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Première partie : Montagnes poétiques et esthétiques

The Emotional Truth of Mountains: Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner

Malcolm Andrews
p. 21-28

Editor's notes

Keynote Speech at the Conference on "The Mountain in Image and Word in the English-Speaking World: The Landscape Figured and Disfigured", Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 4-7 October 2007

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1Let me begin by explaining my title: "The emotional truth of mountains." The phrase has a number of internal contradictions or complexities produced by abruptly compressing psychological, philosophical and geological components into close relationship. Can mountains have a "truth", let alone an "emotional truth"? In what sense can any emotion be said to be "true"? The phrase is one I want to apply to an exploration of some attempts to represent mountains in English prose and painting, where the writer or painter tries to reconcile the objective, visual, geological truth of mountains with the subjective, mental, emotional experience of mountain scenery. It is a familiar tension to painters and photographers. I shall focus particularly on three writers and artists some two centuries ago in England, who were strongly opinionated about—indeed often passionate about—the representation of mountains by landscape artists, and whose work was very influential. The first of these is the master of the Picturesque in late eighteenth-century England, William Gilpin. The other two are the art critic John Ruskin and the artist J.M.W. Turner. My title was suggested by a nearly similar phrase used by Ruskin—"the truth of mental vision" (Modern Painters IV, Ch2, § 11). It comes in Modern Painters, his monumental defence of Turner’s art against all those traditionalists whose ideas of landscape were so influenced by the Picturesque conventions established two generations earlier. Gilpin, Ruskin and Turner are involved in a triangular conversation.

2I should add that though this paper has an historical focus throughout, the larger predicament that it probes—our own complex responses to mountains—is one that I am sure is a shared preoccupation today.

3Before I come to discuss these particular figures, I just want to return to the tension I outlined a moment ago, between the objective visual and geological truth of mountains and the subjective, mental and emotional experience of mountain scenery. Why should that be a tension? The rupture between these two became most acute in the Romantic period in late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century Europe; indeed it has been argued that Romanticism produced the rupture in reaction against Enlightenment science and its increasingly materialistic account of the natural world. Romanticism countered that version by constituting nature as a composite of material forms shaped by and instinct with spiritual meaning, impressing itself on the soul by its aesthetic beauty and associative emotional influences, so as to lift the spirit and powerfully affect for good the moral life of humanity. William Wordsworth expressed this in his poem "Tintern Abbey", published in Lyrical Ballads (1798):

Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. (11.106-115)

4However, the generalisation about Romanticism’s sustaining that split between men of Science and men of Letters is not one that stands up to close examination. Wordsworth’s own relationship with geology, for example, is intriguing, fluctuating, and not at all as prejudiced as popular views might have held—as John Wyatt’s study Wordsworth and the Geologists (Cambridge 1995) demonstrates. Nonetheless, the division seems to persist.

  • 1 James Trefil, Meditations at 10,000 Feet (New York: Macmillan, 1986) xi-xii.

5According to the scientist James Trefil, in his book Meditations at 10,000 Feet, everything we see in the world around us is ultimately connected to no more than 15 or so laws of nature: Newton’s three laws of motion, the three laws of thermodynamics, four of Maxwell’s equations that describe electricity and magnetism, the principle of general relativity that describes gravity, and a few more laws for quantum mechanics. The complexity of the physical world, apparently, can be reduced to a few basic principles. Knowledge is power: it must be reassuring to realise that we know the few fundamental laws that determine the composition and working of our world, and that we can explain nature. It gives us a sense of control. "The entire world is a physics laboratory", says Trefil.1 However, this gratifying sense of intellectual mastery of the complexity of our world is for many at odds with a desire for mystery, for inexplicable majesty, for irreducible grandeur—especially that seemingly presented by the natural world. The term often invoked for this experience is the Sublime, and the Sublime celebrates experiences where we feel we have lost control, where we cannot measure and analyse, and where our knowledge confronts its limits.

  • 2 David Hartley, Observations on Ma, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectation (S. Richardson, London (...)

6The principal attributes of the Sublime, according to Edmund Burke, its most influential British theorist, in the middle of the eighteenth century, were manifestations of Power, Terror, Privation, Infinity, Vastness, Obscurity. All of these rob the mind of its capacity to rationally understand the experience. Instead, the experience controls us, overwhelms us; it undermines our power and threatens our sense of self-preservation. And yet it is a pleasurable experience if one is just distant enough not to feel raw terror. Another eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hartley, put it, in landscape terms: "If there be a precipice, a cataract, a mountain of snow etc. in one part of the scene, the nascent ideas of fear and horror magnify and enliven all the other ideas, and by degrees pass into pleasures, by suggesting the security from pain."2 Beauty, on the other hand, in Burkean terms, was almost the antithesis of the Sublime. Its attributes were: smallness, smoothness, gradual variation and delicacy. It restores to us a sense of control over the beautiful object.

7As Hartley’s description suggests, of all natural objects mountains have traditionally been iconic of the Sublime. This is due to their sheer vastness, their capacity to strike terror by exposing us as tiny and vulnerable, and to the difficulty experienced by the mind in grasping their full dimension, thereby giving a hint of infinity. But at the same time we know that even mountains are now almost fully explicable in all their monstrous complexity, if subjected to analysis according to the relevant 15 or so known laws of nature. The mind can grasp their physical constitution, and their raison d’être.

8Although I am focussing on painters and writers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, i.e. a century or two before scientists could confidently say that everything happening in the natural world is reducible to a limited number of known laws – it was just that struggle for intellectual understanding of mountains side by side with the apparently irreconcilable clinging to their Sublime mystery that animated the attitude towards mountains and their representation.

  • 3 William Gilpin, Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland (Blamire, Lo (...)

9William Gilpin, the pioneer of Picturesque travel in the late eighteenth century, tackled the subject of how the artist should represent mountains in the second of his Picturesque tour books in 1786, Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty,... on... the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland. He undertook an "analytical view" of the materials that characteristically compose Lake District scenery, with mountains at the head of that list. The mountain is to be considered by the tourist-artist only as a distant object; "where its immensity, reduced by distance, can be taken in by the eye; and its monstrous features, losing their deformity, assume a softness which naturally belongs not to them".3 The prescription insists on the mountain being properly controllable within the landscape representation: it must be reduced by distance so as to be wholly visible—subject to the eye. Such control is the antithesis to the Sublime, where the eye is unable to focus and encompass the whole and where the mind is therefore left to guess and wonder at what lies beyond the eye’s compass, thereby suggesting Infinity, Vastness, Obscurity and, by extension, terrifying Power (of dimension). The next stage in Picturesque "de-Subliming" the mountain is to modify its monstrous features and bestow on it softness of texture and contour which, as Gilpin says, is not naturally a property of mountains. Smoothness and gradual variation, remember, were the properties of Beauty.

10The making of a Sublime object into a Picturesquely beautiful object involves careful editing of the mountain. Gilpin gives an illustration of varieties of mountain contour that would look pleasing or unpleasing in a landscape picture. The first three of these, starting at the top, are all representations of real mountains, and all form disagreeable lines, according to Gilpin, because they rise in regular or mathematical lines, or have grotesque shapes. The spiky Alps (the fourth one illustrated) have what he calls "singularity" rather than beauty. All the others, except for one, are dull or lumpish in their lines. The most picturesquely desirable is the "easy line", whose pyramidal shape and gently irregular contour constitute the truest source of Picturesque mountain beauty.

11The Picturesque was described by Robert Southey in 1807 as "a new science for which a new language has been formed". If for the scientist nature was a vast physics laboratory, the Picturesque made the landscape into a kind of aesthetic laboratory, isolating specific views for analysis. It introduced the concept of "stations" on a tour, points at which the connoisseur traveller would stop because that particular viewpoint offered a frameable landscape corresponding to established models of scenic beauty. It edited out material that interfered with the integrity of the framed view, and it disciplined into proportion the objects within that view. This new aesthetic science, like science more generally, subordinated the wild, Sublime, mysterious magnificence of mountains, and tucked them into manageable proportions. The Picturesque was a peculiarly English mode of organising nature under this quasi-scientific connoisseurship: it aesthetically domesticated the wild, regulated the unruly; it was a system of deft compromises that encouraged free turbulent nature but arranged it into manageable form (English constitution, landscape garden): the term "composing" a view has a double connotation in that respect—(a) to construct by assembling components, and (b) to calm, to tranquillise. Its permitting mountains in only under certain conditions constrained the emotional truth of mountains.

12What happens when the experience of landscape reality radically dislocates Picturesque convention? Here is a description by Robert Louis Stevenson of the Alpine valley of Davos:

  • 4 R.L. Stevenson, "Health and Mountains", Essays of Travel·. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Pe (...)

By noon the sky is arrayed in an unrivalled pomp of colour—mild and pale and melting in the north, but towards the zenith, dark with an intensity of purple blue. What with this darkness of heaven and the intolerable lustre of the snow, space is reduced again to chaos. An English painter, coming to France late in life, declared with natural anger that "the values were all wrong." Had he got among the Alps on a bright day he might have lost his reason. And even to any one who has looked at landscape with any care, and in any way through the spectacles of representative art (the Picturesque), the scene has a character of insanity. The distant shining mountain peak is here beside your eye; the neighbouring dull-coloured house in comparison is miles away; the summit, which is all of splendid snow, is close at hand; the nigh slopes, which are black with pine trees, bear it no relation, and might be in another sphere. Here there are none of those delicate gradations, those intimate, misty joinings-on and spreadings-out into the distance, nothing of that art of air and light by which the face of nature explains and veils itself in climes which we may be allowed to think more lovely.4

13The spatial disorientation of the Alpine valley is both a visual and a cultural challenge, an incitement to learn new relationships between familiar natural components. Davos at noon is "chaos" or "insanity" to the mindset nurtured on Picturesque conventions and on the greater atmospheric density of northern European landscapes which soften sharp lines and contours and the sun. What Stevenson calls the "delicate gradations... intimate, misty joinings-on and spreadings-out" correspond to Burkean designations of Beauty: smoothness, gradual variation. English scenery, on which Gilpin founded his Picturesque aesthetic, doesn’t prepare the minds for Alpine landscapes.

14But what about trying to harness Beauty and the Picturesque to the Sublime in one frame, to reconcile the two in the face of Alpine scenery and to proportion the relationships? One remarkable effort to do this is John Brett’s Val d’Aosta (1859).

15This is a meticulous representation of an actual scene, painted by John Brett under Ruskin’s tutelage (to some extent). In the last part of this paper I want to concentrate on Ruskin’s responses to some of the Alpine paintings by Brett and Turner, because these responses, complex, somewhat confused, and richly eloquent, focus dramatically the issue of the emotional truth of mountains.

  • 5 Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell, Stephen Wildman, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites (Tate Gallery (...)

16Brett’s Val d’Aosta was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859. It came in for some harsh private and public criticism. Millais considered the painting, "a wretched work, like a photograph".5 Ruskin was somewhat embarrassed by it. Brett had taken to heart Ruskin’s call in Modern Painters for landscape artists to represent nature with loving truth to the details of God’s creation, but had not been able to incorporate another kind of truth. Truth in art, Ruskin wrote, "signifies the faithful statement, either to the mind or senses, of any fact of nature" (Modern Painters I, 24). Truth is different from imitation: "Imitation can only be of something material, but truth has reference to statements both of the qualities of material things, and of emotions, impressions, and thoughts... There is a truth of impression as well as of form."

17Ruskin confused the truth issue by spending hundreds of pages in Modern Painters on detailed descriptions and analyses of the geological anatomy of mountains as well as the "Truth" of water, clouds, vegetation and so on. Brett might be forgiven for having so painstakingly carried out what he assumed to be Ruskin’s landscape programme, from the meticulously detailed lichen on the foreground rocks, through the valley terraces and different tree species, to the folds and peaks of the mountains, identifiable as Monte Paramont and the snow-capped Testa du Rutor. Almost a botanical and geological laboratory. After all, the year before Ruskin had praised one of his English paintings: "If he can paint so lovely a distance from the Surry downs and railway-traversed vales, what would he not make of the chestnut groves of the Val d’Aosta!" A year later here is what Ruskin wrote of the painting of Val d’Aosta: "Yes, here we have it at last—some close-coming to it at least—historical landscape, properly so-called—landscape painting with a meaning and a use... standing before this picture is just as good as standing on that spot in Val d’Aosta, so far as gaining of knowledge is concerned." He goes on to praise at length Brett’s scrupulous rendering of detail, his dedication to representing the truth of that particular landscape. But then come the reservations:

  • 6 John Ruskin, Essays and Belles Lettres (London: Dent, 1906) 329-331.

It has a strange fault... it seems to me wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world. There seems to me no awe of the mountains there—no real love of the chestnuts or the vines... I never saw the mirror so held up to nature: but it is Mirror’s work, not Man’s... Historical landscape it is, unquestionably; meteorological also; poetical—by no means.6

18So, here is truth of a topographical kind, as also of a botanical and geological kind—meteorological too, according to Ruskin. But almost in proportion to its fidelity to the objectively observable Alpine valley it lacks expressive emotional force: it is a dehumanised response. It offers information to the topographer and the scientist, but it fails by Ruskin’s criterion of Truth in art—that a landscape painting should transmit a truth of impression, a truth of emotional impact, as well as a truth of form.

19One could argue that Brett has worked an emotional meaning into the landscape, though not as flamboyantly as Turner does. The relationship between foreground and background has some emotional force. So does the contrast between the little sleeping girl in the foreground, an image of frailty and vulnerability and the mighty mountains in the background; between the sunny valley with its cottages and the cloud-darkened side of the first steep mountainside, and from there to the bleakly inhospitable crags behind; and these contrasts and juxtapositions are reinforced by those between the cloudless blue in the sky and the storm that seems to be gathering on the right; between the intensely warm colours of the middle-ground and the chilly blues, greys and whites of the background; between the middleground Beauty in its (Burkean) relaxing smoothness and gradual variation, and the background Sublime with its formidable shapes of Power, Vastness and Obscurity. Brett has set up a series of confrontations that give the landscape a dynamism, a narrative of natural events and tensions, which could well kindle an emotional response in the viewer. Isn’t this one way to communicate "awe of the mountains", by so using gentle landscape beauty as an induction to landscape of an almost antithetical kind?

  • 7 Catalogue of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery, part 1, 1857, 13.206-7.

20I asked a while back "how could a painter both observe the physical truth of mountains as well as express the "awe of mountains" that Ruskin demanded". The answer for Ruskin was, as so often, to invoke the example of Turner. In 1843 Turner produced a finished watercolour of the Alpine Pass of the St Gotthard near Faido. Ruskin acclaimed this as "the greatest work he (Turner) produced in the last period of his art".7

  • 8 Letter 6 August 1845: Ruskin in Italy: Letters to his Parents, 1845 (H.I.Shapiro ed., Oxford: OUP, (...)

21Two years later Ruskin made his own journey to the Alps. While there he wrote to his father about his passion for Turner’s landscapes: "there is no art like it in the world—and as I told you, everything I see here makes me more thirsty for his drawings, for they are the only things that have downright truth in them."8 He aimed to visit the Pass of Faido, to study the site of Turner’s watercolour. "I must see its actual scene," he wrote, "that I may know what is composition & what is verity" (1 August 1845: Ibid, 166). He found the site a few miles below the village of Airolo, and told his father on 15th August: "The Stones, road and bridge are all true, but the mountains, compared with Turner’s colossal conception, look pigmy & poor. Nevertheless Turner has given their act(u)al, not their apparent size"(Ibid, 172). While at the site he made two sketches, only one of which is now known.

22The sketches, probably taken each from a slightly different viewpoint, were designed to record the actual topography, so as to demonstrate what Turner had done to transform the scene. About ten years later he used one of these sketches as a basis for a drawing etched as an illustration to volume 4 of Modern Painters where he undertakes an extended analysis of Turner’s treatment of the mountain landscape.

23The issue of mountain truth now becomes very complicated. It has been shown, by A.J.Finberg in 1927, that Ruskin’s Simple Topography is itself a distortion of the actual scene. Finberg visited the same site and commented of Ruskin’s etching:

  • 9 A.J.Finberg, Ruskin’s Modern Painters, (London: Bell, 1927), 322.

the statements of the mountain forms are so feeble that they give quite a misleading impression of the place; Ruskin’s drawing understates the height of the mountains even more than Turner exaggerates them... the mountains in the middle-distance are an imposing range. The peaks of Molare, up on the left, are nearly 9,000 feet high, and that of Ganna Rossa beyond is 9,300 feet high.9

  • 10 Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye, (Princeton, 1976).

24Robert Hewison has pointed to another discrepancy, between Ruskin’s on-the-spot drawing of the scene and his Simple Topography etching, where the original drawing is actually closer to Turner’s vision.10

  • 11 Alan Davis, "Ruskin, Turner, and The Pass of Faido", Turner Society News (No 71, Dec 1995) 9-12.

25Further, Alan Davis has shown that Ruskin, having in the Topographical etching understated the grandeur of the mountains, then, in his etched version of Turner’s watercolour Pass of Faido, distorted the scale of that by reducing the relative size of the carriage and one or two other details, so as to magnify the scale of the surrounding landscape beyond even Turner’s exaggeration.11 Where is the truth in all this, when each artist or writer is manipulating the view?

26Perhaps that is a less important issue than the argument that these illustrations are serving. That argument is essentially that Turner’s expressive art has given a different kind of truth to the mountain view, and in Ruskin’s mind, a superior truth. And here it is, quoted at length:

  • 12 Modern Painters IV, Ch2, §11.

There is nothing in this scene, taken by itself, particularly interesting or impressive. The mountains are not elevated, nor particularly fine in form, and the heaps of stones which encumber the Ticino present nothing notable to the ordinary eye. But, in reality, the place is approached through one of the narrowest and most sublime ravines in the Alps, and after the traveller during the early part of the day has been familiarized with the aspect of the highest peaks of the Mont St. Gothard. Hence it speaks quite another language to him from that in which it would address itself to an unprepared spectator: the confused stones, which by themselves would be almost without any claim upon his thoughts, become exponents of the fury of the river by which he has journeyed all day long; the defile beyond, not in itself narrow or terrible, is regarded nevertheless with awe, because it is imagined to resemble the gorge that had just been traversed above; and, although no very elevated mountains immediately overhang it, the scene is felt to belong to, and arise in its essential characters out of, the strength of those mightier mountains in the unseen north.
Any topographical delineation of these facts, therefore, must be wholly incapable of arousing in the mind of the beholder those sensations which would be caused by the facts themselves, seen in their natural relations to others. And the aim of the great inventive landscape painter must be to give the far higher truth of mental vision, rather than that of the physical facts, and to reach a representation which, though it may be totally useless to engineers or geographers, and, when tried by rule and measure, totally unlike the place, shall yet be capable of producing on the far-away beholder’s mind precisely the impression which the reality would have produced, and putting his heart into the same state in which it would have been, had he verily descended into the valley from the gorges of Airolo.12

27Ruskin argues that the mental or emotional truth of this mountain view is one that needs to distort the topography in order to communicate the contextual drama of the larger experience of the whole environment. The single scene needs to trigger a more extended emotional narrative, as it were. For example, the heaps of huge stones lying in the river might to a Picturesque-trained eye be uninteresting rubble, except for their interesting textures or other formal qualities: but Ruskin is urging something else, something that doesn’t belong to art theory. He is telling us that their history is powerfully exciting. They have been torn from the mountain tops by the turbulent river or by winter avalanches. They are temporarily arrested in their passage. The traveller to this spot has also arrived after a passage down through the peaks of St Gotthard (the carriage reminds us of this) and of course the traveller does not arrive with a dispassionate eye. Remember the principle and practice of the Picturesque station: the tourist’s journey through the landscape was arrested because they had arrived at a picture; and the view from that established station framed off a section of the landscape and severed its relation to what lay outside that frame. Ruskin’s argument on the contrary, in promoting Turner’s mountain view, is that Turner restores the sense of the larger environmental experience which so colours any traveller’s response to that particular spot in the Ticino valley; and that if he has to distort the actual topography—the physical "facts"—in order to do that, it is a necessary misrepresentation in order to secure a superior truth—"the far higher and deeper truth of mental vision".

28Let me finish by outlining the two implications that I see in this for our specific exploration of the emotional truth of mountains. One is to suggest that Ruskin’s analysis offers a convergence of the two cultures—scientific and aesthetic—that I’ve discussed earlier as estranged from each other. The other implication concerns the extra pressure put upon relativism as a key part of the overall response to the mountain scene.

1. Convergence

29We have seen an antagonism between the scientific and the Picturesque aesthetic. Ruskin’s challenging analysis of Τurner’s Pass of Faido bases itself not just on the picture’s truth of mental vision, but also on what he sees as the intelligence of Turner’s understanding of the shaping power of natural forces in a landscape: the gigantic debris of boulders brought down by the turbulent river, his elimination of the actual landscape’s trees on the mountain slopes – "so as to imply more power and danger in the avalanche coming down the ‘couloir’". And more generally the interplay between mountains and water, each shaping the other in a never-ending geological drama, which Turner renders as if the earth were molten and malleable, which scientists tell us is part of the geological truth. This dynamic conception is far from the fixing of the Picturesque view, with mountains elegantly contoured and recessed, behaving like flats in a stage set, studied as nature morte. It is a vision of the living earth, in action, and of the vital interaction of the physical elements that constitute it.

2. Relativism

30Relativism is the challenge to any idea of an absolute truth, and that is where we are finally driven to (though I don’t think Ruskin would have agreed). We saw that none of the various drawings, etchings and watercolours of the Faido Pass by Ruskin and Turner could be said to be a topographically true representation of the scene (indeed, could there be such a thing?). Each one had its own particular agenda—analytical, rhetorical, historical, perceptual—and expressively distorted the topography in order to realise that agenda.

31In accounting for Turner’s distortions of the actual topography of the Pass of Faido, Ruskin argues that he has charged the single scene with the accumulated feelings in the traveller’s mind brought about by having journeyed all day through Alpine gorges and by the side of the furious river Ticino. What is actually strictly outside the frame of this scene leaks into it and stirs the perception into re-shapings of the physical data. That is what Turner has painted. Ruskin is giving extraordinary emphasis here to the relativist viewpoint. What is intrinsically a relatively ordinary scene becomes extraordinary by virtue of what the observer involuntarily imports into it. The observer is not a mechanical camera’s eye—not a Mirror (as Ruskin had said of Brett’s Val d’Aosta)—but a repository of tumultuous feelings, experiences and expectations. The Alpine traveller’s gaze is pre-conditioned. The painted representation should represent a fused composite of the topographical and emotional truths.

32The pre-conditioning which Ruskin adduced to explain Turner’s view extended back to the day-long passage down from the high Alps to this site. But there is a much longer preconditioning, of course, for any traveller to such regions. What we also carry to the mountains is a lack of habitualisation to mountain because most of us live in a lowland habitat, and in or near cities, two environments that are wholly antithetical to mountains. The emotional truth of mountains is constructed largely out of that lowland urban pre-conditioning. This condition is conventionally translated into pictorial language by giving us a lowland viewpoint, leading the eye towards the mountains through a foreground of lower horizontal planes approximating to our customary habitat, so as to accentuate the abrupt contrast with the spectacular verticality of mountains.

33It is the characteristic of the modern age condemned to live in the modern city, as Ruskin identified in his chapter on Modern Landscape:

  • 13 John Ruskin, Modern Painters III, Ch 16, §12-13.

One desert of Ugliness was extended before the eyes of mankind... Gower Street, and Caspar Poussin. Reaction from this state was inevitable... and, accordingly, though still forced, by rule and fashion, to the producing and wearing all that is ugly, men steal out, half-ashamed of themselves for doing so, to the fields and mountains; and, finding among these the colour, and liberty, and variety, and power, which are ever grateful to them, delight in these to an extent never before known; rejoice in all the wildest shattering of the mountain side, as an opposition to Gower Street...13

  • 14 Modern Painters V, Ch 9, §4, fn 1.

34The mountain magnificently disobeys the architectural rules of proportion which measure everything by its human utility; and the mountain in representation will not be domesticated by Picturesque fastidiousness. It rears up as a gigantic, grotesque rebel, its rippling flanks challenging the puny strength of humans—as Turner dramatised it in the Pass at Faido. When Turner was responding to criticisms of his great sea painting Snow Storm, when it was dismissed as an incomprehensible mess of soapsuds and whitewash, he said: "I did not paint it to be understood, but I wished to show what such a scene was one had any business to like the picture."14 That is the expressive rendering of the emotional truth of nature’s power—whether we understand it or not, whether we like it or not.

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1 James Trefil, Meditations at 10,000 Feet (New York: Macmillan, 1986) xi-xii.

2 David Hartley, Observations on Ma, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectation (S. Richardson, London, 1749) I, 419.

3 William Gilpin, Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland (Blamire, London, 1786) I, 82.

4 R.L. Stevenson, "Health and Mountains", Essays of Travel·. The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson (Pentland Edition, London 1907) vol XX, 287.

5 Robert Hewison, Ian Warrell, Stephen Wildman, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites (Tate Gallery, 2000) 223.

6 John Ruskin, Essays and Belles Lettres (London: Dent, 1906) 329-331.

7 Catalogue of the Turner Sketches in the National Gallery, part 1, 1857, 13.206-7.

8 Letter 6 August 1845: Ruskin in Italy: Letters to his Parents, 1845 (H.I.Shapiro ed., Oxford: OUP, 1972) 168.

9 A.J.Finberg, Ruskin’s Modern Painters, (London: Bell, 1927), 322.

10 Robert Hewison, John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye, (Princeton, 1976).

11 Alan Davis, "Ruskin, Turner, and The Pass of Faido", Turner Society News (No 71, Dec 1995) 9-12.

12 Modern Painters IV, Ch2, §11.

13 John Ruskin, Modern Painters III, Ch 16, §12-13.

14 Modern Painters V, Ch 9, §4, fn 1.

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Bibliographical reference

Malcolm Andrews, “The Emotional Truth of Mountains: Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner”Caliban, 23 | 2008, 21-28.

Electronic reference

Malcolm Andrews, “The Emotional Truth of Mountains: Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner”Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 06 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Malcolm Andrews

University of Kent. Malcom Andrews est Professeur à l’Université du Kent. Il est l’auteur, parmi d’autres ouvrages, de Landscape and Western Art, de The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics et de Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800

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