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Embracing and Rejecting the Ruskinian Heritage in Wilde’s Aesthetic Theories

L’héritage de Ruskin chez Wilde : entre inspiration et distanciation
Carole Delhorme


Cet article vise à évaluer la réception et l’influence des idées de Ruskin chez Oscar Wilde, tout particulièrement dans ses théories esthétiques. Il a pour objectif principal d’examiner dans quelle mesure les positions esthétiques d’Oscar Wilde sont tributaires des enseignements du Slade Professor, mais également dans quelle mesure elles témoignent d’une prise de distance vis-à-vis de ceux-ci. Les conférences que Wilde donna lors de sa tournée américaine en 1882 visaient à propager par-delà l’Atlantique l’évangile du Mouvement Esthétique dans les beaux-arts et les arts décoratifs ; faisant écho au rejet de l’environnement urbain et industriel chez Ruskin, ainsi que des modes de production capitalistes, les conférences proclamaient l’importance de la beauté dans l’environnement quotidien, le lien entre la beauté et l’utilité et mettaient en avant la mission sociale de l’art. Pourtant, presque dix ans plus tard, lorsque Wilde rejette l’imitation de la nature dans Intentions (1891) ou lorsqu’il dissocie l’art et l’utilité dans la Préface à The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), il semble s’inscrire en porte à faux vis-à-vis de Ruskin. Si cet écart provient en partie d’une évolution propre à la pensée de Wilde, il semble qu’il est révélateur de l’ambivalence de la position de Ruskin vis-à-vis du Mouvement Esthétique en général. D’une part, l’attention portée à la beauté et aux qualités purement esthétiques des œuvres fait de Ruskin l’un des pères du Mouvement Esthétique. D’autre part, le lien indissociable entre l’art et la moralité dans la pensée de Ruskin en fait un ardent opposant à la doctrine de l’art pour l’art. Ainsi, l’ambivalence de l’héritage ruskinien chez Wilde révèle en réalité le paradoxe de la position de Ruskin vis-à-vis du Mouvement Esthétique, et vis-à-vis de la modernité esthétique en général.

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  • 1 Wilde chose to participate in the Slade Professor’s road-building project at Hinksey Ferry. Althoug (...)

1Wilde’s theories about art and aesthetics are deeply indebted to John Ruskin, for whom Wilde nourished an admiration when he was studying at Magdalen College at Oxford.1 However, during his Oxford years, Wilde would come under the dual patronage of the most prominent figures at the University, namely John Ruskin and Walter Pater. The oscillation between his two mentors pervaded his works, and Wilde famously ended up disavowing his Ruskinian heritage.

  • 2 Pascal Aquien underlines that contradiction is a structuring principle of Wilde’s thought, as shown (...)
  • 3 ‘Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out thei (...)
  • 4 Ruskin’s position on the highest purpose of painting, and its greatest practitioners, changed over (...)

2Assessing the influence of Ruskin on Wilde is no easy task, as both writers have been noted for their propensity for self-contradiction. That Wilde himself was prone to inconsistency has now become a cliché of literary criticism.2 His early aesthetic posture, which he notably exposed during the lectures he gave during his American tour at the beginning of the 1880s, differs considerably from the more mature and idiosyncratic essays he would write in the 1890s, such as the essays gathered in the volume Intentions in 1891. Wilde himself stated that contradiction was one of the principles he lived by (and wrote by), since yielding to consistency would mean renouncing and repressing the multiplicity of one’s individuality and surrender to dogma and stereotype.3 As for Ruskin, the sheer length of the period during which he wrote implies an evolution of his thought:4 ‘[H]e is mostly read in pieces. He is difficult to see steadily and to see whole. And his own capacity for saying things that are, or at least appear to be, contradictory complicates further the business of trying to understand him’ (O’Gorman 2). Nevertheless, examining the way that Wilde embraced or rejected Ruskin’s heritage is essential when it comes to understanding the evolution of his thought. Moreoever, the variety and contradictions inherent in both writers’ postures may actually be seen as symptomatic of the deeply ambivalent relationship that Ruskin had with the Aesthetic Movement as a whole, and with the doctrine of art for art’s sake in particular. Indeed, Ruskin is both seen as a precursor to the Aesthetic Movement and as one of its strongest and most vocal opponents. Thus, examining the question of Wilde's Ruskinian heritage will lead us to delineate the paradox which characterizes Ruskin’s position towards the Aesthetic Movement, and more generally towards aesthetic modernity.

3First of all, the major influence that Ruskin had on Wilde, and on the Aesthetic Movement in general, was through the renewed importance he gave to beauty, both in art and in life. However, Wilde distanced himself from his early mentor since he ultimately held a widely different view of the relationship between art and truth. Finally, it is perhaps through the question of form and formalism that the ambivalence of Wilde’s Ruskinian heritage is best expressed.

4In the preface he wrote in 1882 for Rennel Rodd’s poems, called ‘L’Envoi’, Wilde acknowledged the major influence that Ruskin had in restoring ‘that enthusiasm for beauty’ (Wilde 1969a, 31) in England. Wilde’s early aesthetic theories, such as the highly publicized lectures he gave in the United States as part of his American tour in 1882, later published in the form of essays, espouse and synthesize his theories on the social role of art, as well as those of Morris on the decorative arts. Tasked with spreading the Aesthetic gospel overseas, Wilde praised the new tendencies of the Art and Crafts Movement, the protagonists of which were animated by the wish to reinsert beauty in practical life by making the objects of everyday life beautiful, and to achieve what Wilde calls an ‘English Renaissance of Art’ (Wilde 1969b).

  • 5 Ours is certainly the dullest and most prosaic century possible’ (Wilde 1999b, 1089).

5Following Ruskin, Wilde lamented the state of the age and of the arts. The emphasis laid on beauty—both in the arts and in everyday life—is first to be understood negatively as a reaction against the contemporary contempt for beauty, which was perceived to be entailed by the prevailing materialism of the age and by the philistinism of the middle-class. Ruskin condemns both the indifference to beauty of the mainstream Victorian bourgeois and the hideousness of the modern environment brought about by industrialization and urbanization. In ‘The Decorative Arts’, the second version of the lecture he gave, Wilde likewise deplores ‘the depressing monotonous appearance of any modern commercial city—the sombre dress of men and women, the meaningless and barren architecture, the vulgar and glaring adverstisements’ (Wilde 1999a, 930). Wilde would keep lamenting the ugliness of modern environment; ‘The Decay of Lying’, one of the essays in Intentions (1891), contains countless allusions to the ugliness and trivial vulgarity of the modern environment.5

6For Ruskin, in this new environment, creating good art was simply impossible, as he explains in The Two Paths: ‘To men surrounded by the depressing and monotonous circumstances of English manufacturing life . . . design is simply impossible’ (Ruskin 1907a, 155). Therefore, Ruskin calls for a new design and a new architecture that would bring natural elements back into their surroundings. Wilde as well puts forward the idea of the importance of the environment for the creation of beautiful art. The artist must ‘surround [himself] with beautiful things’ (Wilde 1999a, 926) if he is to create beautiful art. ‘All the teaching in the world is of no avail in art unless you surround your workman with happy influences and delightful things’ (Wilde 1999a, 929), he asserts; therefore, he tells his American audience: ‘Your houses and streets should be living schools of art where your workman may see beautiful forms’ (Wilde 1999a, 929).

7Furthermore, in ‘The Decorative Arts’ he asserts that there is no limit to the range of subject-matters available for art because art can ennoble any subject-matter. ‘There is nothing in common life too mean, in common things too trivial to be ennobled by your touch; nothing that art cannot sanctify’ (Wilde 1999a, 937). Therefore, art must realize the ‘beauty of the age in which we live’, otherwise art is ‘unhealthy’ (Wilde 1999a, 930). Such a statement is in keeping with Ruskin’s assertion that design should ‘make modern English life beautiful’ (Ruskin 1907a, 156). However, in ‘The Decay of Lying’, Wilde later writes that ‘the only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us’and that ‘[w]e . . . spend our days in the sordid streets and hideous suburbs of our vile cities when we should be out on the hillside with Apollo’ (Wilde 1999b, 1077). Therefore, it seems that in reaction to the ugliness of modern life, Wilde evolved from a Ruskinian reformative attitude, which attempted to change the social and artistic conditions of the time so that beauty could be reinstated into the land, to a retreat from the modern world and thus from the real world in general, into one solely devoted to beauty, and completely secluded from the concerns of contemporary life.

8Moreover, for Ruskin, it is the very mode of production of industry itself, being based on machine work, which cancels the possibility of making beautiful decorative arts. Machine work is to be understood both as the introduction of machinery as opposed to manual work, and as the machine-like work entailed by the capitalistic system of the division of labour:

We have much studied and much perfected, of late, the great civilized invention of the division of labour; only we give it a false name. It is not, truly speaking, the labour that is divided; but the men: —Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little pieces of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin or the head of a nail. (Ruskin 1918, 226)

9In line with Ruskin, in ‘The Decorative Arts’, Wilde explains that artistic endeavour

requires more than mere machine work: it requires delicacy of hand, cultivated taste, and nobility of character. For the mark of all good art is not that the thing is done exactly or finely, for machinery may do as much, but that it is worked out with the tender, appealing vitality of the workman’s heart and head. (Wilde 1999a, 926)

10Wilde contends that ‘good art’ cannot be achieved by mere technical perfection, for which machines are sufficient; it can only spring from human work because it does not only require the hand of the maker, but also his intellect and emotions. The rejection of machine work is indebted to Ruskin who defines art as ‘human labour regulated by human design’ in a conference given at Oxford on March 16th 1870. Wishing to exlude photography from the realm of art, he asserts that a mechanical process, such as photography, cannot result in the creation of a work of art: ‘[photographs] 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’ (Ruskin 1903, 165).

  • 6 And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast is (...)

11Part of the reason why Ruskin rejects the mechanized mode of production is that it deprives the worker of any joy in making meaningful work. As William Morris summarizes in the Preface to ‘The Nature of Gothic’, for Ruskin, art is ‘the expression of man’s pleasure in his handiwork’ (Morris 1908, 4). He condemns the system of the division of labour which the industrial revolution has put in place. Working in assembly-lines degrades workers into machines, deprives them of their humanity, and prevents them from having pleasure in their work. Instead, Ruskin puts forward the ideal of a work which provides pleasure to the worker, makes him happy and which ennobles him.6 In ‘The Decorative Arts’, Wilde also asserts that joy and beauty are inseparable; in ‘The House Beautiful’, which is the third version of his lecture, he dictates: ‘Have nothing in your house that has not given pleasure to the man who made it and is not a pleasure to those who use it’ (Wilde 1999c, 914). At the end of ‘The Decorative Arts’, Wilde also puts forward the ideal of a democratic art and paraphrases the words of William Morris when he prescribes ‘an art that is made with the hands of the people, for the joy of the people, too, an art that will be an expression of your delight in life’ (Wilde 1999a, 937).

  • 7 According to Pascal Aquien, the typographical disposition of the preface embodies the emphasis laid (...)

12Such a conception, therefore, intricately links art with utility, and Wilde indeed claims that ‘We must not be deceived by the attempt to draw a fine line of distinction between what is beautiful and what is useful. Utility is always on the side of the beautifully decorated article and the skill of the workman’ (Wilde 1999a, 928). With the benefit of hindsight, such an assertion seems to contradict the famous assertion in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that ‘all art is quite useless’ (Wilde 1999d, 17). It is clear, then, that in his early writings, Wilde endorses a conception of art that is much more ‘associated with the problem of living’ (Jackson 137), as Holbrook Jackson puts it when dealing with the writings of William Morris. There is indeed an evolution in Wilde’s theories, from a Ruskinian conception of art which is implicated in life and his more personal and aesthetic conception of art as concerned solely with itself, remote from reality and its concerns.7 The call for beautifying everyday life has been transformed into the quest of beauty for its own sake.

13Even though Ruskin glorifies beauty in his writings, he is by no means a proponent of beauty for beauty’s sake, because beauty is always linked to morals. Wilde’s lectures in the United States show that he espoused the conception of art as expressing moral truths. Indeed, he speaks of a ‘true art’ and of ‘dishonest workmanship’; the very terminology bears the mark of the value Ruskin set on truth in art and of his association of art with morality. However, the association of aesthetics with ethics is precisely what causes Wilde’s departure from Ruskin in his later or more personal writings. In ‘L’Envoi’, Wilde claims that in ‘his whole method of approaching art, we are no longer with [Ruskin]; for the keystone to his aesthetic system is ethical always’ (Wilde 1969a, 32). Instead, Wilde advocates the ‘recognition of the primary importance of the sensuous element in art, this love of art for art’s sake, [which] is the point in which we of the younger school have made a departure from the teaching of Mr. Ruskin’ (Wilde 1969a, 31). Indeed, the doctrine of art for art’s sake is precisely based on the autonomy of art and on the separation between art and morality; it is derived from German aesthetic philosophy which strove to dissociate aesthetics and ethics, and to establish aesthetics as an independent sphere of thought.

14As a result of the separation between art and life, beauty is the only aim of the artist: ‘those who do not love Beauty more than Truth never know the inmost shrine of Art’ (Wilde 1999b, 1090). That ‘Art never expresses anything but itself’ (Wilde 1999b, 1087) also runs counter to Ruskin’s ideal of truth to nature, which is the core of his defense of Turner in the first volume of Modern Painters. Once again, in ‘The Decorative Arts’, Wilde decries decorative arts which ‘tell a lie every moment of their existence’ (Wilde 1999a, 928–29). He writes that ‘[t]he most practical school of morals in the world, the best educator, is true art: it never lies, never misleads, never corrupts, for all good art, all high art, is founded on honesty, sincerity and truth’ (Wilde 1999a, 926). However, some years later, Wilde wishes for the exact opposite when he complains about ‘the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure’ (Wilde 1999b, 1073). Those words are to be understood in the context of an attack on realism as a literary movement in Wilde’s essay.

15The call for lying in art reads as a direct and provocative rebuke of Ruskin’s teaching. It is actually nothing but a call to invent, imagine and create, instead of imitating. Indeed, Wilde deconstructs mimesis, as the principle governing artistic creation in the Western tradition, which he opposes to the Eastern tradition which blatantly rejects imitation: ‘The whole history of [the decorative arts] in Europe is the record of the struggle between Orientalism, with its frank rejection of imitation, its love of artistic convention, its dislike to the actual representation of any object in Nature, and our own imitative spirit’ (Wilde 1999b, 1080). Even though Ruskin did by no means prescribe literal copying of nature, the heart of his aesthetics is based on faithfulness to nature, and he decries imagination as being ‘that faculty of degrading God’s works’ (Ruskin 1907b, 54) in the preface to the second edition of Modern Painters. For example, in the first volume of Modern Painters, he criticizes Turner’s use of colours in The Slave Ship: ‘For instance, the two blue and white stripes on the drifting flag of the Slave Ship are, I think, the least degree too purely cool. I think both the blue and white would be impossible under such a light . . .’ (Ruskin 1907b, 142). While this passage is not representative of Ruskin’s overall appreciation of Turner’s art, the mention of colours which would be ‘impossible’ in those conditions is quite telling. For Wilde, however, no colour is ‘impossible’, for the artist should have no scruple about flouting the laws of nature: ‘[Art] has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds’ and ‘[s]he can work miracles at her will’ (Wilde 1999b, 1082).Wilde thus frees the artist from the need to be subordinated to nature and to anything that is external to art, which ‘develops purely on her own lines’ (Wilde 1999b, 1087) and obeys its own laws. His artistic project therefore differs from Ruskin’s, for whom, as Lucy Hartley explains, ‘the artist must understand the God-given laws of nature, paying attention to minute details as well as spectacular effects, to achieve the highest artistic ideal’ (Hartley 84).

16Wilde’s rejection of the principle of truth to nature is partly rooted in his conception of Nature as being ‘unfinished’ and therefore inferior to art. His writings therefore stand in sharp contrast with Ruskin’s glorification of nature. In Modern Painters, painting is often presented as a medium which has a limited number of tools to represent nature; artistic representation is therefore bound to be incomplete, striving after an unattainable model. About Turner, Ruskin claims that ‘he feels too much the incapacity of art, with its feeble means of light, to give the abundance of nature’s gradations’ (Ruskin 1907b, 139). Indeed, the colours of the painters’ palette can never compete with the colors of nature:

[A]ll our artificial pigment are, even when seen under the same circumstances, dead and lightless beside her living colour; the green of a growing leaf, the scarlet of a fresh flower, no art nor expedient can reach; but in addition to this, nature exhibits her hues under an intensity of sunlight which trebles their brilliancy, while the painter, deprived of this splendid aid, works still with what is actually a grey shadow compared to the force of nature’s colour. (Ruskin 1907b, 147)

17The superiority of nature is accounted for by Ruskin’s conception of nature as the manifestation of god’s creation and presence: ‘God is felt not only as the author of creation but as an actual power within it’ (Rosenberg 7). As Francis O’Gorman remarks, Ruskin always ‘link[ed] the meaning of empirically documented natural forms to moral truths’ (O’Gorman 8). Therefore, as John Rosenberg puts it, ‘in communion with nature, [the artist] is also a communicant of the Deity, and it is his priest-like task to interpret his vision of the visible world through his art’ (Rosenberg 6).

18In sharp contrast with Ruskin’s teachings, however, Wilde claims that art is superior to nature. In ‘The Decay of Lying’, Vivian alludes to the contemporary call to return to nature, which undoubtedly evokes Ruskin’s main argument in Modern Painters: ‘The popular cry of our time is: “Let us return to Life and Nature; they will recreate Art for us”’ (Wilde 1999b, 1078). However, Vivian rejects such an endeavour, on various grounds. First of all, nature is described as imperfect and as lacking style: ‘What Art reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition’ (Wilde 1999b, 1071). The double meaning of the term ‘design’ here reveals the link between aesthetics and metaphysics in Wilde’s conception of Nature. The term can be understood as referring to composition: ‘When I look at a landscape, I cannot help seeing all its defects’ (Wilde 1999b, 1071); but the lack of design may also be understood as referring to the lack of intention. His aesthetic rejection of nature therefore seems to be linked to his metaphysical conception of nature as godless: god, as a presiding force being at the origin of the order of nature, is absent from it. The organization of nature is therefore accidental and contingent, making way for ‘aesthetic defects’, whereas the work of art, since it springs from the mind, can achieve perfect form. By contrast, ‘Nature hates mind’ (Wilde 1999b, 1071), says Vivian. Therefore, Wilde praises the artificial, and discards the natural.

19The glorification of nature ultimately accounts for Ruskin’s abhorrence of art for art’s sake. As Lucy Hartley remarks, his aesthetics cannot accommodate a theory of a picture ‘for a picture’, as for him, a picture should always be ‘for nature’ (Hartley 9). In Wilde’s aesthetic theories, however, the separation between art and life from the point of view of artistic creation and reception leads to a formalist stance. In this respect, however, Ruskin is alternately seen as a conservative realist and as an avant-garde modernist.

20At the beginning of Modern Painters, Ruskin claims that ‘thought’ is essential to painting, and that formal perfection alone is not enough to constitute a great painting: ‘Painting, or art generally, as such, with all its technicalities, difficulties, and particular ends, is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing’ (Ruskin 1999, 7). Rejecting such a view, Wilde shows his allegiance to another of his Oxford teachers, Walter Pater, who famously wrote that ‘all art constantly aspires to the condition of music’ (Pater 96). For Pater art is not conceived as language, and it is not an agent of ideas or thought: ‘It is the mistake of much popular criticism to regard poetry, music and painting . . . as but translations into different languages of one and the same fixed quantity of imaginative thought’ (Pater 83). In The Renaissance, he writes that the primary significance of painting resides in its being a sensuous surface: ‘In its primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor’ (Pater 84).

21Wilde goes further than Pater in asserting the importance of form over subject-matter. In a letter to The Speaker defending the illustrations that Charles Ricketts designed for A House of Pomegranates, he writes: ‘The primary aesthetic impression of a work of art borrows nothing from recognition or resemblance . . . the constant preoccupation with subject-matter that characterises nearly all our English art-criticism, is what makes our art-criticism . . . so sterile’ (Hart-Davis 299). In his theory, the claim for a purely aesthetic point of view in the evaluation of the work of art implies that the subject-matter of a work is unimportant, but also that it is unnecessary, and even detrimental. In ‘The Critic as Artist’, Gilbert alleges that ‘mere colour, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways . . .’ (Wilde 1999e, 1148).

  • 8 ‘A curious matter, in its effect upon the judgment of these gentlemen, is the accepted vocabulary o (...)

22Thus, despite their various public quarrels and disagreements over art criticism, Wilde always praised Whistler as a painter, because ‘the quality of [his] exquisite painting comes from the mere inventive and creative handling of line and colour . . .’ (Wilde 1969b, 31). He supported Whister’s effort to free painting from the influence of literature and language, as articulated in his ‘Ten O’Clock Lecture’. For Whistler, a painting is not to be read, but it is to be seen: any symbolical interpretation of painting derives from the illegitimate influence of the art critic who ‘goes on with his translation from canvas to paper’, and who deciphers paintings as they would read literature.8 Similarly, in ‘The Critic as Artist’, Wilde argues that ‘[t]he painter must be pictorial always’ (Wilde 1999e, 1148) and be satisfied with representing the visible; he should not encroach on the ‘invisible’, that is to say on the world of passions and thoughts, which remains the province of the poet and is out of bounds to the painter.

  • 9 Whistler filed a lawsuit against Ruskin when he published the following words in Fors Clavigera on (...)

23Ruskin’s disparagement of art for art’s sake and formalism is epitomized by his trial against Whistler, who sued him for libel after Ruskin accused the artist of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.9 As William Gaunt wrote, ‘the famous Ruskin versus Whistler trial was the trial of Art for Art’s sake’ (Gaunt 85). During the trial, the paintings were said to lack finish of execution and to resemble mere sketches. The amount of labour (or the lack of labour) that went into the work was also an essential factor in determining the value of the paintings. When asked to identify the subject of Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Old Battersea Bridge (1872–75), Whistler answered: ‘A moonlight effect on the river near old Battersea Bridge’ (Whistler 7). His answer points to the absence of any anecdotal or narrative element in painting, whose subject is light itself. Whistler’s stance also seems to question the representational character of art, which was humourously underlined by the attorney-general during his trial, when he asked: ‘Why do you call Mr Irving an arrangement in Black?’ The question testifies to the overimportance which is given to what is represented, notably by Ruskin who writes: ‘It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined’ (Ruskin 1907b, 8). For Whistler, this point of view shows a blindness to the specificity of painting—that is to say, to the fact that a painting is primarily a painterly surface of colours and shapes, which is what he advocates through his evocation of musical harmonies in the titles of his paintings.

  • 10 [T]here is no warmth which has not grey in it, and no blue which has not warmth in it; and the tin (...)

24And yet, in Modern Painters, Ruskin’s own depictions of paintings very often dwell on the abstract character of their forms and colours. For example, in his second volume, he writes that ‘Turner is the only painter . . . who has rendered the abstract beauty of natural colour’ (Ruskin 1907b, 129). Moreover, his precise and technical analyses of the different aspects of painting seem to foreground the specificities of painting as a medium. Such is often the case of his examination of colours.10

  • 11 Paysage avec un voyageur au repos ou Paysage à la route romaine, Nicolas Poussin, oil on canvas, 79 (...)
  • 12 See for instance Cianci and Nicholls.

25In this respect, his defense of Turner but criticism of Whistler have sometimes seemed somewhat paradoxical. For example, the lack of ‘finish’ which Ruskin praises in Turner’s works is precisely what he rejects in Whistler’s. About A Roman Road11 by Nicolas Poussin, ‘a confusion of yellow and black spots and strokes . . . out of which would have arranged itself the general impression of truth and life’ (Ruskin 1907b, 184) would have been more faithful to optical perception. Laurence Roussillon-Constanty points to the paradox of this assertion: ‘Pour Ruskin justement, la peinture, si elle veut être au plus près de ce que la nature produit, doit conserver un certain degré d’infini, un aspect informe—une idée que n’auraient sans doute pas reniée les impressionnistes’ (Roussillon-Constanty 14). Hence, the attention paid to the formal properties of painting might be seen as laying the groundwork for Wilde’s formalist claims; Ruskin has also been seen as a revolutionary and as a precursor to modernity in the arts and in painting in particular.12

26All in all, examining the question of the Ruskinian heritage in Wilde’s aesthetic theories necessarily leads to a chronological approach, since the question of Ruskin’s influence reveals the evolution of Wilde’s thought as the writer moved away from a conception of art that is linked to the useful—as proclaimed in his American lectures in 1882—towards the championing of the doctrine of art for art’s sake in 1891. However, it would be inaccurate to state that Wilde’s thought moved from a Ruskinian posture to an anti-Ruskinian conception of art. Indeed, even in his espousal of the doctrine of art for art’s sake, the ambiguity of the heritage remains, and this ambiguity is symptomatic of Ruskin’s own ambivalence towards art for art’s sake.

27Finally, the type of art criticism that Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters is explicitly supported by Wilde, who mentions Ruskin as an example of the kind of creative response he advocated in art criticism. In ‘The Critic as Artist’, Wilde writes that the aim of the art critic is to ‘see the object as in itself it really is not’ (Wilde 1999e, 1128); in other words, the critic should record not the work as object, but his personal impression of it. Thus, he claims: ‘Who cares whether Mr Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter?’ (Wilde 1999e, 1126). Some of Ruskin’s pieces in Modern Painters indeed seem to illustrate the emotional response to art that Wilde advocates.

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Cianci, Giovanni, and Peter Nicholls. Ruskin and Modernism. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin, 1988.

Gaunt, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. London: Cape, 1945.

Hart-Davis, Rupert. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Hart-Davis, 1962.

Hartley, Lucy. ‘Art’. The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Ed. Francis O’Gorman. New York: CUP, 2015.

Holland, Merlin. ‘Biography and the Art of Lying’. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Jackson, Holbrook. Dreamers of Dreams: The Rise and Fall of 19th Century Idealism. London: Faber and Faber, 1948.

Louvel Liliane. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde: le double miroir de l’art. Paris: Ellipses, 2000.

Morris, William. ‘Preface’. The Nature of Gothic. Paris: Hachette, 1908.

O’Gorman, Francis. ‘Introduction’. The Cambridge Companion to John Ruskin. Ed. Francis O’Gorman. New York: CUP, 2015.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Rosenberg, John Davis. The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.

Roussillon-Constanty, Laurence. ‘Introduction générale’. L’éblouissement de la peinture: Ruskin sur Turner. Ed. Fabienne Gaspari, Lawrence Gasquet, and Laurence Roussillon-Constanty. Pau: Publications de l’université de Pau, 2006.

Ruskin, John. ‘The Nature of Gothic’. Selections and Essays. Ed. Frederick William Roe. New York: Scribner, 1918.

Ruskin, John. ‘The Two Paths’. Sesame and Lilies. The Two Paths. The King of the Golden River. London: Dent & Sons, 1907a.

Ruskin, John. Modern Painters. Volume I. London: Dent, 1907b.

Whistler, James McNeill. The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. New York: Dover, 1967.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Decorative Arts’. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins., 1999a.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Decay of Lying’. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins., 1999b.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The House Beautiful’. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins., 1999c.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins., 1999d.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Critic as Artist’. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins., 1999e.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘L’Envoi’. Miscellanies. Ed. Robert ROSS. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969a.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The English Renaissance of Art’. Miscellanies. Ed. Robert Ross. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969b.

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1 Wilde chose to participate in the Slade Professor’s road-building project at Hinksey Ferry. Although he was not used to rising early in the morning, ‘he overcame his languor for Ruskin’s sake’ (Ellmann 49).

2 Pascal Aquien underlines that contradiction is a structuring principle of Wilde’s thought, as shown by the use of paradoxical language: ‘[Le principe d’opposition] rend compte de tensions irréconciliables, qui prouvent que le monde et les êtres, réels ou (re)construits par le langage, échappent à l’harmonie, c’est-à-dire à la fusion rêvée des contraires’ (Aquien 159). According to Merlin Holland, Wilde’s critics must accept the antagonistic character of Wilde’s life and works: ‘It is simply not a life which can tolerate an either/or approach with logical conclusions, but demands the flexibility of a both/and treatment’ (Holland 3).

3 ‘Who wants to be consistent? The dullard and the doctrinaire, the tedious people who carry out their principle to the bitter end of action, to the reductio ad absurdum of practice. Not I. Like Emerson, I write over the door of my library the word “Whim”’ (Wilde 1999b, 1072).

4 Ruskin’s position on the highest purpose of painting, and its greatest practitioners, changed over the course of writing Modern Painters’ (Hartley 83).

5 Ours is certainly the dullest and most prosaic century possible’ (Wilde 1999b, 1089).

6 And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast is all in very deed for this,—that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages. And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads . . . can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labor are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labor’ (Ruskin 1918, 226).

7 According to Pascal Aquien, the typographical disposition of the preface embodies the emphasis laid on the signifier as opposed to the signified, and associates literature with the visual arts: ‘La disposition typographique s’exhibe, se dessine, voire se sculpte sur la page, ce que les nombreux alinéas rendent manifeste et ce qui se justifie par un constat dont Wilde est conscient : avec l’Art pour l’Art, la littérature s’identifie aux arts plastiques, à la peinture et à la sculpture’ (Aquien 21). Liliane Louvel also mentions the material character of the typography; according to her, the commandments are evocative of a poem (Louvel 115).

8 ‘A curious matter, in its effect upon the judgment of these gentlemen, is the accepted vocabulary of poetic symbolism, that helps them, by habit, in dealing with Nature: a mountain, to them, is synonymous with height—a lake, with depth–the ocean, with vastness—the sun, with glory. So that a picture with a mountain, a lake, and an ocean—however poor in paint–is inevitably “lofty,” “vast,” “infinite,” and “glorious”—on paper’ (Whistler 2012, 54).

9 Whistler filed a lawsuit against Ruskin when he published the following words in Fors Clavigera on July 2nd 1877, after he visited the first exhibition of the Grosvenor Gallery: ‘For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ (Whistler 1).

10 [T]here is no warmth which has not grey in it, and no blue which has not warmth in it; and the tints in which [Turner] most excels and distances all other men, the most cherished and inimitable portions of his colour are, as with all perfect colourists they must be, greys’ (Ruskin 1907b, 156).

11 Paysage avec un voyageur au repos ou Paysage à la route romaine, Nicolas Poussin, oil on canvas, 79 x 99,7 cm, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Londres.

12 See for instance Cianci and Nicholls.

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Carole Delhorme, « Embracing and Rejecting the Ruskinian Heritage in Wilde’s Aesthetic Theories »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 91 Printemps | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 08 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Carole Delhorme

Carole Delhorme is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Transtextual and Transcultural Studies at Jean Moulin University (Lyon III). Her research focuses on interartistic relations in Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic theories. She is also an English teacher (Professeur Agrégée) at Jean Moulin University (Lyon III).
Carole Delhorme est doctorante à l’Institut d’Etudes Transtextuelles et Transculturelles (I.E.T.T.) de l’université Jean-Moulin — Lyon III. Ses travaux de recherche portent sur les relations entre les arts dans les théories esthétiques d’Oscar Wilde. Elle est également Professeur Agrégée d’anglais à l’université Jean-Moulin — Lyon III.

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