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John Ruskin the Artist

J. Ruskin, Study of Part of the Trees in
Turner's Crossing the Brook
Garry Wills has an article on John Ruskin (Ruskin: The Great Artist Emerges, April 3) in The New York Review of Books. Not on Ruskin the writer, Ruskin the social reformer, or Ruskin the art critic -- Ruskin the artist. It is based on an exhibit of Ruskin's artwork, John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (through May 11) and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh this summer. Not just a painter, in fact, but as Conal Shields, one of the authors of the exhibition catalogue, puts it, a great painter:
Shields places him “among the greatest of English painters and draftsmen,” and wonders at “the relative neglect of his achievement.” Going through the 140 artworks collected here — some from private collections, and some never before exhibited in public — one is tempted to agree with him. The precision and detail of Ruskin’s prose descriptions are given sharp vindication in the pen, graphite, and chalk drawings—and especially in the brilliant watercolors. Ruskin was a fascinated student of geology, crystallography, botany, dendrology, ornithology, and meteorology, and his drawings in all these fields express his love (the only proper word) for each item his brush fondles onto the paper.

One of his most-used books, over the years, has been The Elements of Drawing, in which he mainly teaches his students how to see. Most people, he says, see what they expect — for instance, this is a tree — and look no deeper. They never actually realize what a complex, living thing any particular tree is. His drawings give a virtual biography of every tree he draws: "How troublesome trees have come in its way, and pushed it aside, and tried to strangle or starve it; where and when kind trees have sheltered it, and grown up lovingly together with it, bending as it bent; what winds torment it most; what boughs of it behave best, and bear most fruit; and so on."

So, in the exhibition, Ruskin gives us the tremendous drama of a whole tree, in graphite, pen, and pencil, with wash and white bodycolor; but also, with finest lines of pen and ink, he records the particularities in a foot or so of lightning-gashed trunk, with sprays of leaves growing from its wounds.
You can take a little guided tour through the exhibit in the video embedded below, and see more images of the artwork here. To get a broader view of Ruskin, you can read his books The Stones of Venice, Modern Painters, and The Elements of Drawing.

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