Arts & Culture

The ‘Last Ruskinians’: Detail, detail, detail

4 min read

Many of the paintings and drawings in the Fogg Museum’s new exhibition “The Last Ruskinians: Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Herbert Moore, and Their Circle” are astounding for their jewel-like detail and trompe l’oeil realism, but to regard them as a higher sort of eye candy would be to miss the point.

The currents of a powerful aesthetic revolution roil beneath the surface of these exquisite little images, one that captured the imaginations and passions of artists in both England and the United States.

The story begins with Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), a British painter, represented in this exhibition by several small watercolors. He is better known for landscapes and seascapes typically rendered in such broadly applied layerings of oil paint that they could almost be mistaken for abstract expressionism.

But Turner, who once had himself lashed to a ship’s mast like Odysseus so that he could experience firsthand what a storm at sea was like, was not interested in abstraction for its own sake, but rather strove to capture reality. His passionate pursuit of the truth of nature is what made him a hero to the second figure in this story, John Ruskin.

Ruskin (1819-1900), the son of a prosperous London wine merchant who encouraged his son’s interest in art and literature, encountered Turner’s work as a young man and soon began defending him in print. In the first volume of his study “Modern Painters,” published in 1843, Ruskin declared that Turner’s devotion to nature made him a superior to “old masters” like Poussin and Lorrain, whose renderings of nature were more artificial and conventional.

A prolific and gifted writer as well as an accomplished artist in his own right, Ruskin became the most influential authority on art and architecture in the English-speaking world, with disciples in America as well as in Britain.

One of these American Ruskinians was Charles Eliot Norton, a young Bostonian who met Ruskin in 1850 while on a grand tour of Europe. The two became lifelong friends, and as founder of Harvard’s Fine Arts department in 1874, Norton continued to be influenced by Ruskin’s ideas. Norton, among many other accomplishments, was instrumental in building Memorial Hall, which commemorates the Harvard graduates who had died in the Civil War fighting for the “Union cause.” It is probably due to Norton’s influence that the building is in the Gothic style that Ruskin believed was the pinnacle of architectural design.

Back in England, Ruskin had embraced a group of artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, whose ranks included artists such as John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. American artists picked up the Pre-Raphaelite torch as well, but interpreted the movement’s principles differently. While the British group focused on historical, literary, and symbolic subjects, the Americans, who rallied under the title “The Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art,” concentrated on natural subjects, usually without the intrusion of human figures.

One of the most talented of these artists was Charles Herbert Moore, who began as a minor member of the Hudson River School, but became an ardent disciple of Ruskin after being introduced to the great man by Norton. His devotion to Ruskin bordered on religious fervor. In an article in the short-lived journal New Path, he wrote, “By the mercy of God, Ruskin has been sent to open our eyes and loose the seals of darkness.”

Moore, who taught Harvard’s first studio art course and later became the first director of the Fogg Museum, is liberally represented in the exhibition, most of which consists of the Fogg’s own holdings. His exquisite watercolors of flowers, rocks, architectural details, and peacock feathers, rendered in almost microscopic detail, exemplify Ruskin’s idea that “To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one.”

The influence of the American Pre-Raphaelites peaked in the 1860s. After that, their precise, close-up renderings of nature began to be eclipsed by the Impressionists, who favored looser brushwork and an approach that emphasized the effect of light on a subject. But the influence of Ruskin continued to be felt in American art, as shown in the work of later artists such as Henry Roderick Newman, Joseph Lindon Smith, and Martin Mower.

“The Last Ruskinians” was organized by Theodore E. Stebbins Jr., curator of American art, and Virginia Anderson, assistant curator of American art. It opens Saturday (April 7).

‘The Last Ruskinians: Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Herbert Moore, and Their Circle’ exhibits approximately 60 works that explore the influence of John Ruskin on a group of American watercolorists, most with Harvard connections, who were active during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibit opens April 7 and continues to July 8 at the Fogg Museum.