John Ruskin and Greek art

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Robert Casillo - Committee Chair


John Ruskin, the most influential figure in Victorian art criticism, was very much a part of the movement of nineteeth-century Greek Revivalism. He saw Greek art and myth from the vantage points of his romantic aesthetic, his political beliefs, and his personal spiritual struggles. Greek architecture was largely dealt with in terms of the Greek Revival 'abuses' that Ruskin so deplored, such as the use of machines made ornaments.Ruskin's loss of faith in Christianity and an afterlife in 1858 significantly altered his subsequent attitudes towards Greek art and myth. After 1858 he found new strengths in Greek art, interpreting them as symbolic of the moral validity of ancient Greek religious beliefs. In later works he broadened the definition of Greek art to include any art in which "the thing represented means more than itself" (24:280-1). At this point, he was no longer dealing with the subject of "Greek art" as it would be commonly understood. Ruskin's "Greek artist" is not a historical figure, but a mythological one, evaluating in order to support his visions for what nineteenth-century England ought to be.Ruskin was always hostile to the imitation of specific Greek forms in nineteenth-century architecture, sculpture and painting. He viewed the physical elements of Greek style as alien to English culture, although the conclusions that he drew from its alienness changed dramatically as his aesthetic matured. In early works he presented the "unnaturalness" of Greek architecture and art as proof of its inferiority. But after 1858 he treated its strangeness as evidence of its nobility. Ruskin wanted the English artist to internalize the best of both Greek and Gothic styles--to combine the Greek understanding of light and shade, its "dignity," veracity, and intense study of the body, with the Gothic color-sense, its devotion, and its mastery of the portrayal of the face and head.By the 1880s and 90s, "Hellenism" was exchanging its Victorian face for something quite different, something which Ruskin was losing the power either to thwart or to approve. For a variety of reasons, the influence of Ruskin's opinions about the Greeks was minor, although he did have an impact on leaders of the Aesthetic movement like Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. Many of his general ideas suggest directions in which Modernism is going to move--even if he himself would not have been comfortable with how his ideas would be developed.


Fine Arts; History, Ancient; Literature, English

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