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General Remarks Respecting the Truth of Turner (1848)

By: John Ruskin.

We have now arrived at some general conception of the extent of Turner’s knowledge, and the truth of his practice, by the deliberate examination of the characteristics of the four great elements of landscape, — sky, earth, water, and vegetation. I have not thought it necessary to devote a chapter to architecture, because enough has been said on this subject in Part II. Sect. I. Chap. VII.; and its general truths, which are those with which the landscape painter, as such, is chiefly concerned, require only a simple and straight-forward application of those rules of which every other material object of a landscape has required a most difficult and complicated application.

William Turner, <i>Calais Pier</i>, 1803
William Turner, Calais Pier, 1803

Turner’s knowledge of perspective probably adds to his power in the arrangement of every order of subject; but ignorance on this head is rather disgraceful than knowledge meritorious. It is disgraceful, for instance, that any man should commit such palpable and atrocious errors in ordinary perspective as are seen in the quay in Calais Pier, National Grallery; but still these are not points to be taken into consideration as having anything to do with artistical rank, just as, though we should say it was disgraceful if a great poet could not spell, we should not consider such a defect as in any way taking from his poetical rank. Neither is there anything particularly belonging to architecture, as such, which it is any credit to an artist to observe or represent; it is only a simple and clear field for the manifestation of his knowledge of general laws. Any surveyor or engineer could have drawn the steps and balustrade in the Hero and Leander, as well as Turner has; but there is no man living but himself who could have thrown the accidental shadows upon them. I may, however, refer for general illustration of Turner’s power as an architectural draughtsman, to the front of Rouen Cathedral, engraved in the Rivers of France, and to the Ely in the England. I know nothing in art which can be set beside the former of these for overwhelming grandeur and simplicity of effect, and inexhaustible intricacy of parts. I have then only a few remarks farther to offer respecting the general character of all those truths which we have been hitherto endeavouring to explain and illustrate.

William Turner, <i>The Parting of Hero and Leander</i>, ca.1837
William Turner, The Parting of Hero and Leander, ca.1837

The difference in accuracy between the lines of the Torso of the Vatican (the ”Master” of M. Angelo,) and those in one of M. Angelo’s finest workis, could perhaps scarcely be appreciated by any eye or feeling undisciplined by the most perfect and practical anatomical knowledge. It rests on points of so traceless and refined delicacy, that though we feel them in the result, we cannot follow them in the details. Yet they are such and so great as to place the Torso alone in art, solitary and supreme; while the finest of M. Angelo’s works, considered with respect to truth alone, are said to be only on a level with antiques of the second class, under the Apollo and Venus, that is, two classes or grades below the Torso. But suppose the best sculptor in the world, possessing the most entire appreciation of the excellence of the Torso, were to sit down, pen in hand, to try and tell us wherein the peculiar truth, of each line consisted? Could any words that he could use make us fed the hair’s-breadth of depth and curve on which all depends? or end in anything more than bare assertions of the inferiority of this hue to that, which, if we did not perceive for ourselves no explanation could ever illustrate to us? He might as well endeavour to  explain to us by words some taste or other subject of sense, of which we had no experience. And so it is with all truths of the highest order; they are separated from those of average precisión by points of extreme delicacy, which none but the cultivated eye can in the least feel, and to express which, all words are absolutely meaningless and useless. Consequently, in all that I have been saying of the truth of artists, I have been able to point out only coarse, broad and explicable matters ; I have been perfectly unable to express (and indeed I have made no endeavour to express) the finely drawn and distinguished truth in which all the real art consists. All those truths which I have been able to explain and demonstrate in Tumer, are such as any artist of ordinary powers of observation ought to be capable of rendering. It is disgraceful to omit them; but it is no very great credit to observe them. I have indeed proved that they have been neglected, and disgracefully so, by those men who are commonly considered the Fathers of Art; but in showing that they have been observed by Turner, I have only proved him to be above other men in knowledge of truth, I have not given any conception of his own positive rank as a Painter of Nature. But it stands to reason, that the men, who in broad, simple, and demonstrable matters are perpetually violating truth, will not be particularly accurate or careful in carrying out delicate and refined, and undemonstrable matters; and it stands equally to reason that the man who, as far as argument or demonstration can go, is found invariably truthful, will, in all probability, be truthful to the last line, and shadow of a line.

And such is indeed, the case with every touch of this consummate artist; the essential excellence — all that constitutes the real and exceeding value of his works — is beyond and above expression : it is a truth inherent in every line, and breathing in every hue, too delicate and exquisite to admit of any kind of proof, nor to be ascertained except by the highest of tests — the keen feeling attained by extended knowledge and long study. Two lines are laid on canvass; one is right and another wrong. There is no difference between them appreciable by the compasses — none appreciable by the ordinary eye — none which can be pointed out, if it is not seen. One person feels it, — another does not; but the feeling or sight of the one can by no words be communicated to the other: it would be unjust if it could, for that feeling and sight have been the reward of years of labour. And there is, indeed, nothing in Turner — not one dot nor line — whose meaning can be understood without knowledge ; because he never aims at sensual impressions, but at the deep final truth, which only meditation can discover, and only experience recognize. There is nothing done or omitted by him which does not imply such a comparision of ends, such rejection of the least worthy (as far as they are incompatible with the rest) such careful selection and arrangement of all that can be united, as can only be enjoyed by minds capable of going through the same process, and discovering the reasons for the choice. And, as there is nothing in his works which can be enjoyed without knowledge, so there is nothing in them which knowledge will not enable us to enjoy. There is no test of our acquaintance with Nature so absolute and unfailing as the dgree of admiration we feel for Turner’s painting. Precisely as we are shallow in our knowledge, vulgar in our feeling, and contracted in our views of principles, will the works of this artist be stumbling-blocks or foolishness to us: — precisely in the degree in which we are familiar with Nature, constant in our observation of her, and enlarged in our understanding of her, will they expand before our eyes into gloiy and beauty. In every new insight which we obtain into the works of God, in every new idea which we receive from His creation, we shall find ourselves possessed of an interpretation and a guide to something in Turner’s works which we had not before understood. We may range over Europe, from shore to shore; and from eveiy rock that we tread upon, every sky that passes over our heads, every local form of vegetation or of soil, we shall receive fresh illustration of his principles — fresh confirmation of his facts. We shall feel, wherever we go, that he has been there before us —whatever we see, that he has seen and seized before us : and we shall at last cease the investigation, with a well-grounded trust, that whatever we have been unable to account for, and what we still dislike in his works, has reason for it, and foundation like the rest; and that even where he has failed or erred, there is a beauty in the failure which none are able to equal, and a dignity in the error which none are worthy to reprove.

William Turner, <i>The Slave Ship</i>, 1840
William Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840

There has been marked and constant progress in his mind ;he has not, like some few artists, been without childhood; his course of study has been as evidently as it has been swiftly progressive, and in difierent stages of the struggle, sometimes one order of truth, sometimes another, has been aimed at or omitted. But from the beginning to the present height of his career, he has never sacrificed a greater truth to a less. As he advanced, the previous knowledge or attainment was absorbed in what succeeded, or abandoned only if incompatible, and never abandoned without a gain; and his present works present the sum and perfection of his accumulated knowledge, delivered with the impatience and passion of one who feels too much, and knows too much, and has too little time to say it in, to pause for expression, or ponder over his syllables.

There is in them the obscurity, but the truth, of prophecy; the instinctive and burning language, which would express less if it uttered more, which is indistinct only by its fulness, and dark with its abundant meaning. He feels now, with long-trained vividness and keenness of sense, too bitterly the impotence of the hand, and the vainness of the colour to catch one shadow or one image of the glory which God has revealed to him. He has dwelt and communed with Nature all the days of his life; he knows her now too well, he cannot palter over the material littlenesses of her outward form; he must give her soul, or he has done nothing; and he cannot do this with the flax, and the earth, and the oil. ” I cannot gather the sunbeams out of the east, or I would make them tell you what I have seen; but read this, and interpret this, and let us remember together. I cannot gather the gloom out of the night-sky, or I would make that teach you what I have seen; but read this, and interpret this, and let us feel together. And if you have not that within you which I can summon to my aid, if you have not the sun in your spirit, and the passion in your heart, which my words may awaken, though they be indistinct and swift, leave me; for I will give you no patient mockery, no laborious insult of that glorious Nature, whose I am and whom I serve. Let other servants imitate the voice and the gesture of their master, while they forget his message. Hear that message from me; but remember, that the teaching of Divine truth must still be a mystery”

William Turner, <i>Norham Castle, Sunrise</i>, ca. 1845
William Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, ca. 1845

Part II. Section VI. Chapter II from Modern Painters (Vol.I) by John Ruskin.

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Parte II. Sección VI. Capítulo II de Modern Painters (Vol.I) por John Ruskin.

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