Before the Enlightenment, imagery abounded in every sphere of life to instruct, to prompt memory, and to inspire the community to action. John Skillen

William Turner: Venice at Sunrise

ArtWay Visual Meditation March 19, 2017

William Turner: Venice at Sunrise

Ruskin’s Version of Realism

by Trevor Hart

In his discussion of visual style in Modern Painters Volume 3 (1856), John Ruskin (1819-1900) maintains that “he who is closest to Nature is best” and eschews all forms of artistic idealism in favour of a faithful attention to the “facts” of actuality as it confronts us.

Yet, Ruskin argues, closeness to nature is not at all the same thing as the production of shallow visual resemblances to its external forms. What must be sought instead is that inner and deeper resemblance to which the “penetrative imagination” alone reaches, which is quite incompatible with techniques of superficial verisimilitude. The artist must therefore choose between these, and the best artists are those whose work draws the viewer’s own imagination directly into play as an active force. The painter, as it were, keys us more fully into reality through his representations, when he solicits our active imaginative participation in a project of making, transforming what is given to the senses in order to more fully fathom its intrinsic depths of meaning.

It goes without saying that no artistic image can possibly show reality in all its fullness. But this, Ruskin suggests, is precisely a gain rather than a deficit. The artist selects and filters by what he presents for our consideration, guiding us in the direction of what really matters. “Reality” itself in its full-blown version, Ruskin argues, is too much for us to cope with, quickly taxing and overwhelming us with its plethora of undifferentiated detail. And, he says, the sort of “dangerous realism” which concentrates on a superficial “lifelikeness” tends to fail for the same reason, leaving the imagination languid and enervated rather than summoning it into a focused and directed activity.

It is on these grounds that Ruskin favours the impressionistic style of William Turner over the more visually “accurate” depictions by John Constable. We need an editorial perspective on nature, Ruskin indicates. And if in ordinary empirical experience our own imagination gladly bears the responsibility for providing one, what a painting can do is stimulate us to imagine things differently, to experience the world through someone else’s eyes rather than our own.

Great painting, then, Ruskin insists, is not the successful mimicry of nature offering its surface appearances to us “as in a mirror”. Far from erasing all traces of the artist as far as humanly possible in the pursuit of a “photographic” likeness, therefore, here we find precisely the opposite impulse: the deliberate interposing of concrete human perspectives in the pursuit of more rather than less truth. In effect, Ruskin suggests, to the great painter we say “Come between this nature and me—this nature which is too great and too wonderful for me. Temper it for me, interpret it to me, let me see with your eyes, and hear with your ears, and have help and strength from your great spirit.”

This is clearly “mimesis” of a sort, an art concerned first and foremost to faithfully reflect the truthfulness of a given world rather than substituting for it some other reality of its own making. Yet it is a form of mimesis which appreciates that the successful representation of reality necessarily involves its imaginative transformation and re-description, and thus, paradoxically, augments reality for us even as it offers faithful testimony to its contours.


William Turner: Venice at Sunrise from the Hotel Europa with the Campanile of St Marco, ca. 1840, watercolour on paper, 198 x 280 mm. Tate Britain, London, England.

John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, 1823, oil on canvas, 88 x 112 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an English Romantic landscape painter, watercolourist and printmaker, whose style can be said to have laid the foundation for Impressionism. Although Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, he is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting. His work was exhibited when he was still a teenager. His entire life was devoted to his art. Unlike many artists of his era, he was successful throughout his career. Turner's will, which was under litigation for many years, left more than 19,000 watercolors, drawings, and oils to the British nation. Most of these works are in the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, London.

John Constable (1776-1837) is famous for his landscapes, which are mostly of the Suffolk countryside, where he was born and lived. He made many open-air sketches, using these as a basis for his large exhibition paintings, which were worked up in the studio. His pictures are extremely popular today, but they were not particularly well received in England during his lifetime. He did, however, have considerable success in Paris. Constable was largely self-taught. In 1799 he was a probationer and in 1800 a student at the Royal Academy schools. He exhibited from 1802 at the Royal Academy in London and later at the Paris Salon. He was influenced by the Barbizon School, the French Romantic movement and Dutch artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael.

Trevor Hart is Rector of Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church in St Andrews, Scotland. From 1995 to 2013 he was Professor of Divinity in the University of St Andrews and founding Director of the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts there. He has lectured and published widely on Christian theology and the arts. His most recent book is Making Good: Creation, Creativity and Artistry (Baylor University Press, 2014).



1. ARTWAY – In the new Music & Art section of the website we posted Come... Help me Lament, music by David Squires combined with paintings by Erica L. Grimm. David Squires: “For some time I have been concerned that many of us do not know how to lament—or at least we do not often allow ourselves to do so.” Click here

* Our new blog is ‘Socially Engaged Art, A discussion starter’ by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin. “Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led artists to turn to socially engaged art.” Share your reaction and discuss on Facebook.

2. GERMANY - 8 March – 11 June, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Wilhelmstraße 18, Aachen: Blood & Tears. Albrecht Bouts and the Image of the Passion. With prestigious loans from the National Gallery London, the Prado Museum and the Louvre among others, the exhibition Blood & Tears. Albrecht Bouts and the Image of the Passion brings together for the first time exceptional works from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Albrecht Bouts (1451/55-1549) is the son of Dirk Bouts (ca. 1415-1475), a renowned Early Netherlandish painter with a pan-European reputation. He takes over his father's workshop in 1475 and runs it until his death in 1549. Albrecht specializes in portraits of Christ, the Holy Virgin and Saint John the Baptist for contemplation. This movement, known as Devotio Moderna, encourages the faithful to pray in private in front of devotional images to stimulate empathy. In order to satisfy a growing demand for such images, Albrecht Bout's workshop expands into a large enterprise, producing paintings in great number.

3. FRANCE, ITALY – The Faculté de Théologie Protestante of the Université de Strasbourg is sponsoring a Symposium, The Arts and Ecumenism: What Theology Risks in Artistic Creation. Held over three consecutive weekends in Paris (May 12-14 2017), Strasbourg (May 19-21 2017), and Florence (May 26-28 2017), the conference is dedicated to the evolving visions of contemporary sacred art in the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions. Presentations will discuss catholic and protestant approaches to art through history, theology, liturgical contexts, and post-Vatican II developments, with specific references to areas of exchange between American and European viewpoints. "The Arts and Ecumenism" will include exhibits of sacred art and lectures by artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi, and performances by the internationally-acclaimed choir Gloriæ Dei Cantores, including (in Orleans, MA) the opera Pilgrim’s Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams, to complement and illustrate the lectures. This conference is organized by the Faculté de Théologie Protestante of the Université de Strasbourg, along with the Mount Tabor Centre, the Archdiocese of Florence and L'Institut Catholique. Speakers will be Mons. Timothy Verdon, Jerome Cottin, Denis Villepelet and William Dyrness. Read the flyer or the website.

4. ENGLAND - 6 March – 31 March, St Stephen Walbrook, 39 WalbrookLondon: Crucifixions: Francis Bacon. For Lent 2017 St Stephen Walbrook is exhibiting Crucifixion drawings by Francis Bacon from “The Francis Bacon Collection of the drawings donated to Cristiano Lovatelli Ravarino”. Between 1977 and 1992 Francis Bacon donated to an intimate Italian friend a considerable number of drawings, pastels and collages. Today those drawings are part of a collection which has previously been exhibited in Bologna, Dubrovnik, London, Madrid and Trieste among other locations. The image of crucifixion was consistently utilised by Francis Bacon in his art to think about all life’s horror as he could not find a subject as valid to embrace all the nuances of human feelings and behaviours. This exhibition of crucifixion drawings by Bacon provides an opportunity to explore why the image of the crucified Christ retained its power for an avowed atheist such as Bacon and to reflect on the horror of the suffering that Christ endured for humanity. Mo – Fr, 10 am – 4 pm, (We, 11 am – 3 pm). 

5. USA - 1 March – 16 April, An Exhibition across Washington, D.C. in 14 Iconic Destinations. A Pilgrimage for Art Lovers, A Protest for the Disenfranchised. "Why have you forsaken me?" Jesus’ words upon the cross speak acutely to the anguish and alienation felt by many today in America, from immigrants and refugees to religious, sexual, and ethnic minorities. This unique exhibition—held in 14 locations across Washington, D.C. — will use works of art to tell the story of Jesus’ Passion in a new way, acutely relevant to the plight of America’s disenfranchised.  The Stations weave through religious as well as secular spaces, from the Mall to downtown D.C., and up to the National Cathedral. Instead of easy answers, the Stations aim to provoke the passions: artistically, spiritually, and politically. The art on display includes monuments, Old Master paintings, and newly commissioned art installations.  Featured artists include Ndume Olatushani—once falsely imprisoned on death row—and Michael Takeo Magruder, one of the world’s leading artists in digital media, who has created a haunting Shroud of Turin filled with the faces of Syrian refugees. Visitors can take this tour by downloading the smartphone app, ‘Alight: Art & Sacred.’ The app will serve as your tour guide with podcasts from leading clergy, artists, and scholars, along with maps leading to each of the stations. These items, as well as details on the artists, spaces, contributors, and associated events are available on our website. Facebook:


Other recent meditations:
- March 2017: Laurence Edwards: Beast of Burden Altarpiece
- March 2017: James Janknegt: The Rich Man and Lazarus
- February 2017: Siona Benjamin: Beyond Borders
- February 2017: Sassandra: Ecce Homo

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists