By PAUL GESSELL
The private life of 19th century British artist John Ruskin was far more intriguing than his art.
This is not to say you should avoid the large Ruskin exhibition opening Feb. 14 at the National Gallery of Canada. Many of the 140 drawings, watercolours and daguerreotypes — mainly landscapes and architectural details — are accomplished and are worth the trip to the gallery. But they pale in comparison to the details of Ruskin’s private life.
During his lifetime, 1819-1900, Ruskin was known mainly as an art critic and social theorist rather than as an artist. And, like many a well-rounded Victorian gentleman, he dabbled in science; in his case, geology. But he was also a prude and often unpleasant.
“He is supposed to have been not just intellectually transgressive but dogmatic, authoritarian and preachy, mentally disturbed, a sentimentalist in public and emotionally constrained, even terminally costive, in private,” Conal Shields, co-curator of the Ruskin show, writes in the catalogue for the exhibition jointly organized with the National Galleries of Scotland.
I have to admit I am unsure what all of Shields’s words mean, but they do not seem to be compliments.
While Ruskin was considered a man of letters, his education was far from complete in 1848 when he married the lovely Euphemia “Effie” Gray. On their wedding night, Ruskin got a peek at what a real woman looks like naked. He was apparently shocked and repulsed.
Correspondence between Effie and her mother, for modesty’s sake, only hint at the problem. But the educated guess from Ruskin scholars is that he was unpleasantly surprised to discover women had pubic hair. Ruskin’s only knowledge of women’s anatomy came from viewing Greek sculptures, which tended to erase all female body hair.
Poor Ruskin. It was as if he discovered his wife had a long monkey tail. He could not deal with it.
The marriage was never consummated and five years later was annulled. A few years after that, Effie married artist John Everett Millais, who had painted a portrait of Ruskin some years earlier. By all accounts, Effie found a better husband the second time around.
Meanwhile, in 1858, Ruskin met the real love of his life, Rose La Touche. She was only nine years old. Ruskin was greatly impressed with the poise and charms of this Irish child and agreed to be something of an art tutor by correspondence.
By the time Rose was in her teens, Ruskin had proposed. Rose asked the man she called St. Crumpet to wait three years. He proposed again. Alas, she refused again, supposedly because of religious differences. Within a few years they were both mad and died that way; although, in his latter years, Ruskin thought the dead Rose was communicating to him via certain artworks.
It is difficult to know whether Ruskin was a pedophile or simply an oddball. He did tend to adore, most obsessively, very young ladies he called “girlettes.” But his true sexual inclinations, if he even had any, are something of a mystery.
And anyway, should our appreciation of Ruskin’s art be diminished by his unconsummated sexual longings? Should we stop listening to Michael Jackson’s music because of his bizarre bedroom life?
References to the story of Ruskin and Rose, by the way, pop up in Lolita, the 1955 novel written by Vladimir Nabokov about an adult man’s obsession with a young girl. However, the fictional Lolita seems to be far more of a flirt than was the real-life Rose.
Some scholars see sexual longings in the landscapes Ruskin painted. Christopher Newall, the other co-curator of the Ruskin show, writes in the exhibition catalogue that Ruskin’s “unfulfilled sexual desires” are manifest in his art through the depiction of “geological forms unwittingly suggestive of female genital anatomy.”
Steamy landscapes indeed.
John Ruskin: Artist and Observer. On view at the National Gallery of Canada until May 11.