed direct observation of nature and heartfelt expression of it in art. Ruskin loved medieval Gothic buildings, which he contrasted with the mechanization of factories in the nineteenth century. “This observation came as a revelation as he studied the architectural legacy of Europe, recognizing that earlier craftsmen found greater joy and dignity in their handiwork than their modern counterparts,” explains Accardo. Visitors to the exhibition will find nineteenth-century prints of his influential essay “On the Nature of Gothic Architecture,” embellished with medieval-inspired motifs. 

Ruskin gave voice to the most radical responses to industrialism and inequality, and anticipated questions about labor, the environment, and the arts that resonate today. But it is difficult to square some of the facts of his biography: his vision of liberating the underclass of England, to a modern viewer, seems to clash with his apparent support of colonialism. He supported Edward John Eyre, the colonial governor of Jamaica, after Eyre’s deadly suppression of a black peasant rebellion there in 1865, and sympathized with British imperialism in general. Later, he appeared to refine this view; in an 1887 letter to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, part of Benjamin’s recent gift to Houghton, Ruskin wrote, regarding the discussion of self-determination in Ireland, “I am with Ireland altogether in these present matters, as I am with Scotland, with India, with Afghanistan, and with Natal.” Ruskin’s responses to contemporary politics were “at times incoherent and self-contradictory,” Accardo explains, “which makes it difficult to categorize Ruskin’s own contributions to Victorian culture.”

John Ruskin, "Study of Stones and Lichens in the glen below les Montets in the ascent to Chamonix"
Courtesy of Houghton Library

Alongside the artifacts of Ruskin’s life, and those of admirers (Leo Tolstoy called him “one of the most remarkable men, not only of England and our time, but of all countries and all times”), hangs his painting of a snowy alpine landscape, a subdued, careful study of an outcrop of rock with lichens and plant life. The work reflects Ruskin’s contention in his art-historical work Modern Painters: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and to tell what it saw in a plain way.” 

“Victorian Visionary: John Ruskin and the Realization of the Ideal” is open to the public through April 13. 

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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