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‘Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp, — not at all like a Turner?’ John Ruskin & Perceptual Aberration

« Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp, — not at all like a Turner? » La distorsion de la perception chez John Ruskin
Lawrence Gasquet


L’invention de l’appareil photographique au xixe siècle fait que les discours scientifiques et artistiques lui réservent une place de choix ; la photographie a également influencé la théorie esthétique de John Ruskin, comme le montre l’étude de certains de ses écrits. La photographie révèle par exemple l’existence de certaines distorsions de la perception dues à la physiologie humaine ; différentes formes de déformations perceptuelles sont analysées par Ruskin, que ce soit au sujet des tableaux de Turner ou de l’œuvre de photographes travaillant la technique du daguerréotype. Dans le quatrième volume de Modern Painters, Ruskin constate que la photographie se rapproche peut-être davantage de la peinture qu’il n’a d’abord pensé : « Les photographies ne sont jamais vraiment nettes ; mais, puisque la netteté est supposée être leur principale qualité, elles représentent souvent des sujets qui sont choisis pour cela, et qui se démarquent de l’esthétique de Turner ; et, lorsque le résultat est brumeux et à peine perceptible, et bien que cela caractérise les meilleures photographies en terme de qualité de rendu de la nature, on jette ces clichés, et on garde uniquement ceux qui sont nets. Ces derniers pourtant tirent leur force précisément des défauts du processus photographique même. La photographie en effet soit accentue exagérément les ombres, soit augmente la lumière en effaçant des détails […] elle passe donc à côté de certaines des subtilités les plus admirables de l’effet de nature (qui est souvent l’objectif premier de Turner), alors qu’elle parvient à rendre des subtilités de forme que la main humaine ne peut produire. » (Ruskin, 1856, vol. IV, Chapitre IV, §11). Je m’efforcerai dans cet article de définir quelques-unes des implications de l’acte de vision tel que conçu par Ruskin, interrogeant les différences entre forme et effet par exemple. Je montrerai comment certains des obstacles qui entravent la vision humaine sont parfois perçus comme salvateurs par Ruskin, donnant naissance à certains de ses plus fameux arguments en faveur de la supériorité de l’art médiéval sur celui de la Renaissance. Si Ruskin défend l’imperfection, c’est avant tout parce qu’elle est due à une distorsion perceptuelle de source physiologique, et que celle-ci doit être respectée, pensée, puis représentée par l’artiste.

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Texte intégral

There was no point, from which the eye could see the whole of it at one glance;
so that, though much was seen, something still remained to be seen
which the imagination measured from the scale of the rest.
Richard Payne Knight,
An Analytical Inquiry Into the Principles of Taste, 1805.

If shape it might be call’d that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joynt, or limb,
Or substance might be call’d that shadow seem’d,
For each seem’d either
John Milton,
Paradise Lost, 1667

1In the fourth volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin establishes a correspondence between colour and perfection, writing about the ‘sacredness of colour and its necessary connection with all pure and noble feeling’. After declaring that colour faithfully accompanies God’s creation (‘all that is purest, most innocent, and most precious), he ponders at what the world would be without colours: ‘Consider for a little while what sort of a world it would be if all flowers were grey, all leaves black, and the sky brown’ (Ruskin, 1856, vol. IV, ch. III, § 22). Strikingly, his speculation depicts the world as seen by photography at the time, if we concede that sepia might be assimilated to grey (sepia gradually turned into grey as chemistry altered the tones by varying the quantities of silver compounds). Photography thus paradoxically contributes to the revelation of the existence of some physiological distortions in human perception, and we know that perceptual aberration Ruskin analysed at great length, whether it be revealed by Turner’s art or by the daguerreotypist’s talent (or lack of it). The gaze itself is under extensive scrutiny, examining how human perception functions, and how it translates into successful pictorial representation. In volume IV of Modern Painters, Ruskin thus bluntly poses the question ‘Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp,—not at all like a Turner?’, before contending that photographs might after all be more on Turner’s side than he and other critics might first have thought:

Photographs never look entirely sharp; but because clearness is supposed a merit in them, they are usually taken from very clearly marked and un-Turnerian subjects; and such results as are misty and faint, though often precisely those which contain the most subtle renderings of nature, are thrown away, and the clear ones only are preserved. Those clear ones depend for much of their force on the faults of the process. Photography either exaggerates shadows, or loses detail in the lights . . . and misses certain of the utmost subtleties of natural effect (which are often the things that Turner has chiefly aimed at,) while it renders subtleties of form which no human could achieve. But a delicately taken photograph of a truly Turnerian subject is far more like Turner in the drawing than it is to the work of any other artist . . . . (Ruskin, 1856, vol. IV, ch. IV, § 11)

  • 1 See the first volume of Modern Painters for Ruskin’s analysis of spatial distance.

2The pages of Modern Painters regularly reveal Ruskin’s interest for perceptual aberration, whether in the form of infinity and how it can be suggested, or in that of distance,1 which Turner both successfully depicts:

It is of all visible things the least material, the least finite, the farthest withdrawn from the earth prison-house, the most typical of the nature of God, the most suggestive of the glories of his dwelling-place . . . . For the sky of night, though we may know it boundless, is dark, it is a studded vault, a roof that seems to shut us in and down, but the bright distance has no limit, we feel its infinity, as we rejoice in purity of light . . . . (Ruskin, 1856, vol. IV, ch. IV, § 11)

  • 2 For more on this subject, see Lawrence Gasquet, ‘As Dark as Light: Garry Fabian Miller et les ambiv (...)

3The question on how to translate infinity visually seems central to Ruskin. Erroneous paintings of the sky fail to capture its indeterminacy, and the appearance of looking through the sky rather than at it: Turner is the only one who masters the representation of this trembling transparency (Ruskin, 1856, vol. I, Part II, Section III, Chapter 1, § 8). For Ruskin, Turner is superior to other painters as he does not make distance distort meaning, as he writes: ‘Not one line out of the millions there is without meaning, yet there is not one which is not affected and disguised by the dazzle and indecision of distance. No form is made out, and yet no form is unknown’ (Ruskin, 1856, vol. I, part II, section II, ch. V, § 11). Turner goes beyond the flat perspectivist representations of his predecessors, making such visual utensils as the Claude-glass both useless and faulty, as respecting the linear rules adopted by classical perspective is not satisfactory: as Lindsay Smith reminds us, ‘Turner’s claim that throughout his career he painted exactly what he saw while critics found his later work increasingly more abstract, has important optical ramifications for Ruskin’s continual defence of him’ (Smith, 1995, 50). For Ruskin, Turner paints the conditions of perception itself, and form and subject-matter progressively merge and become more and more difficult to distinguish from each other. Direct optical experience could thus be said to be the prime matter of Turner. If Turner is so important that Ruskin decides to defend him, it is because he attributes the greatest importance to light as the element that enables visual perception to occur at all. Thus, from mere observed objects, distance and light become instruments to see and understand the world, poised between physiological and epistemological considerations. Turner deliberately ignores geometrical authority in the visual field; he overturns perspective, and at the same time he takes advantage of recent developments of visual theories in order to propose a radically new approach to painting, having more to do with respecting the laws naturally and unconsciously enforced by perception than with those morally and mathematically taught at the Academy. These laws of perception are redefined, from the 1830s on, by the rapid development and refinement of photographic techniques, which also contribute to expose perspective as a system rather than as a natural visual experience. From Modern Painters on, Ruskin engages in a critique of the apparent certainties of geometrical perspective as the universally accepted visual model in Western culture, and the requirements of the camera contribute to underline the formatting of Western painting. In championing Turner as the new genius whose outlook will enlighten us all, Ruskin also champions some concepts which actually compose our most basic perceptive actions. For instance, by establishing distance as one of the main components of visual perception and representation, he indirectly undermines the certainties laid by the perspectivist model, which presupposes some unmovable, mathematical, and therefore rational relationship between the observed and the observer.2 In the third volume of Modern Painters, through his careful study of the grotesque as emblematic of the Gothic style (a study which is also present in The Stones of Venice), Ruskin notices that the grotesque cleverly relies on ambiguity and ambivalence by means of perceptual aberration; there specifically lies its paradoxical superiority.

The ‘Awful and Inconceivable Intellect’

  • 3 Jacques-Louis Mandé Daguerre’s Diorama was a proto-cinematic medium, and was opened in Paris in 182 (...)
  • 4 The effect of a fine Canaletti is, in its first impression, dioramic. We fancy we are in our belov (...)

4Ruskin defines the Gothic as an aesthetic relying upon a principle of obscurity followed by clear-sightedness (Smith 1995, 54), which we could rename ‘contrast’, to use a photographic metaphor. Bearing in mind the importance of contrast, in the third volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin states that in his rendition of Venice, Canaletto is ‘dioramic’ (after the Parisian diorama invented by Jacques-Louis Mandé Daguerre, who became the inventor of the daguerreotype after buying Niepce’s invention of photography in France).3 Dioramic, that is, aiming at too much illusion in the form of too much detail, leaving no room for the imagination to leap onto objects, according to the definition of imagination given by Ruskin.4 Whereas Canaletto’s paintings lose in perceptual exactitude what they gain in visual detail, Turner’s landscapes manage to recreate the quality of indeterminacy which anticipates the definition of the Gothic formulated in The Stones of Venice (‘the perpetual newness of the infinite’). As Lindsay Smith underlines, Ruskin’s conviction is that ultimately Gothic cannot exist outside of visual perception, that ‘its definition resides as much in the perceptual strategies of a spectator as it does in the individual labour of each workman responsible for the building . . . . There remains in a Gothic building, as in a canvas by Turner, always something that apparently eludes the eye’ (Smith 1995, 60). In other words, what we do not see is more fascinating than what we actually see.

  • 5 It is in fact only with the third volume of Modern Painters that Ruskin seemed to experience intens (...)

5Striving to see and grasp what cannot be clearly made out thus reminds the reader of what Ruskin writes about some intense emotions, which in fact were triggered by what he calls ‘awful and inconceivable intellect’.5 The very nature and functioning of this intellect Ruskin endeavours to analyse as thoroughly as possible in the subsequent volumes of Modern Painters, mainly remembered as the work celebrating the painter’s genius as the supreme ability to reconcile man with Nature. However, I would like to show that Modern Painters might well be more on the side of dissociation than of association, of imperfection rather than of perfection.

6One of the most famous quotations from Modern Painters celebrates the ability of the man who can truly see: ‘The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion,—all in one’ (Ruskin, 1856, vol. III, part IV, ch. XVI). The (good) painter, through the excellence of his craftsmanship, is the one who can ‘tell what [he] saw in a plain way’, and the adjective ‘plain’ is here of course to be understood as meaning ‘straightforward’, without allowing any deformation in the process. The painter reminds mankind of what constitutes the essential characteristic of man: the fact that he is a limited and imperfect creature. This very imperfection paradoxically justifies his superiority over the other living species. The superiority of all things dim and imperfect actually finds its origin in Modern Painters and is further pursued in The Stones of Venice and Elements of Drawing. At the end of the third volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin writes that:

For most men, an ignorant enjoyment is better than an informed one; it is better to conceive the sky as a blue dome than a dark cavity, and the cloud as a golden throne than a sleety mist. I much question whether any one who knows optics, however religious he may be, can feel in equal degree the pleasure of reverence which an unlettered peasant may feel at the sight of a rainbow. And it is mercifully thus ordained, since the law of life, for a finite being, with respect to the works of an infinite one, must be always in infinite ignorance. We cannot fathom the mystery of a single flower, nor is it intended that we should; but that the pursuit of science should constantly be stayed by the love of beauty, and accuracy of knowledge by tenderness of emotion. (Ruskin, 1856, vol. III, part IV, ch. XVI)

7Incomprehension enables the ignorant to feel a joy which is precisely denied to the more intelligent or cultivated. Our own finitude forbids that we should be able to conceive of something by essence infinite, which explains that paradoxically we should be happier when content with our frustrating lot. However, the whole enterprise which Ruskin sets forth in Modern Painters testifies to the contrary; Modern Painters weighs, questions, experiments, poses constant hypotheses. We may not fathom the mystery of a single flower, and it might not be intended that we should, but Ruskin certainly tries his best to understand all about the representation of the flower, if not the flower itself. And, of course, to study the representation given by the painter, he has to study the detailed functioning of our own appreciation, from moral considerations to physiological characteristics, hence the almost anatomical remarks that Ruskin regularly and painstakingly delivers throughout the chapters of Modern Painters.

Goading the Imagination: Perceptual Disorientation and Perceptual Aberration as the Essence of Ruskinian Grotesque

8In the first volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin comes to the conclusion that pictures which imitate so as to deceive are never true (this is the argument he also sometimes commonly uses when he attacks photography). His Platonic posture finds its justification in the fact that:

The mind, receiving an idea of imitation, is wholly occupied in finding out that what has been suggested is not what it appears to be: it does not dwell on the suggestion, but on the perception that it is a false suggestion: it derives its pleasure, not from the contemplation of a truth, but from the discovery of a falsehood. So that the moment ideas of truth are grouped together, so as to give rise to an idea of imitation, they change their very nature—lose their essence as ideas of truth—are corrupted and degraded, so as to share in the treachery of what they have produced. Hence, finally, ideas of truth are the foundation, and ideas of imitation the destruction of all art. (Ruskin, 1856, vol. I, part I, ch. V, § 6)

9Ruskin’s works all strive to clarify this position by exemplifying why in that sense nothing can be beautiful which is not true. Mimetic perfection is then condemned as actually achieving illusion and deflecting the spectator’s attention to the surface of the representation instead of the spiritual world. If we take Peirce’s classification (Peirce, 1955), representation for Ruskin shall function more in the manner of an index or symbol, but not in the manner of an icon—because the icon is more self-reflexive. Renaissance architecture is described as ‘idolatrous’, because its surface appearance incites false awe and deflects attention at the expense of any transcendental purpose. By contrast, Ruskin’s defence of the grotesque is enlightening:

A fine grotesque is the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connection of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way; and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination forming the grotesque character. (Ruskin, 1856, vol. III, part IV, ch. VIII, § 4)

  • 6 See Ernst Hans Gombrich, Art and Illusion. London: Phaidon, 1960.

10The grotesque enables signification by precisely frustrating an appreciation that would otherwise be purely sensorial; Ruskin’s vital definition is based upon the premise that the gaps left unfilled by the imagination are precisely what makes the grotesque a superior form. This characteristic of the imagination which should reach forth and bridge ‘gaps’ is to be extended to the defence of Turner’s art enacted through the thousand pages of Modern Painters. In fact, Turner’s genius lies precisely in not filling out with his knowledge of the world the gaps left open by his perception (to paint what he sees and not what he knows, contrary to the general tendency observable in most Western art, as later developed by Ernst Hans Gombrich).6 This is why architecture for Ruskin can be as sublime a vehicle for ideas as painting, and why medieval architecture is superior to Renaissance architecture, being more anchored in the symbolic. This is why medieval cathedrals and churches are quite literally ‘books of Common Prayers’; they exist to be read, and their ‘rude symbols’ enhance their referents in a stark and efficient way, contrarily to the Renaissance church which betrays a fascination for stylistic elements for their own sake. By contrast, Ruskin believes that medieval architecture clarifies relationship of sign to meaning.

11What is of utmost interest here is that Ruskin’s theory of the superiority of medieval art lies in fact upon some perceptual disorientation of the subject, and by doing so it relies on perceptual aberration. The wider the gap between an object and its representation, the bigger the perceptual effort to match symbol and referent. All symbolism can thus be seen as intrinsically grotesque; according to Ruskin, whenever we experience anything too great or too difficult for us to grasp fully—and he holds that most truths are beyond human beings—we encounter the grotesque. The image must thus be distorted for us to grasp it most effectively:

  • 7 For more on the subject, see Mark Dorrian, ‘“The Breath on The Mirror”: Notes on Ruskin’s Theory of (...)

The fallen human soul, at its best, must be as a diminishing glass, and that a broken one, to the mighty truths of the universe round it; and the wider the scope of its glance, and the vaster the truths into which it obtains an insight, the more fantastic their distortion is likely to be, as the winds and vapours trouble the field of the telescope most when it reaches farthest. (Ruskin, 1851, vol. III, ch. III, § 61)7

  • 8 Unlike the sublime, the grotesque does not impart the subject with a feeling of his own inadequacy; (...)
  • 9 John Ruskin, Lectures on Art [1870], Lecture VI, ‘On Light’, paragraph 172: ‘Let me assure you, onc (...)

12It means that the grotesque, and by extension all good representation, work by dissemblance, by subverting formal correspondences and thus by encouraging synthetic rather than purely analytical and formal matching.8 Ruskin celebrates the ‘effort of the mind’ endeavouring ‘to unweave the riddle’ of the grotesque (Ruskin, 1856, volIII, ch. VIII, § 5), which thus dramatises the importance of the gap that exists between the perceiving subject and the object of perception. This gap was considered as almost bridged by geometrical perspective as invented in the Renaissance, which proposes a mathematical systematisation of this relationship in two dimensional surfaces, and which in a sense excludes, leaves aside all the variables and contingencies of the human vision naturally occurring in three dimensions, which also differ from one individual to another. For Ruskin, the rigidity of Italian Renaissance painting, and the ‘perfection of vision’ it promotes has come to be a threat to its own veracity, just like photography undermines itself with too much scientific precision, as he wrote in Lectures on Art (1870) in one of his early (and later self-contradicted) appreciations;9 the mere existence of visual perfection is doubtful, since everyone is different in their perceptions.

  • 10 See Smith, 1995, 60, for her analysis of the optical intricacies of Gothic in The Stones of Venice.

13There always remains something that resists intelligibility in the highest achievements of art. There is always something that eludes the eye in a Gothic building, or in a painting by Turner, or in a daguerreotype. Through a clever and complex use of scale effects, the grotesque stimulates and frustrates operations of the focus of the eye.10 Thus, Ruskin’s theory stating that the grotesque creates fruitful gaps that the human imagination is prone to bridge reminds us of what Coleridge wrote in Biographia Literaria, arguing that the Gothic operates an inversion between substance and shadow, in other words between surface and depth:

The effect on my feelings, on the other hand, I cannot better represent, than supposing myself to have known only in our light airy modern chapels of ease, and then for the first time to have been placed, and left alone, in one of our largest Gothic cathedrals in a gusty moonlight night of autumn. ‘Now in glimmer, and now in gloom’; often in palpable darkness not without a chilly sensation of terror; then suddenly emerging into broad yet visionary lights with coloured shadows, of fantastic shapes yet all decked with holy insignia and mystic symbols; and ever and anon coming out full upon pictures and stone-work images of great men, with whose names I was familiar, but which looked upon me with countenances and an expression, the most dissimilar to all I had been in the habit of connecting with those names. Those whom I had been taught to venerate as almost super-human in magnitude of intellect, I found perched in little fret-work niches, as grotesque dwarfs; while the grotesques, in my hitherto belief, stood guarding the high altar with all the characters of Apotheosis. In short, what I had supposed substances were thinned away into shadows, while every where shadows were deepened into substances. (Coleridge, 1817)

14Coleridge here uses John Milton’s well-known terms from Paradise Lost to emphasize how substance becomes impossible to distinguish from shadow in order to convey his trouble when suddenly experiencing a feeling of contrast, after glimmer becomes gloom, and after what seemed awe-inspiring has turned into something contemptible. In the same way, Ruskin notices that the Gothic both involves obscurity and clear-sightedness; it is their succession in time that breeds superior intelligibility, and therefore truth in art. Truth thus seems to be on the side of imperfection, whether it be the imperfection of our own vision, or that of the paintings Turner produces, and it is this very idea of incompleteness that forms the core of Ruskin’s theories on art.

Conclusion: ‘Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp,—not at all like a Turner?’

  • 11 I am indebted to Lindsay Smith and her concept of ‘democratisation of the sky’. See Lindsay Smith, (...)
  • 12 ‘It is not flat dead colour, but a deep quivering, transparent body of penetrable air, in which you (...)

15Paradoxically, the essence of art is therefore to make us realise that what we conceive of and what we see can be completely untrue, inexistent, a pure illusion. Ruskin anticipates the discoveries in physiological perception of the 20th century; one of the best examples of this is our conception and usual representation of the sky. We perceive the sky as a blue expanse in the shape of a dome, and draw it accordingly, but in fact, it is simply constituted of a void, and its colour is mainly the result of a perceptual trick created by refraction of air. Ruskin thus strives to show in his long analyses that Turner’s absolute genius is not to give us a sky to look at, but a sky to see through: the sky becomes matter to interact with through our own eyes rather than a mere surface for our eyes to scan.11 Turner captures in fact the indeterminacy of the sky, by the same token he undermines our own self-assurance as perceptive subjects; the sky loses its usual qualities and potentialities (to be represented as serenely sunny, awe-inspiringly stormy, etc) and becomes a mere filter inviting us to look at the world in a much deeper and also much disquieting way.12 Turner does not need daguerreotypes to perfect and thus mar his paintings, because he is the only artist who accepts and even welcomes the fact that he is fooled by his senses, whether dazzled by the sun or blinded by a stormy sea; and by doing so he in fact acknowledges his own limitations as a human creature, doomed to remain inferior to any of the world’s most demanding cognitive standards. Aesthetics thus here match morality: Turner is a ‘first-class painter’ for Ruskin because he understands man’s limitations, and shows them in the most humble possible way, by relegating subject matter behind the very act of perception which is the key to our true access to the world. Therefore, to come back to our initial question, a photograph always looks clear and sharp, because precisely it is not a Turner; by being able to see better than man, the camera for Ruskin records our own delusion in assuming that seeing more clearly could equate with seeing better, or, to use another famous equation, in thinking that we should paint what we know, and not what we see. Turner painted what he saw and gained truth by losing vision; that of the almost blind but nevertheless foreseeing man.

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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. 1817. Oxford: Clarendon UP, 1907.

Daguerre, Louis-Jacques. A Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerréotype and the Diorama. London: McLean & Nutt, 1839.

Damisch, Hubert. L’Origine de la Perspective. Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1987.

Daston Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books, 2007.

Gaspari, Fabienne, Lawrence Gasquet, and Laurence Roussillon-Constanty. Ruskin sur Turner : l'éblouissement de la peinture. Pau : PU de Pau et des Pays de l'Adour, 2006.

Gasquet, Lawrence. ‘As Dark as Light: Garry Fabian Miller et les ambivalences de la lumière photographiée’. Ambivalences de la Lumière. Ed. Charlotte Beaufort and Marylène Lebrère. Pau: PU de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, 2016.

Gombrich, Ernst Hans. Art and Illusion. London: Phaidon, 1960.

Maleuvre, Didier. The Horizon: A History of our Infinite Longing. Berkeley: the U of California P, 2011.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. ‘Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs’. Philosophic Writings of Peirce. Ed. Justus Buchler. New York: Dover, 1955.

Rosenberg, John D. The Darkening Glass, A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. 1856. The Complete Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903–1912.

Ruskin, John. The Diaries of John Ruskin. Ed. John Evans and J. H. Whitehouse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956.

Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. 1851. The Complete Works of John Ruskin. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903–1912.

Smith, Lindsay. Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.

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1 See the first volume of Modern Painters for Ruskin’s analysis of spatial distance.

2 For more on this subject, see Lawrence Gasquet, ‘As Dark as Light: Garry Fabian Miller et les ambivalences de la lumière photographiée’. Ambivalences de la Lumière. Ed Charlotte Beaufort, and Marylène Lebrère. Pau: PU de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour, 2016. See also Lorraine Dastona and Peter Galison, Objectivity., New York: Zone Books, 2007, and Hubert Damisch, L’Origine de la Perspective. Paris: Champs Flammarion, 1987.

3 Jacques-Louis Mandé Daguerre’s Diorama was a proto-cinematic medium, and was opened in Paris in 1822 by Daguerre in association with the architectural painter Charles Bouton. It was a light-based device that featured immense paintings lit from the front and through the back, and which proposed to the view a changing perspective and décor. The effectiveness of the dioramic image depended on the constant, visible movement of light manipulated with shutters and screens both onto and through a semi-translucent painting. The diorama combined techniques of opaque and translucent painting with methods of manipulating natural light in a live spectacle. Daguerre later perfected the photographic technique invented by Nicéphore Niepce in order to improve the paintings of his Diorama. The daguerreotype would, in the words of Daguerre, ‘fix the objects reflected in a camera obscura’. See for instance Louis-Jacques Daguerre, A Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerréotype and the Diorama. London: McLean & Nutt, 1839, 78.

4 The effect of a fine Canaletti is, in its first impression, dioramic. We fancy we are in our beloved Venice again, with one foot, by mistake, in the clear, invisible film of water lapping over the marble steps of the foreground. Every house has its proper relief against the sky—every brick and stone its proper hue of sunlight and shade—and every degree of distance its proper tone, of retiring air. Presently, however, we begin to feel that it is lurid and gloomy, and that, the painter, compelled by the lowness of the utmost light at his disposal to deepen the shadows, in order to get the right relation, has lost the flashing, dazzling, exulting light, which was one of our chief sources of Venetian happiness. But we pardon this, knowing it to be unavoidable, and begin to look for something of that in which Venice differs from Rotterdam, or any other city built beside canals. We know that house, certainly; we never passed it without stopping our gondolier, for its arabesques were as rich as a bank of flowers in spring, and as beautiful as a dream. What has Canaletti given us for them? Five black dots. Well; take the next house. We remember that too; it was mouldering inch by inch into the canal, and the bricks had fallen away from its shattered marble shafts, and left them white and skeleton-like; yet, with their fretwork of cold flowers wreathed about them still, untouched by time, and through the rents of the wall behind them there used to come long sunbeams, greened by the weeds through which they pierced, which flitted and fell, one by one, round those grey and quiet shafts, catching here a leaf and there a leaf and gliding over the illumined edges and delicate fissures, until they sank into the deep dark hollow between the marble blocks of the sunk foundation, lighting every other moment one isolated emerald lamp on the crest of the intermittent waves, when the wild sea-weeds and crimson lichens drifted and crawled with their thousand colours and fine branches over its decay, and the black, clogging, accumulated limpets hung in ropy clusters from the dripping and tinkling stone. What has Canaletti given us for this? One square red mass, composed of—let me count—five-and-fifty, no; six-and-fifty, no; I was right at first—five-and-fifty bricks, of precisely the same size, shape, and colour, one great blackline for the shadow of the roof at the top, and six similar ripples in a row at the bottom! And this is what people call “painting nature”! It is, indeed, painting nature—as she appears to the most unfeeling and untaught of mankind. The bargeman and the bricklayer probably see no more in Venice than Canaletti gives—heaps of earth and mortar, with water between—and are just as capable of appreciating the facts of sunlight and shadow, by which he deceives us, as the most educated of us all. But what more there is in Venice than brick and stone—what there is of mystery and death, and memory and beauty—what there is to be learned or lamented, to be loved or wept—we look for to Canaletti in vain’. Ruskin, 1856, vol. I, part II, section I, ch. VII, § 7.

5 It is in fact only with the third volume of Modern Painters that Ruskin seemed to experience intense emotions triggered by the contemplation of paintings such as Veronese’s Marriage at Cana or Tintoretto's works: ‘I felt as if I had been plunged into a sea of wine of thought, and must drink to drowning. But the first distinct impression which fixed itself on one was that of the entire superiority of Painting to Literature as a rest, expression, and record of human intellect, and of the enormously greater quantity of Intellect which might be forced into a pictureand read therecompared with what might be expressed in words. I felt this strongly as I stood before the Paul Veronese. I felt assured that more of man, more of awful and inconceivable intellect, went into the making of that picture than of a thousand poems’. John Ruskin, The Diaries of John Ruskin, edited by John Evans, and J. H. Whitehouse, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956, Volume II, 437.

6 See Ernst Hans Gombrich, Art and Illusion. London: Phaidon, 1960.

7 For more on the subject, see Mark Dorrian, ‘“The Breath on The Mirror”: Notes on Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque’. Intervals in The Philosophy of Architecture. Ed. Alberto Pérez-Gómez and Stephen Parcell. Montréal: Chora Four, Mc Gill UP, 2004.

8 Unlike the sublime, the grotesque does not impart the subject with a feeling of his own inadequacy; on the contrary, the grotesque for Ruskin instils the spectator with a sense of his own importance as the agent linking elements and thus unweaving the riddle. For more on the sublime, see Lindsay Smith, Chapter 2, ‘Ruskin’s Theory of the Grotesque’, 53–92.

9 John Ruskin, Lectures on Art [1870], Lecture VI, ‘On Light’, paragraph 172: ‘Let me assure you, once and for all, that photographs supersede no single quality nor use of fine art, and have so much in common with nature, that they even share her temper of parsimony, and will themselves give you nothing valuable that you do not work for. They supersede no good art, for the definition of art is “human labour regulated by human design”, and this design, or evidence of active intellect in choice and arrangement, is the essential part of the work; which so long as you cannot perceive, you perceive no art whatsoever; which when once you do perceive, you will perceive also to be replaceable by no mechanism. But, farther, photographs will give you nothing you do not work for. They are invaluable for record of some kinds of facts, and for giving transcripts of drawings by great masters; but neither in the photographed scene, nor photographed drawing, will you see any true good, more than in the things themselves, until you have given the appointed price in your own attention and toil. And when once you have paid this price, you will not care for photographs of landscape. They are not true, though they seem so. They are merely spoiled nature. If it is not human design you are looking for, there is more beauty in the next wayside bank than in all the sun-blackened paper you could collect in a lifetime. Go and look at the real landscape, and take care of it; do not think you can get the good of it in a black stain portable in a folio. But if you care for human thought and passion, then learn yourselves to watch the course and fall of the light by whose influence you live, and to share in the joy of human spirits in the heavenly gifts of sunbeam and shade. For I tell you truly, that to a quiet heart, and healthy brain, and industrious hand, there is more delight, and use, in the dappling of one wood-glade with flowers and sunshine, than to the restless, heartless, and idle could be brought by a panorama of a belt of the world, photographed round the equator’. Cook & Wedderburn edition, vol XX, 165.

10 See Smith, 1995, 60, for her analysis of the optical intricacies of Gothic in The Stones of Venice.

11 I am indebted to Lindsay Smith and her concept of ‘democratisation of the sky’. See Lindsay Smith, Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry, 50–55.

12 ‘It is not flat dead colour, but a deep quivering, transparent body of penetrable air, in which you trace or imagine short, falling spots of deceiving light, and dim shades, faint, veiled vestiges of dark vapours’. John Ruskin, 1856, vol. I, chap. 1, Part II, Section III, § 7.

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Lawrence Gasquet, « ‘Why is it that a photograph always looks clear and sharp, — not at all like a Turner?’ John Ruskin & Perceptual Aberration »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 91 Printemps | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 10 juillet 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Lawrence Gasquet

Lawrence Gasquet is Professor of British Literature and AEsthetics at Jean-Moulin — Lyon 3 University. Her research focuses on Victorian literature, visual perception, and photography theory. She published Lewis Carroll et la persistance de l'image (Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2009), co-edited Lewis Carroll et les mythologies de l'enfance (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005), L'Art de plaire (Gérard Monfort, 2006), L'Eblouissement de la Peinture, Ruskin sur Turner (Presses universitaires de Pau, 2006). She also wrote articles on Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Julia Margaret Cameron, Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Susan Derges, Christopher Bucklow, Garry Fabian Miller, and Peter Greenaway.
Lawrence Gasquet est Professeur à l'université Jean-Moulin — Lyon III. Elle est spécialiste de littérature victorienne et des relations transesthétiques. Elle est l’auteur de Lewis Carroll et la persistance de l’image (Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 2009). Elle a co-dirigé Lewis Carroll et les mythologies de l’enfance (Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2005), L’Art de plaire (Gérard Monfort, 2006), L’Éblouissement de la Peinture, Ruskin sur Turner (Presses universitaires de Pau, 2006). Elle est également l’auteur d’articles sur Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Julia Margaret Cameron, Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Susan Derges, Christopher Bucklow, Garry Fabian Miller, et Peter Greenaway.

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