LECTURE: The First Ecologist: John Ruskin and the Futures of Landscape
John Ruskin—art critic, amateur scientist, utopian socialist, and one of the greatest prose stylists in English--founded modern art criticism in Britain by conceiving landscape painting as an art, a branch of science, and a religious act all at once. His five-volume series Modern Painters (1842-1860), with its famous word paintings, was as much a primer of the system of nature as a history of art; his succeeding books on architecture saw in the decoration of Gothic cathedrals—the twisted vines, flowers, columns, and sculptured saints and angels—an emblem in stone of the unity of God, nature, and social life. But when he became obsessed by the damage wrought by rampant industrialism on both landscape and human welfare, he became a radical social critic, becoming in effect Europe’s first great environmentalist. This lecture traces Ruskin’s dramatic and contradictory career from his exquisitely precise drawings of clouds, rocks, leaves, and sculptured walls and niches, into his storm-driven middle years, when his despair over the deterioration of landscape matched his fierce belief that science, art, and writing were but differing routes to the same truth: Nature as the source of the greatest art and the ultimate guarantor of human values. In his tragic final years, he waged a struggle against insanity by recapturing in prose the glittering landscapes of his lost youth.