Elizabeth K. Helsinger opens Chapter Eight: Turner and Tradition of Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder with the statement that Ruskin returned to Turner at the end of Modern Painters with a different message to when he had described Turner as an angel. Ruskin noted that Turner had become a master of ‘reinterpretation of traditional symbolic language’ and increasingly relied upon space and form.

As was typical of Ruskin, he revisited and reinterpreted his own theories and writings, and found that Turner had done similar in his revisiting traditional symbolic language. This act (the revision of language) was, for Ruskin, ‘the proper work of the imaginative artist and critic’.

Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829, National Gallery)

Helsinger suggests that Ruskin admired Turner’s style for his increasing use of colour, rather than chiaroscuro, to suggest space and form (3.244 – 47) and interprets this as allowing him, at least initially, to present the change from cloudy chiaroscuro to cloudy colour as a union of romantic technique with biblical and natural symbolism’.[1] Helsinger also suggests Ruskin consciously set out to show Turner was aware his change in technique was a triumph of moral and spiritual as well as artistic dimensions for the artist-hero and that Turner ‘looked on cloudy colour as the natural symbolic language of divinity’.[2] Helsinger’s study of Turner’s cloud strewn skies concludes with the statement that clouds or the raqia ‘signifies the ministration of the heavens to man’ and in order to present this argument she relates it to Turner’s mythological paintings, e.g. Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829, National Gallery). [3]

Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides’, exhibited 1806
Turner, The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806, Tate

Ruskin reads Turner’s paintings as ‘triumphant control of the language of nature’.[4] Turner’s mythological works are heroic dominance and victory over ‘a monster of darkness’: phrases such as these all have an angelic warrior feel to them. Throughout Helsinger’s reading of Ulysses deriding Polyphemus or other mythological paintings, e.g. The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806, Tate), Helsinger correlates clouds with victory over darkness. Helsinger signposts Ruskin’s reference to the rainbow-coloured clouds in Genesis 9:13 which she sees as both evidence of a Ruskinian justification and her own, for turning biblical symbolism into an aesthetic language. Ruskin translates the beauty of visible divine creation in Turner’s works to the varied colour of space and cloud.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth (Genesis 9:13)

Helsinger suggests the significance behind Ruskin’s writing on light and perception is used to give a new naturalistic basis to Augustine’s reading of the created heavens, and throughout her writing she continually emphasis and reiterates the connection between scripture and nature. Helsinger suggests colour and cloud is representative of a loving divinity, the light of which ministers to men. It is rather surprising that Helsinger does not push the reading of this further and relate the angelic as both examples of minsters to men, and cloud and light as being of divine symbolism. This is particularly surprising as Helsinger does observe and analyse Ruskin’s referring to Turner as an angel.

Helsinger perceives Turner’s paintings as still representing flawed of mankind and the tension between darkness and light, in keeping with a description of Turner’s boyhood and resultant art as described in Two Boyhoods.[5]

Helsinger then goes on to understand Ruskin’s shifting attitudes and later revision of Turner’s use of symbolism, concluding that his figurative language becomes biblical (and Greek) and Turnerian. This change in Ruskin’s view seems to be reflective of his growing later pessimism, and in turns mirrors Turner’s own pessimism. The dragon in Turner’s Hesperides is written about in terms of consuming rather than productive labour, its image representative of a ‘perversion of Carlylean work-as-worship’.

Joseph Mallord William Turner ‘The Angel Standing in the Sun’, exhibited 1846
Turner, The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846, Tate)

Helsinger writes about The Angel Standing in the Sun (1846, Tate) which she claims is directly spoken about in The Two Boyhoods. This appears to be more assumption than fact, referring instead to angels as reapers and not specifying any painting. Whilst Helsinger seems to have taken certain leaps in making this assumption her reasons for doing so are still of use: Ruskin’s new understanding of Turner and ‘his own role as a critic interpreting and reusing the symbolic language of art’.[6]

The artist in the image may well be Turner himself, responding to criticisms about his application of colour and to Ruskin’s angelification (for want of a better word you accept my meaning). By Modern Painters V, Ruskin accepts Turner’s vision can in no way be equated with the ecstatic revelation of God’s beautiful world.[7]

Helsinger uses the term ‘artist-angel’ suggesting it arises in part from ‘The Dark Mirror’ (the mirror being the human imagination) chapter of Modern Painters. ‘Mirror and cloud are cognate metaphors; both transmit light from a source outside themselves to viewers, but with some alteration of the transmitted light (dimming, distorting, dividing, refracting, reflecting).’[8] This next section of Helsinger’s chapter discusses the aspect of the human imagination with its ‘grotesqueness’ and Ruskin’s wavering view between the effectiveness of the dark mirror mind on the symbolism of human art. Towards the end of the ‘Dark Mirror’ chapter it appears the cloud mirror has disappeared but Ruskin gently reinserts restatement of his earlier position that gives significance to the cloud. The ‘sun that illuminates landscape in art is the mind of the beholder, which is in turn guided by the mind of the artist’.[9]

There is an important distinction which Helsinger is careful to draw our attention to. For Ruskin, man ‘cannot, in a right state of thought, take delight in anything else, otherwise than through himself. Through himself, however, as the sun of creation, not as the creation. In himself, as the light of the world. Not as being the world”.[10] It is unfortunate that by this stage of his life, Ruskin’s own belief had become so shaken that hope is undemonstrable. Helsinger suggests that keeping clouds (and mirrors) as part of biblical symbolism permits the possibility (or hope) that intelligence or experience of divinity can still be adequately explored or described. Without permitting the cloud to act as a device, society continued to be at threat of being increasingly reliant upon a dark internal man mirror and not open to the possibility of existing sacred truths. Before 1859 Ruskin’s conception of art within a religious framework of natural theology permitted a relationship between the divine and man; but by 1860, the grotesqueness of the world had soured Ruskin’s aesthetics. If like Giorgione, Ruskin was living in a secure age of faith, there would be no distinction between natural, human or divine light.[11]

Artists were able to reveal, but they were at their most illuminating when embodying the ephemeral of the angelic. For Helsinger, clouds do not enhance, they merely serve the light of divine revelation.[12] I disagree that clouds are not veils though, as it seems they are very much part of the mist of sacred truths, of religious or aesthetic ambiguities and as such offer much in the sense of the term ‘angelic aesthetic’ (part of my own current research project). From reading Helsinger’s text it seems more fitting that light acts as a type of veil, for as often as we can see better with light, we can also be blinded by it. This blinding light becomes apocalyptic in Ruskin’s hands, and in The Two Boyhoods he uses Revelation as a source of addressing the future. Ruskin’s second visit to The Angel Standing in the Sun is a melancholic address to decaying society. For Helsinger, Ruskin’s angel is a bleaker one than Turner’s, delivering a message of death to the world. Ruskin turned away ‘from the apocalyptic mode exemplified for him by The Angel Standing in the Sun, where social and moral realism is finally warped by the very horror of what it contemplates’.[13]

It seems prudent to use Turner’s own poetic phrase ‘The Fallacy of Hope’, to elucidate this apocalyptic feeling of hopelessness.

Ruskin’s reliance on secular tradition as the underlying text against which to read symbolic meaning in art was related to a change in his religious views which took place between 1856 and the winter of 1859-60. At this time during his now famous ‘unconversion’ Ruskin gave up his belief in the Bible as the direct and truthful word of God, which had always been representative to Ruskin of the divine symbolic language he so yearned to maintain a grasp of.

Ruskin’s critical divide was narrowing, he no longer felt pulled in the direction of a historical and divine interpretation of beauty (and art works) and instead he began to grapple with the ideas on a broader and perhaps more imaginative manner.

For example, we should ask, as did Ruskin, ‘what does the sunrise itself signify to us?…if the sun itself is an influence, to us also, of spiritual good . . . [it] becomes thus in reality, not in imagination, to us also, a spiritual power . . . [and we may] rise with the Greek to the thought of an angel who rejoiced as a strong man to run his course, whose voice, calling to life and to labour, rang round the earth, and whose going forth was to the ends of heaven.[14]

What Ruskin had noted tentatively in Modern Painters Volume III as an experience of ‘no definite religious feeling’ but ‘an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit’ became a more living and modern means of finding a secular sacrality.[15]  Turner, like Ruskin, had grasped the truth of clouds, of rocks, of trees, by means of ‘the balanced union of artistic sensibility with scientific faculty’. But in addition to Helsinger’s astute reading of Ruskin’s ideas, I would also add that the disembodied spirit of artistic sensibility takes us right back to embracing Turner the angel, and to recognising angels as a form of nineteenth century apocalyptic aesthetics.


[1] Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982) p. 232. Helsinger quotes from Modern Painters.

[2] Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, pg. 233.

[3] Helsinger, footnote number 1, pg. 233.

[4] Helsinger, footnote number 1, pg. 233.

[5] John Ruskin, ed. by Bliss Perry, Little Masterpieces (New York: Doubleday  and McClure, 1898)

https://archive.org/stream/johnruskintwoboy00rusk#page/32/mode/2up Accessed 21:07 21/08/16

[6] Helsinger, p. 237.

[7] Helsinger, p. 237.

[8] Helsinger, p. 237.

[9] Helsinger, p. 240.

[10] John Ruskin, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, vol. 7, pg. 263

[11]  Ruskin, Little Masterpieces, pg. 5.

https://archive.org/stream/johnruskintwoboy00rusk#page/32/mode/2up pg. 5 Accessed 21:07 21/08/16

[12] Helsinger, pg. 242.

[13] Helsinger, pg. 249.

[14] John Ruskin, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Complete Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition,) (London: George Alien, 1903-1912), vol. 19, pg. 302-303

[15] Ruskin, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, vol. 5, pg. 366 – 367