As a critic of art and architecture, and society in general, Ruskin attacked the Industrial Revolution and preached the virtues of the Gothic Era. He and other Romantics were afraid that the Industrial Revolution would eliminate handcrafted goods, thus diminishing the spiritual level of society. He was the first to apply the tenets of Romanticism to art criticism. His two most important books were “The Seven Lamps of Architecture”, which posited seven moral rules to guide architects, and “The Stones of Venice”, which encouraged the revival in Gothic architecture and, more broadly, the general idea of historic preservation. Above all, Ruskin was a skilled prose writer, and his writing helped to introduce the new English middle classes to the possibility of enjoying and collecting art that was not directly religious in terms of subject matter. But he strongly believed that art had a moral and spiritual purpose. The overall theme of Ruskin’s work is a reaction against the trends of his time: industrial capitalism, mass production, utilitarianism, and secularism.
Ruskin was born into a wealthy family; his father was a Scottish wine merchant who had moved to London and made a fortune in the sherry trade. An only child, he was educated at home. His artistic sensibilities were stimulated by his art-collecting father, while his religious sensibilities were stimulated by his pious Protestant mother. He spent five years at the University of Oxford, where he won a poetry prize. His serious amateur interests in poetry, as well as drawing, painting, geology, botany, and meteorology, helped to prepare him for his professional pursuits. Ruskin began his career defending the work of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner; he would eventually act as the artistic executor of Turner’s estate.
The first volume of Ruskin’s first major book, “Modern Painters”, was published in 1843; eventually there would be five volumes. “Seven Lamps” was published in 1849, when Ruskin was 30, followed by “The Stones of Venice” in two volumes (1851 and 1853). In 1856 he published the third and fourth volumes of “Modern Painters”. Influenced by fellow Romantic reactionary Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin’s work began to take a broader approach in the late 1850s and 1860s as he began attacking the general values of a society that was being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. In 1870 was appointed to a professorship at Oxford; he also began to show traits of hereditary mental instability. In 1878 James Whistler, incensed by Ruskin’s critique of his painting “Nocturne”, brought his famous libel action, damaging Ruskin’s reputation. The court case marked the decline of Ruskin’s influence as a critic: he was increasingly seen as an enemy of modern art who was out of step with changing tastes that were increasingly embracing art that had only esthetic, not moral, value.