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Title: Lectures on Landscape
       Delivered at Oxford in Lent Term, 1871

Author: John Ruskin

Release Date: December 4, 2006 [EBook #20019]

Language: English


Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Linda Cantoni, and the
Online Distributed Proofreading Team at





Transcriber's Note: This e-text contains words and phrases in ancient Greek. In the original text, some of the Greek characters have diacritical marks which do not display properly in some browsers. In order to make this e-text as accessible as possible, the diacritical marks have been omitted, except that the rough-breathing mark is here represented by an apostrophe at the beginning of the word. All text in Greek has a mouse-hover pop-up transliteration, e.g., καλος.





THESE Lectures on Landscape were given at Oxford on January 20, February 9, and February 23, 1871. They were not public Lectures, like Professor Ruskin's other courses, but addressed only to undergraduates who had joined his class. They were illustrated by pictures from his collection, of which several are here reproduced, and by others which may be seen in the Oxford University Galleries or in the Ruskin Drawing School.


CONTENTS.   PAGE LECTURE I. Outline 1 LECTURE II. Light and Shade 16 LECTURE III. Color 32 LIST OF PLATES   Page Vesuvius in Eruption, by J.M.W. Turner 2 Near Blair Athol, by J.M.W. Turner 19 Dumblane Abbey, by J.M.W. Turner 20 Madonna and Child, by Filippo Lippi 33 The Lady with the Brooch, by Sir Joshua Reynolds 35 Æsacus and Hesperie, by J.M.W. Turner 45 Mill near Grande Chartreuse, by J.M.W. Turner 47 L'Aiguillette; Valley of Cluses, by J.M.W. Turner 48


1. In my inaugural lecture,[1] I stated that while holding this professorship I should direct you, in your practical exercises, chiefly to natural history and landscape. And having in the course of the past year laid the foundational elements of art sufficiently before you, I will invite you, now, to enter on real work with me; and accordingly I propose during this and the following term to give you what practical leading I can in elementary study of landscape, and of a branch of natural history which will form a kind of center for all the rest—Ichthyology.

In the outset I must shortly state to you the position which landscape painting and animal painting hold towards the higher branches of art.

2. Landscape painting is the thoughtful and passionate representation of the physical conditions appointed for human existence. It imitates the aspects, and records the phenomena, of the visible things which are dangerous or beneficial to men; and displays the human methods of dealing with these, and of enjoying them or suffering from them, which are either exemplary or deserving of sympathetic contemplation. Animal painting investigates the laws of greater and less nobility of character in organic form, as comparative anatomy examines those of greater and less development in organic structure; and the function of animal painting is to bring into notice the minor and unthought of conditions of power or beauty, as that of physiology is to ascertain the minor conditions of adaptation.

3. Questions as to the purpose of arrangements or the use of the organs of an animal are, however, no less within the province of the painter than of the physiologist, and are indeed more likely to commend themselves to you through drawing than dissection. For as you dissect an animal you generally assume its form to be necessary and only examine how it is constructed; but in drawing the outer form itself attentively you are led necessarily to consider the mode of life for which it is disposed, and therefore to be struck by any awkwardness or apparent uselessness in its parts. After sketching one day several heads of birds it became a vital matter of interest to me to know the use of the bony process on the head of the hornbill; but on asking a great physiologist, I found that it appeared to him an absurd question, and was certainly an unanswerable one.

4. I have limited, you have just heard, landscape painting to the representation of phenomena relating to human life. You will scarcely be disposed to admit the propriety of such a limitation; and you will still less be likely to conceive its necessary strictness and severity, unless I convince you of it by somewhat detailed examples.

Here are two landscapes by Turner in his greatest time—Vesuvius in repose, Vesuvius in eruption.

One is a beautiful harmony of cool color; and the other of hot, and they are both exquisitely designed in ornamental lines. But they are not painted for those qualities. They are painted because the state of the scene in one case is full of delight to men; and in the other of pain and danger. And it is not Turner's object at all to exhibit or illustrate natural phenomena, however interesting in themselves.



From the painting by Turner.

[View color version]


He does not want to paint blue mist in order to teach you the nature of evaporation; nor this lava stream, to explain to you the operation of gravity on ponderous and viscous materials. He paints the blue mist, because it brings life and joy to men, and the lava stream because it is death to them.

5. Again here are two sea-pieces by Turner of the same period—photographs from them at least. One is a calm on the shore at Scarborough; the other the wreck of an Indiaman.

These also are each painted with exquisitely artistic purpose: the first in opposition of local black to diffused sunshine; the second in the decorative grouping of white spots on a dark ground. That decorative purpose of dappling, or ποικιλια, is as studiously and deliciously carried out by Turner with the Dædalus side of him, in the inlaying of these white spots on the Indiaman's deck, as if he were working a precious toy in ebony and ivory. But Turner did not paint either of the sea-pieces for the sake of these decorous arrangements; neither did he paint the Scarborough as a professor of physical science, to show you the level of low tide on the Yorkshire coast; nor the Indiaman to show you the force of impact in a liquid mass of sea-water of given momentum. He painted this to show you the daily course of quiet human work and happiness, and that, to enable you to conceive something of uttermost human misery—both ordered by the power of the great deep.

6. You may easily—you must, perhaps, for a little time—suspect me of exaggeration in this statement. It is so natural to suppose that the main interest of landscape is essentially in rocks and water and sky; and that figures are to be put, like the salt and mustard to a dish, only to give it a flavor.

Put all that out of your heads at once. The interest of a landscape consists wholly in its relation either to figures present—or to figures past—or to human powers conceived. The most splendid drawing of the chain of the Alps, irrespective of their relation to humanity, is no more a true landscape than a painting of this bit of stone. For, as natural philosophers, there is no bigness or littleness to you. This stone is just as interesting to you, or ought to be—as if it was a million times as big. There is no more sublimity—per se—in ground sloped at an angle of forty-five, than in ground level; nor in a perpendicular fracture of a rock, than in a horizontal one. The only thing that makes the one more interesting to you in a landscape than the other, is that you could tumble over the perpendicular fracture—and couldn't tumble over the other. A cloud, looked at as a cloud only, is no more a subject for painting than so much feculence in dirty water. It is merely dirty air, or at best a chemical solution ill made. That it is worthy of being painted at all depends upon its being the means of nourishment and chastisement to men, or the dwelling place of imaginary gods. There's a bit of blue sky and cloud by Turner—one of the loveliest ever painted by human hand. But, as a mere pattern of blue and white, he had better have painted a jay's wing: this was only painted by him—and is, in reality, only pleasant to you—because it signifies the coming of a gleam of sweet sunshine in windy weather; and the wind is worth thinking of only because it fills the sails of ships, and the sun because it warms the sailors.

7. Now, it is most important that you should convince yourselves of and fully enter into this truth, because all the difficulty in choosing subject arises from mistakes about it. I daresay some of you who are fond of sketching have gone out often in the most beautiful country, and yet with the feeling that there was no good subject to be found in it. That always arises from your not having sympathy enough with its vital character, and looking for physical picturesqueness instead. On the contrary, there are crude efforts at landscape-painting, made continually upon the most splendid physical phenomena, in America, and other countries without any history. It is not of the slightest use. Niagara, or the North Pole and the Aurora Borealis, won't make a landscape; but a ditch at Iffley will, if you have humanity in you—enough in you to interpret the feelings of hedgers and ditchers, and frogs.

8. Next, here is one of the most beautiful landscapes ever painted, the best I have next to the Greta and Tees.

The subject physically is a mere bank of grass above a stream with some wych-elms and willows. A level-topped bank; the water has cut its way down through the soft alluvion of an elevated plain to the limestone rock at the bottom.

Had this scene been in America, no mortal could have made a landscape of it. It is nothing but a grass bank with some not very pretty trees scattered over it, wholly without grouping. The stream at the bottom is rocky indeed, but its rocks are mean, flat, and of a dull yellow color. The sky is gray and shapeless. There's absolutely nothing to paint anywhere of essential landscape subject, as commonly understood.

Now see what the landscape consists in, which I have told you is one of the most beautiful ever painted by man. There's first a little bit of it left nearly wild, not quite wild; there's a cart and rider's track through it among the copse; and then, standing simply on the wild moss-troopers' ground, the

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