Thursday, October 10, 2013

Modern Painters as Pale Fire - with a bonus: the rhapsody on moss

A reader unfamiliar with John Ruskin’s methods might think that a gigantic book titled Modern Painters would be about modern painters.  Today, thanks to Charles Baudelaire, the term evokes Manet and Monet; they are too late for this book, but neither Corot nor Courbet nor Delacroix are mentioned either.  Besides Turner, the primary subject of the book, almost no painter contemporary with Ruskin is ever mentioned, aside from occasional complimentary nods to the Pre-Raphaelites.

The final volume of the book includes an index (three, actually) so I can see who is mentioned the most, aside from Turner.  By eye, the leaders are Claude Lorrain, Titian, “Tintoret,” and Salvator Rosa, all painters of the 16th and 17th century.  The Venetians are taken as the greatest landscape painters before Turner, while the first and last are primarily used as punching bags.  Claude, for example:

absurdities of conception, iii, 401; deficiency in foreground, i. 284, ii. 182 [I will hereafter omit volume and page numbers and rearrange entries capriciously]; absence of imagination in; narrowness of, contrasted with vastness of nature

But I see that my memory fails, since Lorrain is often praised, as well:

sincerity of purpose of; tenderness of perception in; true painting of afternoon sunshine

Salvator Rosa gets some good ones: “perpetual seeking for horror and ugliness; vicious execution of; vulgarity of.”  That last entry is attached to Rembrandt, too.  Many artists (Durer, Raphael, Perugino, Fra Angelico) have a page reference for their “hatred of fog.”

The Topical Index* is at least as much fun.

Age, the present, mechanical impulse of; spirit of; our greatest men nearly all unbelievers; levity of.  See Modern.

Yes, sir.

Modern age, characteristics of; costumes, ugliness of; romance of the past; criticism; landscape; mind, pathetic fallacy characteristic of.

I begin to wonder if I should just read the index.  It begins to look like a precursor of Pale Fire.  “Grief, a noble emotion, ii. 372, 373, iii. 30”; “Keats, description of waves by; no real sympathy with, but a dreamy love of nature”; “Moss, beauty and endurance of.”  Volume 5, pp. 138-9 that last one a great passage, a rhapsody on lichens.

Meek creatures! the first mercy of the earth, veiling with hushed softness its dintless rocks; creatures full of pity, covering with strange and tender honor the scarred disgrace of ruin, - laying quiet finger on the trembling stones, to teach them rest.  No words, that I know of, will say what these mosses are.  None are delicate enough, none perfect enough, none rich enough.

So Ruskin will just try out all of the words

How is one to tell of the rounded bosses of furred and beaming green,- the starred divisions of rubied bloom, fine-filmed, as if the Rock Spirits [!] could spin porphyry as we do glass,- the traceries of intricate silver, and fringes of amber, lustrous, arborescent, burnished through every fibre into fitful brightness…

That goes on for a while.  The Rock Spirits aside, this sounds gassy but is actually quite precise.  It is in the service of a simpler point, that a good mountain painter ought to know if the patch of color he is seeing from a distance is rock or moss.

*  I do not know for a fact that Ruskin compiled the indices to Modern Painters.  I have only been able to trace them back as far as 1863 (see here), but come on, who else.


  1. Hahahaha, oh Lord, I don't like Ruskin as a guy, but these are the most entertaining index excerpts I've ever seen.

  2. This is superb! I admit I've never considered reading Ruskin - but those indices seem too good to miss!

  3. I can say that the descriptions in the indices are accurate. Go to the indicated page (or nearby, since sometimes the page number is wrong), and you will find what it said you'd find. "costumes, ugliness of," it's right there.