A new exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art commemorates the life and contributions of 19th-century artist and critic John Ruskin.
On view from Sep. 5 to Dec. 8, the exhibit — “Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin’’ — was co-curated by Judith Stapleton GRD ’21, Tara Contractor GRD ’21 and Victoria Hepburn GRD ’22, all doctoral candidates in the history of art department.
Through his art and criticism, Ruskin served as a “pioneering ecological thinker, social reformer, educator and preservationist,” according to the YCBA webpage for the exhibit. Ruskin saw these roles as interconnected. The beauty of nature fueled his passion for ecology and preservationism and inspired his social and political writing. For the bicentennial celebration of his birth this year, the YCBA brought together one of the largest collections of his work available outside the United Kingdom. The works on view come from the collections of the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Peabody Museum of Natural History.
“[The] exhibition contend[s], however, that Ruskin’s influence extends beyond the sphere of the aesthetic or, rather, magisterially expands that field so as to encompass the great questions of ethics, of human history, of theology, and of ecology — the last, presciently so,” wrote Tim Barringer, Paul Mellon professor in the history of art, in the exhibit catalogue.
The co-curators explained that Ruskin’s ideas on ecology melded with his views on ethics and politics, ultimately informing his approach to the problems of his age. Although Ruskin is often remembered as an artist, the curators — and Ruskin himself — saw this label as a secondary descriptor. In the exhibit’s catalogue, Hepburn explained that despite the evident expertise and exquisite talent found in Ruskin’s work, “he didn’t think of himself as an artist.” Rather, he considered his drawings as “memory aids, educational tools, and source material for printed illustrations,” Hepburn wrote.
“Ruskin does all these mountain sketches, glaciers, clouds. He writes ‘The Storm-Cloud of the 19th century,’ in which he diagnoses this problem with industrial Britain, which is this factory smoke spewing out of the industrial cities. He understood that mankind posed a threat to nature,” said Stapleton.
Hepburn tied this ecological and environmental work to issues of wider political import, adding that “[Ruskin] had an interpretation of it being a moral failure in the 19th century, bound up in ideas of factories and this economic system he felt was unfair.”
For the cover of the exhibition catalogue and the start of the exhibition, the curators chose to display an image of a purple tree branch. This image comes from a plate, titled “The Dryad’s Waywardness” in the fifth volume of Ruskin’s book “Modern Painters.” Hepburn explained that the work both is fundamentally beautiful and conveys a message about society.
“He wants us to recognize something in an oak branch a kind of moral lesson,” Hepburn said. “The way they grow is the way he’d like to see society grow communally.”
This coupling of physical forms with intellectual and political lessons is a recurring theme for Ruskin. In his most famous work, “Unto This Last,” he relates the increasing pollution of the 19th century to the harms of a capitalist economy.
His writings on politics and the economy form much of his legacy — the subject of the final section of the exhibit.
“His immediate legacy in Britain at the end of the 19th century is with William Morris, a socialist activist and a poet and publisher of books,” said Hepburn. She highlighted books by Morris on display, including “The Nature of Gothic.”
Ruskin’s political legacy still lives on today in the Labour Party of the United Kingdom. Hepburn noted that “when members of the new Labour Party were polled at the start of the 20th century about what books were most important to them, ‘Unto This Last’ was one of the books that they chose.”
His legacy extended outside of the United Kingdom as well. In a poem written by Walter Crane, another socialist activist and follower of Ruskin, the poet discusses Ruskin’s “global listeners.” To portray the extent of this global influence, the exhibit contains 19th century Russian and French translations of his works, as well as contemporary American news journals.
The Yale Center for British Art is located at 1080 Chapel St.
Alex Martin | firstname.lastname@example.org