Who was he: John Ruskin has been one of the most influential individuals in history by virtue of his broad scope of expertise. Ruskin lived in 19th century England and was the consummate intellectual and philanthropist. Ruskin's original fame stemmed from geology, poetry, architecture and watercolor artistry. He also laid the foundation for fair treatment of working classes within both the economy and society. After the 1850s, Ruskin focused his attention on ethical activity in all segments of society and the governmental responsibilities in maintaining fairness. Ruskin was a self-proclaimed socialist, rejecting capitalism on ethical grounds. His writings were effective on communist societies as well as free-market societies. He had a particular disdain for unchecked greed within any capitalist market structure. Ruskin was also concerned with the environment and the connection of nature to society and the individual.
Background: John Ruskin was born into wealth, the only child of first cousins. His father was a very successful wine merchant. The wealth and privilege John enjoyed allowed him to develop a broad education and experience many things that other children do not. Ruskin's family went on European vacations during his youth and his exposure to the world made a lasting impact. The opportunity to study various cultures and landmarks would be an inspiration in all of his artistic work.
Ruskin was born in London, England, in 1818 and lived, as a child, in a rural setting in South London. His education was done at home in his early years. His father was interested in arts and humanities, as well as industry, and his mother was very religious. Ruskin was educated largely by reading the King James Bible entirely with assistance and insistence of his mother. He received tutoring for the basic subjects. The direction and attention he received from both of his parents laid the path for Ruskin to follow throughout his life.
Ruskin's mother's impact would specifically affect his life, as he struggled with a mid-life crisis over religion. He had considered entering the ministry during his adolescence and studied for a short time in London. Ruskin was only married for six years of his life and was 30 years old at the time. The marriage ended in annulment because it was never consummated. Questions around Ruskin's sexual orientation are debated among biographers. After his marriage annulment Ruskin focused his writing on social conditions across England and the remainder of Europe.
In his middle life career, Ruskin was heralded as the most prolific art critic of his time. His focus was specifically on the pre-Raphealite painters. The artist Millais actually lived and painted at Ruskin's home during his marriage to Effie Gray, who married Millais after the annulment and left with him, creating the beginning of what would become a great struggle with sanity for Ruskin. His personal religious battle also began at this time
After his father's death, Ruskin decided to contribute the majority of his inherited wealth to charity. Claiming that being wealthy and a Christian socialist were not compatible, Ruskin made considerable donations to qualified causes. He is thought to have contacted tuberculosis during this time, but went on to live until the age of 81.
During his life he made many academic and artistic contributions to society at large across the globe, especially in Gothic architecture but his essays on ethics in free-market economies may have had the most impact of all. An outspoken critic of Adam Smith, he was a firm believer that the unhappiness of the poor is due directly to divisions in labor within the economy. Ruskin is often cited in quotes of wisdom from his works that have stood the test of time.
Ruskin's first publication was actually an essay on geology and botany. He redirected himself throughout his career. This experience was developed during his youth and was a primary scientific composition. He would later write five volumes of his acclaimed Modern Painters, and was considered to be one of the best watercolor painters in history, as well. In addition, his The Seven Lamps of Architecture is still considered a classic along with the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, which he called a paradise city. Ruskin was the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at his alma mater, Oxford University. Oxford's fine art school is named in his honor. But, it is his later writings on the economy contributed during his teaching tenure at Working Man's College that made the largest impact on humanity and economies since the Victorian Era, largely credited with the establishment of the Labour Party in England.