John Ruskin

English writer and art critic (1819-1900)

John Ruskin (8 February 181920 January 1900) was an English author, poet and artist, most famous for his work as art critic and social critic.

In painting as in eloquence, the greater your strength, the quieter your manner.

Quotes of John RuskinEdit

sorted chronologically, by date of the quote
What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.
When we are interested in the beauty of a thing, the oftener we can see it the better...
My entire delight was in observing without being myself noticed, — if I could have been invisible, all the better. … this was the essential love of Nature in me, this the root of all that I have usefully become, and the light of all that I have rightly learned.
  • No small misery is caused by overworked and unhappy people, in the dark views which they necessarily take up themselves, and force upon others, of work itself.
    • Pre-Raphaelitism, section 1 (1851)
  • The zealous care with which J. M. W. Turner endeavoured to do his duty, is proved by a large existing series of drawings, exquisitely tinted, and often completely coloured, all by his own hand, of the most difficult perspective subjects—illustrating not only directions of line, but effects of light - with a care and completion which would put the work of any ordinary teacher to utter shame. In teaching generally — he would neither waste time nor spare it - he would look over a student's drawing at the Academy, point to a defective part, make a scratch on the paper at the side, say nothing. If the student saw what was wanted, and did it, Turner was delighted; but if the student could not follow. Turner left him.
    • Quote, c. 1850's; describing Turner's perspective lectures; as quoted in The life of J.M.W. Turner, Volume II, George Walter Thornbury; Hurst and Blackett Publishers, London, 1862, p. 108
  • There is but one question ultimately to be asked respecting every line you draw, Is it right or wrong? If right, it most assuredly is not a "free" line, but an intensely continent, restrained and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as decisive, and just as "free" as the hand of a first-rate surgeon in a critical incision.
    • Cestus of Aglaia, chapter VI, section 72 (1865-66)
  • For when we are interested in the beauty of a thing, the oftener we can see it the better; but when we are interested only by the story of a thing, we get tired of hearing the same tale told over and over again, and stopping always at the same point — we want a new story presently, a newer and better one — and the picture of the day, and novel of the day, become as ephemeral as the coiffure or the bonnet of the day. Now this spirit is wholly adverse to the existence of any lovely art. If you mean to throw it aside to-morrow, you can never have it to-day.
    • On the Condition of Modern Art, lecture (1867)
  • Punishment is the last and least effective instrument in the hands of the legislator for the prevention of crime.
    • Notes on the General Principles of Employment for the Destitute and Criminal Classes (1868)
  • Engraving is, in brief terms, the Art of Scratch.
    • Ariadne Florentina: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving, with Appendix, lecture I: Definition of the Art of Engraving, section 34 (1872)
  • In great states, children are always trying to remain children, and the parents wanting to make men and women of them. In vile states, the children are always wanting to be men and women, and the parents to keep them children.
    • Mornings in Florence, part III, section 49 (1875)
  • Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children: but its art, only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race.
    • St. Mark's Rest: The History of Venice (1877)
  • Of all the bête, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage, that thing last night beat — as far as the acting and story went — and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiturviest, tuneless and scrannelpipiest — tongs and boniest — doggerel of sounds I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, so far as the sound went. I never was so relieved, so far as I can remember in my life, by the stopping of any sound — not excepting railway whistles — as I was by the cessation of the cobbler’s bellowing.
  • My entire delight was in observing without being myself noticed,— if I could have been invisible, all the better. I was absolutely interested in men and their ways, as I was interested in marmots and chamois, in tomtits and trout. If only they would stay still and let me look at them, and not get into their holes and up their heights! The living inhabitation of the world — the grazing and nesting in it, — the spiritual power of the air, the rocks, the waters, to be in the midst of it, and rejoice and wonder at it, and help it if I could, — happier if it needed no help of mine, — this was the essential love of Nature in me, this the root of all that I have usefully become, and the light of all that I have rightly learned.
    • Praeterita, volume I, chapter IX (1885-1889)
  • There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849)Edit

When we build, let us think that we build for ever.
  • There is nothing so small but that we may honour God by asking His guidance of it, or insult Him by taking it into our own hands.
    • Introductory
  • It is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fallacy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician, the zealous lie of the partisan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity, through which we thank any man who pierces, as we would thank one who dug a well in a desert.
    • Chapter II: The Lamp of Truth, section 1
  • I do not believe that ever any building was truly great, unless it had mighty masses, vigorous and deep, of shadow mingled with its surface.
    • Chapter III: The Lamp of Power, section 13
  • Work first and then rest. Work first, and then gaze, but do not use golden ploughshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel.
    • Chapter IV: The Lamp of Beauty, section 19
  • When we build, let us think that we build for ever.
    • Chapter VI: The Lamp of Memory, section 10
  • How false is the conception, how frantic the pursuit, of that treacherous phantom which men call Liberty.
    • Chapter VII: The Lamp of Obedience, section 1

The Stones of Venice (1853)Edit

Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.
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.
  • You were made for enjoyment, and the world was filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased with them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight. Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.
    • Volume I, chapter II, section 17
  • In old times, men used their powers of painting to show the objects of faith; in later times, they used the objects of faith that they might show their powers of painting.
    • Volume II, chapter IV, section 103
  • Of all God's gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.
    • Volume II, chapter V, section 30
  • The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.
    • Volume II, chapter V, section 30
  • You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves….On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make him a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only when we see the clouds settling upon him.
    • Volume II, chapter VI, section 12
  • 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 it divided; but the men: — Divided into mere segments of men — broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all the little piece 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. Now it is a good and desirable thing, truly, to make many pins in a day; but if we could only see with what crystal sand their points were polished, — sand of human soul, much to be magnified before it can be discerned for what it is — we should think that there might be some loss in it also. And the great cry that rises from 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 in one way: not by teaching nor preaching, for to teach them is but to show them their misery, and to preach at them, if we do nothing more than preach, is to mock at it. It can only be met by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour 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 labour.
    • Volume II, chapter VI, section 16
  • We are to remember, in the first place, that the arrangement of colours and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts. Good colouring does not necessarily convey the image of anything but itself. It consists of certain proportions and arrangements of rays of light, but not in likeness to anything. A few touches of certain greys and purples laid by a master's hand on white paper will be good colouring; as more touches are added beside them, we may find out that they were intended to represent a dove's neck, and we may praise, as the drawing advances, the perfect imitation of the dove's neck. But the good colouring does not consist in that imitation, but in the abstract qualities and relations of the grey and purple.
    • Volume II, chapter VI, section 42
  • The world is full of vulgar Purists, who bring discredit on all selection by the silliness of their choice; and this the more, because the very becoming a Purist is commonly indicative of some slight degree of weakness, readiness to be offended, or narrowness of understanding of the ends of things.
    • Volume II, chapter VI, section 62
  • The work of science is to substitute facts for appearances, and demonstrations for impressions.
    • Volume III
  • He who has the truth at his heart need never fear the want of persuasion on his tongue.
    • Volume III, chapter II, section 99
  • The first sight of the tomb Ilario di Carreto at Lucca at once altered the course of my life for me… and from that day I left the upholsterer's business in art to those who trade in it, and have guided my work, and limited my teaching, only by the sacred laws of truth and devotion which created the perfect schools of Christian art in Florence and Venice.
    • Epilogue (Works Vol XI, Page 239)

A Joy for Ever (1857)Edit

Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe.
  • You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame.
    • Lecture II: The Accumulation and Distribution of Art, section 74
  • The greatest minds are marked by nothing more distinctly than an inconceivable humility, and acceptance of work or instruction in any form, and from any quarter. They will learn from everybody, and do anything that anybody asks, so long as it involves only toil, or what other men would think degradation.
    • Addenda, note 4, section 137
  • For certainly it is excellent discipline for an author to feel that he must say all he has to say in the fewest possible words, or his reader is sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words, or his reader will certainly misunderstand them.
    • Addenda, note 6, section 141

The Two Paths (1859)Edit

  • Fine art is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together.
    • Lecture II: The Unity of Art, section 54
  • Endurance is nobler than strength, and patience than beauty.
    • Lecture IV: The Influence of Imagination in Architecture, section 137

Modern Painters (1843-1860)Edit

The infinity of God is not mysterious, it is only unfathomable; not concealed, but incomprehensible; it is a clear infinity, the darkness of the pure unsearchable sea.
The word "Blue" does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian on the human eye; but it means the power of producing that sensation: and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not...
All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the "Pathetic Fallacy."
To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.
Be a plain topographer if you possibly can; if Nature meant you to be anything else, she will force you to it; but never try to be a prophet.
  • He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas.
    • Volume I, part I, chapter II, section 9 (1843)
  • The infinity of God is not mysterious, it is only unfathomable; not concealed, but incomprehensible; it is a clear infinity, the darkness of the pure unsearchable sea.
    • Volume II, part III, section I, chapter V (1846)
  • I believe that the root of almost every schism and heresy from which the Christian church has ever suffered, has been the effort of men to earn, rather than to receive, their salvation.
    • Volume II, part III, section I, chapter XV (1846)
  • There is never vulgarity in a whole truth, however commonplace. It may be unimportant or painful. It cannot be vulgar. Vulgarity is only in concealment of truth, or in affectation.
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter VII (1856)
  • The word "Blue" does not mean the sensation caused by a gentian on the human eye; but it means the power of producing that sensation: and this power is always there, in the thing, whether we are there to experience it or not, and would remain there though there were not a man left on the face of the earth.
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter XII (1856)
  • All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the "Pathetic Fallacy."
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter XII (1856)
  • And thus, in full, there are four classes: the men who feel nothing, and therefore see truly; the men who feel strongly, think weakly, and see untruly (second order of poets); the men who feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly (first order of poets); and the men who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them. This last is the usual condition of prophetic inspiration.
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter XII (1856)
  • It is only the basest writer who cannot speak of the sea without talking of "raging waves," "remorseless floods," "ravenous billows," etc.; and it is one of the signs of the highest power in a writer to check all such habits of thought, and to keep his eyes fixed firmly on the pure fact, out of which if any feeling comes to him or his reader, he knows it must be a true one.
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter XII (1856)
  • 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.
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter XVI (1856)
  • To invent a story, or admirably and thoroughly tell any part of a story, it is necessary to grasp the entire mind of every personage concerned in it, and know precisely how they would be affected by what happens; which to do requires a colossal intellect: but to describe a separate emotion delicately, it is only needed that one should feel it oneself; and thousands of people are capable of feeling this or that noble emotion, for one who is able to enter into all the feelings of someone sitting on the other side of the table.
    • Volume III, part IV, chapter XVI (1856)
  • In general, when the imagination is at all noble, it is irresistible, and therefore those who can at all resist it ought to resist it. Be a plain topographer if you possibly can; if Nature meant you to be anything else, she will force you to it; but never try to be a prophet.
    • Volume III, part V, chapter II (1856)
  • It is not possible to find a landscape, which if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture. No one knows, till he has tried, what strange beauty and subtle composition is prepared to his hand by Nature.
    • Volume III, part V, chapter II (1856)
  • In general, pride is at the bottom of all great mistakes.
    • Volume IV, part V, chapter III, section 22 (1856)
  • All true opinions are living, and show their life by being capable of nourishment; therefore of change. But their change is that of a tree — not of a cloud.
    • Volume V, Preface (1860)
  • Expression, sentiment, truth to nature, are essential: but all those are not enough. I never care to look at a picture again, if it be ill composed; and if well composed I can hardly leave off looking at it.
    • Volume V, part VIII, chapter I, section 2 (1860)
  • The power which causes the several portions of the plant to help each other, we call life. Much more is this so in an animal. We may take away the branch of a tree without much harm to it; but not the animal's limb. Thus, intensity of life is also intensity of helpfulness — completeness of depending of each part on all the rest. The ceasing of this help is what we call corruption; and in proportion to the perfectness of the help, is the dreadfulness of the loss. The more intense the life has been, the more terrible is its corruption.
    • Volume V, part VIII, chapter 1, section 4 (1860)
  • In painting as in eloquence, the greater your strength, the quieter your manner.
    • Volume V, part VIII, chapter III (1860)
  • Other men used their effete faiths and mean faculties with a high moral purpose. The Venetian gave the most earnest faith, and the lordliest faculty, to gild the shadows of an antechamber, or heighten the splendours of a holiday.
    • Volume V, part IX, chapter III, section 52 (1860)
  • A monk of La Trappe, a French soldier of the Imperial Guard, and a thriving mill-owner, supposing each a type, and no more than a type, of his class, are all interesting specimens of humanity, but narrow ones, — so narrow that even all the three together would not make up a perfect man.
    • Volume V, part IX, chapter XI (1860)
  • There are, indeed, two forms of discontent: one laborious, the other indolent and complaining. We respect the man of laborious desire, but let us not suppose that his restlessness is peace, or his ambition meekness. It is because of the special connection of meekness with contentment that it is promised that the meek shall "inherit the earth." Neither covetous men, nor the Grave, can inherit anything; they can but consume. Only contentment can possess.
    • Volume V, part IX, chapter XI (1860)

Unto This Last (1860)Edit

That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings.
  • “I choose my physician and my clergyman, thus indicating my sense of the quality of their work.” By all means, also, choose your bricklayer; that is the proper reward of the good workman, to be “chosen.” The natural and right system respecting all labour is, that it should be paid at a fixed rate, but the good workman employed, and the bad workman unemployed. The false, unnatural, and destructive system is when the bad workman is allowed to offer his work at half-price, and either take the place of the good, or force him by his competition to work for an inadequate sum.
    • Essay I: "The Roots of Honour," section 29
  • Primarily, which is very notable and curious, I observe that men of business rarely know the meaning of the word 'rich'. At least, if they know, they do not in their reasoning allow for the fact, that it is a relative word, implying its opposite 'poor' as positively as the word 'north' implies its opposite 'south'. Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pockets depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it,— and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist's sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.
    • Essay two: 'The Veins of Wealth'
  • Suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel; countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants? In order that he may be able to have servants, some one in his neighbourhood must be poor, and in want of his gold — or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man's portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of waste land, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling "his own."
    • Essay II: "The Veins of Wealth," section 29
  • ..the art of becoming 'rich', in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbour shall have less. In accurate terms, it is 'the art of establishing the maximum inequality in your own favour'.
    • Essay II: "The Veins of Wealth"
  • Inequalities of wealth, unjustly established, have assuredly injured the nation in which they exist during their establishment; and, unjustly directed, they injure it yet more during their existence. But inequalities of wealth justly established, benefit the nation in the course of their establishment; and, nobly used, aid it yet more by their existence.
    • Essay II: page 280
  • And with respect to the mode in which these general principles affect the secure possession of property, so far am I from invalidating such security, that the whole gist of these papers will be found ultimately to aim at an extension in its range; and whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor.
    • Essay III: "Qui Judicatis Terram," section 54
  • We need examples of people who, leaving Heaven to decide whether they are to rise in the world, decide for themselves that they will be happy in it, and have resolved to seek — not greater wealth, but simpler pleasure; not higher fortune, but deeper felicity; making the first of possessions, self-possession; and honouring themselves in the harmless pride and calm pursuits of peace.
  • There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.
    • Essay IV: "Ad Valorem," section 77

The Crown of Wild Olive (1866)Edit

  • Ask a great money-maker what he wants to do with his money, — he never knows. He doesn't make it to do anything with it. He gets it only that he may get it. "What will you make of what you have got?" you ask. "Well, I'll get more," he says. Just as at cricket, you get more runs. There's no use in the runs, but to get more of them than other people is the game. So all that great foul city of London there, — rattling, growling, smoking, stinking, — a ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork, pouring out poison at every pore, — you fancy it is a city of work? Not a street of it! It is a great city of play; very nasty play and very hard play, but still play.
    • Lecture I: Work, section 24
  • Now, if we want to work for this [God's] kingdom, and to bring it, and enter into it, there is one curious condition to be first accepted. You must enter into it as children, or not at all.
    • Lecture I: Work, section 46
  • A little group of wise hearts is better than a wilderness full of fools.
    • Lecture III: War, section 114
  • What we think, or what we know, or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.
    • Lecture IV: The Future of England, section 151

Time and Tide (1867)Edit

  • Labour without joy is base. Labour without sorrow is base. Sorrow without labour is base. Joy without labour is base.
    • Letter V: Entertainment, section 21
  • Your honesty is not to be based either on religion or policy. Both your religion and policy must be based on it. Your honesty must be based, as the sun is, in vacant heaven; poised, as the lights in the firmament, which have rule over the day and over the night.
    • Letter VIII: Things Written, section 33
  • To make your children capable of honesty is the beginning of education.
    • Letter VIII: Things Written, section 33
  • The first duty of a state is to see that every child born therein shall be well housed, clothed, fed, and educated, till it attains years of discretion.
    • Letter XIII: Episcopacy and Dukedom, section 70

Sesame and Lilies (1864-1869)Edit

  • The greatest efforts of the race have always been traceable to the love of praise, as its greatest catastrophes to the love of pleasure.
    • Lecture I: Sesame. Of Kings' Treasuries, section 3
  • And besides; the problem of land, at its worst, is a bye one; distribute the earth as you will, the principal question remains inexorable, —Who is to dig it? Which of us, in brief word, is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest, and for what pay?
    • Lecture I: Sesame. Of Kings' Treasuries, note to section 30
  • When men are rightly occupied, their amusement grows out of their work, as the colour-petals out of a fruitful flower;—when they are faithfully helpful and compassionate, all their emotions become steady, deep, perpetual, and vivifying to the soul as the natural pulse to the body. But now, having no true business, we pour our whole masculine energy into the false business of money-making; and having no true emotion, we must have false emotions dressed up for us to play with, not innocently, as children with dolls, but guiltily and darkly.
    • Lecture I: Sesame. Of Kings' Treasuries, section 39
  • He only is advancing in life whose heart is getting softer, whose blood warmer, whose brain quicker, whose spirit is entering into Living peace. And the men who have this life in them are the true lords or kings of the earth — they, and they only.
    • Lecture I: Sesame. Of Kings' Treasuries, section 42
  • "The work of men" — and what is that? Well, we may any of us know very quickly, on the condition of being wholly ready to do it. But many of us are for the most part thinking, not of what we are to do, but of what we are to get; and the best of us are sunk into the sin of Ananias, and it is a mortal one — we want to keep back part of the price; and we continually talk of taking up our cross, as if the only harm in a cross was the weight of it — as if it was only a thing to be carried, instead of to be — crucified upon. "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts."
    • Lecture III: The Mystery of Life and Its Arts, section 135
  • Levi's station in life was the receipt of custom; and Peter's, the shore of Galilee; and Paul's, the antechambers of the High- Priest,— which "station in life" each had to leave, with brief notice.
    • Lecture III: The Mystery of Life and Its Arts, section 135
  • Give such a girl any true work that will make her active in the dawn, and weary at night, with the consciousness that her fellow-creatures have indeed been the better for her day, and the powerless sorrow of her enthusiasm will transform itself into a majesty of radiant and beneficent peace.
    • Lecture III: The Mystery of Life and Its Arts, section 140
    • The opening four words of this quote are often paraphrased (drawing on the preceding lines) as "Give an earnest-hearted, devoted girl..."

Lectures on Art (1870)Edit

Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.
  • Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.
    • Lecture III
  • The secret of language is the secret of sympathy and its full charm is possible only to the gentle.
    • Lecture III
  • The entire vitality of art depends upon its being either full of truth, or full of use; and that, however pleasant, wonderful, or impressive it may be in itself, it must yet be of inferior kind, and tend to deeper inferiority, unless it has clearly one of these main objects, — either to state a true thing, or to adorn a serviceable one.
    • Lecture IV

The Eagle's Nest (1872)Edit

  • In all base schools of art, the craftsman is dependent for his bread on originality; that is to say, on finding in himself some fragment of isolated faculty, by which his work may be distinct from that of other men. We are ready enough to take delight in our little doings, without any such stimulus; — what must be the effect of the popular applause which continually suggests that the little thing we can separately do is as excellent as it is singular; and what the effect of the bribe, held out to us through the whole of life, to produce — it being also in our peril not to produce — something different from the work of our neighbors?
    • Lecture II, section 32
  • We shall be remembered in history as the most cruel, and therefore the most unwise, generation of men that ever yet troubled the earth: — the most cruel in proportion to their sensibility, — the most unwise in proportion to their science. No people, understanding pain, ever inflicted so much: no people, understanding facts, ever acted on them so little.
    • Lecture II, section 35
  • What do you suppose makes all men look back to the time of childhood with so much regret (if their childhood has been, in any moderate degree, healthy or peaceful)? That rich charm, which the least possession had for us, was in consequence of the poorness of our treasures.
    • Lecture V, section 82
  • Ignorance, which is contented and clumsy, will produce what is imperfect, but not offensive. But ignorance discontented and dexterous, learning what it cannot understand, and imitating what it cannot enjoy, produces the most loathsome forms of manufacture that can disgrace or mislead humanity.
    • Lecture V, section 88

The Ethics of the Dust (1875)Edit

  • I have always found that the less we speak of our intentions, the more chance there is of our realizing them.
  • All of one's life is a music, if one touches the notes rightly and in time.
    • Lecture IV: The Crystal Orders, section 35
  • Do not think of your faults; still less of others' faults: in every person who comes near you, look for what is good and strong: honour that; rejoice in it; and, as you can, try to imitate it.
    • Lecture V: Crystal Virtues, section 57
  • God is a kind Father. He sets us all in the place where He wishes us to be employed; and that employment is truly "our Father's business." He chooses work for every creature which will be delightful to them, if they do it simply and humbly. He gives us always strength enough, and sense enough, for what He wants us to do; if we either tire ourselves, or puzzle ourselves, it is our own fault. And we may always be sure, whatever we are doing, that we cannot be pleasing Him, if we are not happy ourselves.
    • Lecture VI: Crystal Quarrels, section 72
  • All you have really to do is to keep your back as straight as you can; and not think about what is upon it. The real and essential meaning of "virtue" is that straightness of back.
    • Lecture VII: Home Virtues, section 80

Fors Clavigera (1871-1878 and 1880-1884)Edit

I am far more provoked at being thought foolish by foolish people, than pleased at being thought sensible by sensible people; and the average proportion of the numbers of each is not to my advantage.
  • You think it a great triumph to make the sun draw brown landscapes for you! That was also a discovery, and some day may be useful. But the sun had drawn landscapes before for you, not in brown, but in green, and blue, and all imaginable colours, here in England. Not one of you ever looked at them, then; not one of you cares for the loss of them, now, when you have shut the sun out with smoke, so that he can draw nothing more, except brown blots through a hole in a box. There was a rocky valley between Buxton and Bakewell, once upon a time, divine as the vale of Tempe; you might have seen the Gods there morning and evening, — Apollo and all the sweet Muses of the Light — walking in fair procession on the lawns of it, and to and fro among the pinnacles of its crags. You cared neither for Gods nor grass, but for cash (which you did not know the way to get); you thought you could get it by what the Times calls "Railroad Enterprise." You Enterprised a Railroad through the valley — you blasted its rocks away, heaped thousands of tons of shale into its lovely stream. The valley is gone, and the gods with it; and now, every fool in Buxton can be at Bakewell in half-an-hour, and every fool in Bakewell at Buxton; which you think a lucrative process of exchange — you Fools Everywhere.
    • Fors Clavigera, letter v (1 May 1871)
  • An unimaginative person can neither be reverent nor kind.
    • Fors Clavigera, letter xxxiv (October 1873)
  • I am far more provoked at being thought foolish by foolish people, than pleased at being thought sensible by sensible people; and the average proportion of the numbers of each is not to my advantage.
    • Fors Clavigera, letter xxxvii, (1 January 1874)
  • For this dead Venice once taught us to be merchants, sailors and gentlemen; and this dying England taught the Americans all they have of speech, or thought, hitherto. What thoughts they have not learned from England are foolish thoughts; what words they have not learned from England, unseemly words; the vile among them not being able even to be humorous parrots, but only obscene mocking birds.
  • Human work must be done thoroughly and honourably because we are now men; whether we ever expect to be angels, or ever were slugs, being practically no matter.
    • Fors Clavigera, letter lxxvi (4 March 1877)


  • There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.
  • It's unwise to pay too much, but it's worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money — that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot — it can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.
    • Known as the Common Law of Business Balance, this quotation has been widely attributed to Ruskin but has never been sourced to any of his works.
    • Shapiro, Fred R. (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 657. 


  • When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.

Quotes about John RuskinEdit

sorted chronologically, by date of the quote
  • He [John Ruskin] knows a great deal more about my pictures than I do; he puts things into my head, and points out meanings in them that I never intended.
  • The truth of infinite value that he teaches is realism — the doctrine that all truth and beauty are to be attained by a humble and faithful study of nature, and not by substituting vague forms, bred by imagination on the mists of feeling, in place of definite, substantial reality. The thorough acceptance of this doctrine would remould our life; and he who teaches its application to any one department of human activity with such power as Mr Ruskin's, is a prophet for his generation.
  • Hence has arisen that exaltation of the defective, of which John Ruskin and William Morris were such eager spokesmen in their time; and on this ground their propaganda of crudity and wasted effort has been taken up and carried forward since their time. And hence also the propaganda for a return to handicraft and household industry. So much of the work and speculations of this group of men as fairly comes under the characterization here given would have been impossible at a time when the visibly more perfect goods were not the cheaper.
  • The combination of shrewd common sense and romantic sentiment; the oscillation between levity and dignity, from caustic jest to tender earnestness ; the restlessness, the fervour, the impestuosity,-all these are characteristics of a Scotsman of parts and highly developed in Ruskin.
    • W.G.Collingwood, The Life and Work of John Ruskin MA. Pub.Methuen and Co. Bury Street W.C.London. 1893.2nd edition. Page 4 and 5.
  • Ruskin's special gift was the feeling for beauty, in nature as in art. It was in Beauty that his nature led him to seek reality, and his entirely religious life received from it an entirely aesthetic use. But this Beauty to which he thus happened to dedicate his life was not conceived by him as an object of enjoyment made to charm, but as a reality infinitely more important than life, for which he would have given his own life. From this, as you will see, the whole aesthetic system of Ruskin follows. First, you will understand that the years when he became acquainted with a new school of architecture or of painting were the principal landmarks in the development of his ethics. He would speak of the years when Gothic art presented itself to him with the same gravity, the same emotional nostalgia, the same serenity with which a Christian speaks of the day the truth was revealed to him.
    • Marcel Proust, preface to La Bible d'Amiens (1904), Proust's translation of Ruskin's The Bible of Amiens; from Marcel Proust: On Reading Ruskin (Yale University Press, 1987, ISBN 0-300-04503-4), trans. Jean Autret and Philip J. Wolfe, pp. 33-34
  • As an artist in prose he is one of the most miraculous products of the extremely poetical genius of England. The length of a Ruskin sentence is like that length in the long arrow that was boasted of by the drawers of the bow. He draws, not a cloth-yard shaft but a long lance to his ear: he shoots a spear. But the whole goes light as a bird and straight as a bullet.
    • G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), ch. I: The Victorian Compromise and Its Enemies
  • The point and stab of his challenge still really stands and sticks, like a dagger in a dead man.
    • G. K. Chesterton, The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), ch. I: The Victorian Compromise and Its Enemies
  • Long and singular was Ruskin's journey through many landscapes, and his influence in all directions, social and aesthetic, was so remarkable that even those who have least predilection for it may perhaps call it the greatest event in our literary history since Lyrical Ballads and Waverley. At least one exceptionally good observer judged that as Carlyle...had written himself out as a source of social inspiration, it was Ruskin alone among writers of prose, apart from fiction, who relieved us from the reign of Commentators.
  • He used to attend Mr. Gladstone's breakfasts, and at one of them the host pronounced three grand things to be done to the ways of the world by mankind. First, the introduction of more lenient and humane practice with prisoners; second, a general sentiment against war; and third, the abolition of slaves. "Yes," said Ruskin in his mild tones, "but then I don't think prisons ought to be made humane; and I'm not against slavery; and I'm not against war."
    • John Morley, Recollections, Volume I (1917), pp. 291-292
  • This lack of appreciation (for Lorrain) on Ruskin’s part is one of the many reasons why he was far from being the art critic that he considered himself
    • Mary Knight Potter, The Art of the Louvre. Pub. George Bell 1904. Page 279-280
  • I cannot therefore claim much book knowledge. However, I believe I have not lost much because of this enforced restraint. On the contrary, the limited reading may be said to have enabled me thoroughly to digest what I did read. Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. I translated it later into Gujarati, entitling it Sarvodaya (the welfare of all). I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. A poet is one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast. Poets do not influence all alike, for everyone is not evolved in a equal measure. The teaching of Unto This Last I understood to be:

    1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
    2. That a lawyer's work has the same value as the barber's inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
    3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman is the life worth living.

    The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.

  • The style in which page after page of Modern Painters is written takes our breath away. We find ourselves marvelling at the words, as if all the fountains of the English language had been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure, but it seems scarcely fitting to ask what meaning they have for us. After a time, falling into a passion with this indolent pleasure-loving temper in his readers, Ruskin checked his fountains, and curbed his speech to the very spirited, free and almost colloquial English in which Fors Clavigera and Praeterita are written. In these changes, and in the restless play of his mind upon one subject after another, there is something, we scarcely know how to define it, of the wealthy and cultivated amateur, full of fire and generosity and brilliance, who would give all he possesses of wealth and brilliance to be taken seriously, but who is fated to remain for ever an outsider.
    • Virginia Woolf, "Ruskin," from The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays (1950)
  • Changes in the structure of society are not brought about solely by massive engines of doctrine. The first flash of insight which persuades human beings to change their basic assumptions is usually contained in a few phrases. Poets may not be "the unacknowledged legislators of the world"; but Ruskin, like Rousseau, changed the world by a vision which has the intensity and innocence of poetry.
    • Kenneth Clark, Ruskin Today (1964), section 5: A Note on Ruskin's Writings on Society and Economics

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