Fragment of the Alps by John Ruskin

John Ruskin

Fragment of the Alps, c.1854–56, Water colour and gouache over pencil on paper, 335 x 493 mm, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard Art Museums; Gift of Samuel Sachs, Bridgeman Images

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The Divinity is in the Detail

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For John Ruskin (1819–1900), as for the prophet Hosea, God revealed himself in nature, the confirmation of his creative agency.

One of the first exercises put to students in Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing (1857) was to draw a pebble from the garden. For Ruskin—writer, educator, artist, and social critic—the study of the humblest of nature’s forms would encourage a love and intimacy with it; as he noted, ‘a stone, when it is examined, will be found a mountain in miniature’ (1874: 6.38). Therefore, when faced with the vast, majestic grandeur of the Alps—his most beloved of landscapes—the attention lavished on this single boulder was typical.

Ruskin taught—and practised—an intense scrutiny of the subject of any artwork, with all its subtle gradations of colour and light. It was translated onto paper by the minute application of the finest brushstrokes of body colour (watercolour made opaque through mixing with white). Here he has mapped the colours and patterns of the rock, its craggy edges and bulbous forms, and the effect of light and shade on its textured and rusty surface created through the oxidation of iron within.

The first four verses of Hosea 14 are a call to repentance; the Israelites are reminded of why God has turned away from them. They have made alliances with Assyria and worshipped foreign idols (v.3). Yet, unlike local fertility gods, the God of Israel is the source of the fruitfulness of the whole earth. Hosea stresses the constancy of God’s sustaining provision—‘I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit’ (v.8)—and provides Israel with the text for its repentance: ‘we will say no more, “Our God,” to the work of our hands’ (v.3).

This honest reflection marries with Ruskin’s attitude to looking at nature. It must be done with a purity of heart and without idolisation of one’s own ‘artistry’. He warned his readers: ‘you will never love art until you love what it mirrors better’ (1872: 45).

Art, created by humans, is artifice unless it has a spiritual foundation: the perception of nature as the manifestation of the divine. Ruskin’s call for a deep personal relationship with nature reflects Hosea’s exhortations to the Israelites to perceive God in their land and lives.

 

References

Ruskin, John. 1843–60. Modern Painters, 34 vols (New York: J. Wiley and Sons).

———. 1857. The Elements of Drawing in Three Letters to Beginners (London: Smith, Elder & Co)

———. 1872. The Eagle’s Nest: ten lectures on the relation of natural science to art, given before the University of Oxford in Lent term, The Works of John Ruskin, vol.4 (London: Smith, Elder & Co)

———. 1874. Frondes Agrestes: Readings in Modern Painters (London: George Allen)


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