[Part one of "Ruskin and Baudelaire on Art and Artist," which originally appeared in the University of Toronto Quarterly, 37 (1968): 295-308. indicates linked materials not in the original print version.]
he parallels, the convergences, what Henri Lemaitre, an editor of Baudelaire, calls the "résonances analogues" (lxix) in the art criticism of Ruskin and Baudelaire are many and interesting. To begin with, Ruskin and Baudelaire each defend a great colourist, Turner and Delacroix. Each sees his favourite as the perfect artistic representation of the age. Each sees himself as the interpreter of an artist who, isolated by genius, is so original that few can understand or appreciate him in his own time. Ruskin begins Modern Painters in 1843, as Baudelaire begins his Salon de 1845, to defend his favourite painter against the malice and ignorance of periodical critics. Each proceeds to formulate as part of his defence a theory of art; and to create this theory of art each transfers the criteria, methods, and emphases of romantic poetic theory to the criticism of painting (my discussion of romantic critical theory is, of course, dependent upon M. H. Abrams). Each as a result independently creates a romantic version of the principle of ut pictura poesis. And, having formulated a romantic theory of painting emphasizing the role of emotion, each is so troubled by the potentially distorting effects of emotion that he draws a portrait of an ideal artist-poet, who, though deeply emotional, can yet paradoxically remain impassive when moved.
John Ruskin, Self-portrait. Watercolor on paper. 1874.
[Not in print edition; click on picture for larger image.]
Both critics accept the notion of ut pictura poesis as a first principle. Not only do they believe that painting and her sister art, poetry, share the same emotional nature, treat the same subjects, and create the same effects, but they also hold that the critic can profitably use the terms painting and poetry, painter and poet, interchangeably. Ruskin and Baudelaire base their conception on the belief that the two arts share a common nature and function — to express the thoughts and feelings of the artist-poet. According to Ruskin, the basic fact about painting is that it "is properly to be opposed to speaking and writing, but not to poetry." Both painting and speaking are meanings of expression. Poetry is the employment of either for the noblest purposes.... Great art is produced by men who feel acutely and nobly; and it is in some sort an expression of this personal feeling" (5.31-2). And since Ruskin and Baudelaire focus their aesthetic theories upon the creator, and are most concerned to describe the nature and process of expression, they characterize the artist, like the poet, primarily not by his ability to imitate, but by his ability to express himself. Baudelaire, for example, epitomizes painters as "des hommes qui sont voués à l'expression de l'art" (329), and throughout Ruskin's works, he, even more than Baudelaire, emphasizes that this notion of expression is a key to art and its appreciation. Ruskin, for example, concludes the final volume of The Stones of Venice with this remark on the importance of this idea of expression: "[W]hatever may be the means, or whatever the more immediate end of any kind of art, all of it that is good agrees in this, that it is the expression of one soul talking to another, and is precious according to the greatness of the soul that utters it. And consider what mighy consequences follow from our acceptance of this truth! what a key we have herein given us for the interpretation of the art of all time!" (11.220) See also: 5.69, 11.201, and 3.135. [295/296]
Abrams, M. H. . The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1953.
Baudelaire, Charles. Curiosités esthétiques, L'Art romantique, et autres Oeuvres critiques. Paris, 1962.
Ruskin, John. Works, "The Library Edition." eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.
Last modified 7 January 2006