Who Was John Ruskin?

The home that belonged to John Ruskin now houses a museum in Cumbria, England.
The home that belonged to John Ruskin now houses a museum in Cumbria, England.

John Ruskin was an English art critic, art patron, social thinker, and philanthropist of the Victorian Era. His writings included varied subjects such as geology, architecture, education, and political economy among others. In all his writings, Ruskin emphasized the connection between nature, society, and art and made detailed sketches and paintings of nature such as landscape, rocks, plants, and animals. He was popular in the late 19th century up until World War II with his first volume of “Modern Painter” in 1843, which gave him widespread attention. His work has been the basis for various academic studies while his ideas and concerns are widely recognized today due to their impact on the environment and sustainability.

5. Early Life

Ruskin was born on February 8, 1819, to first cousins, John James Ruskin and Margaret Cox. He was born at 54 Hunter Street, London. His childhood saw a contrasting influence from both parents who had fierce ambitions for him. His father helped him to develop Romanticism. His parents liked the works of Shakespeare and Walter Scott and visited Scott’s home in 1838. Margaret Ruskin taught the young Ruskin to read the bible from the first chapter to the last over and over again. The language of the King James Bible had a lasting influence on Ruskin. He went through homeschooling and joined Peckham School from 1834 to 1835.

4. Career

Ruskin’s life was influenced by extensive and privileged travels during his childhood. The travels enabled him to establish his taste and augmented his education. He also developed inspiration for writing from the several travels he undertook with the father. Ruskin’s first publication was in 1829 and was a poem titled “On Skiddaw and Derwent Water.” In 1834, he published short articles for London’s Magazine of Natural History. In 1843, he produced the first volume of “Modern Painter” which was his response to critics of Turner’s pictures. Ruskin completed his first architectural work in 1849 that bore the name “The Seven Lambs of Architecture.” He was also a teacher and a public lecturer in the 1850s and the 1860s. He was appointed professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in 1869

3. Major Contributions

Theorists and practitioners in different disciplines are indebted to Ruskin. Some of Ruskin’s work has influenced several architects such as Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. He was an inspiration to many Christian socialists while his ideas informed the works of several economists. Ruskin lectured on a wide range of subjects which addressed the political and social needs of society at the time. His lectures were so popular that they had to be given twice. In 1871, Ruskin founded the St. George’s Fund which later became a guild. The guild revived traditional rural handicraft and encouraged independence. He also established a museum that had mainly artwork produced by the working men in the city.

2. Challenges

Although Ruskin was an accomplished personality with several accolades, his life was also characterized by controversies and challenges. In 1877, he launched an attack on James Whistler’s paintings for which Whistler filed a suit against him. The incident tarnished his reputation and may have led to his mental illness. Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray lasted only six years and led to several speculations. His pursuit for young Rose La Touche faced resistance from the girl’s family and rejection by the girl. His mental illness slowed down most of his works and travel, especially towards the end of his life.

1. Death and Legacy

The period from the late 1880s was Ruskin’s most unproductive years. He was on a steady decline and could not travel as much as he wanted to. Although his 80th birthday was widely celebrated, he was scarcely aware of the celebration as his health had significantly deteriorated. Ruskin died at the age of 80 from influenza on January 20, 1900. His work and influence have been celebrated worldwide. His work has also been translated into French and other languages around the world. Ruskin was hailed by Gandhi as “magic spell” cast on him by Ruskin’s work, “Unto this Last.” His work continues to influence modern architects and artists.


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