The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

Ruskin's Standard & Reference series (1872)

Exemplary works of art. In the catalogue of the Reference series, items marked 'M' are drawings "by my own Hand" (by Ruskin), P are photographs, E engravings and A by Ruskin's Assistant, Arthur Burgess.

Standard & Reference Cover

Ruskin's Catalogue of the Reference Series / 9th to 16th Cabinet

    • Steffen, L. - Print of the Decoration on a black-figure Greek Ceramic, showing the Resurrection of Semele 201. The resurrection of Semele.

      This beautiful design is characteristic of mythic symbolism in its purest development: only the student must remember that in taking these dark figures on their red ground as primarily typical of Greek art, we are to consider them only as holding the relation to Greek advanced painting that mediæval illumination does to the work of Giorgione or Bellini. To what extent chromatic power was finally obtained, we have not yet data for determining; but there is no question that throughout the best periods of Greek mural design, the colours were few and grave; and the merit of the composition almost as strictly dependent on the purity of the terminal lines as in the best vases. Neither is there any doubt that the precision of this terminal line is executively the safeguard of noble art in all ages: and in requesting the student to practise the difficult exercises in drawing with the brush, which are placed in the Educational series, my purpose is not to relax the accuracy of his use of the pen, but to bring precision and elasticity into his laying of colour. The actual relations of the two skills require too copious illustration to admit of definition in this introductory course of lectures. The manner of execution, for instance, resulting from the use of the style, or any other incisive or modelling instrument, on wax and clay, and which entirely governs the early system both of Greek and Italian mural painting, is to be considered together with the various functions of incised lines on any solid substance, from Egyptian bas-relief to finished line engraving: similarly, the use of the brush cannot be rightly explained except by reference to the variously adhesive pigments to be laid by it. But, briefly, the pen, or any other instrument of pure delineation, is always best used when with the lightness of the brush; and the brush always best used when, either at its point or edge, it is moving with the precision of the pen. All these line exercises are therefore prepared with the primary view of forming this poised and buoyant accuracy of handling, whatever the instrument held.

      The design itself is the best I can find to show the character of early Greek conception of divine power, in alliance with whatever was strong and true in the national temper. The Semele and Dionysus of this noble period represent the fruitful, as distinct from other, powers of the sky and earth; Semele being the sun-heated cloud which dissolves in beneficent rain, distinguished from the wandering and shadowy cloud represented by Hermes. Rising again in light from the earth in which she had been lost, she takes the name of Thyone: signifying that she rises as burnt incense expanding in the air. Compare the various meanings of θύω and θύρσος. Dionysus, under her influence, enters his chariot, and is moved as the life of earth. In these relations, the power of Semele and Dionysus is distinguished from that of Ceres and Triptolemus, as the fruitful sun and rain on the rocks, giving the miracle of juice in the vine, are distinguished from the nourishing strength of the dark soil ploughed for corn.

    • 202.

      • Cousselin, J. - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Triptolemus and Dionysus Triptolemus with Dionysus, of the early time, both in their chariots.
      • Petit, L. - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Hydria, showing Triptolemus, Demeter and Persephone Beneath, Triptolemus, of the Phidian time, in his chariot, attended by Demeter and Persephone.

      This is the first of a group of examples, extending from 202 to 220,arranged chiefly with the view of showing the change in Greek conception ofdeity, which, variously hastened or retarded in different localities, may bethought of as generally taking place between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C.It is one of the most important phenomena in the history of art, and must bestudied under all its conditions; but this group of examples from vase-paintings will, at a glance, show the threecircumstances in which it principally consists:—


      The gods are at first thought of only as vital embodiments of a given physical force, but afterwards as high personal intelligences, capable of every phase of human passion.


      They are first conceived as in impetuous and ceaseless action; afterwards, only in deliberate action or in perfect repose.


      They are first conceived under grotesque forms, implying in the designer, with great crudeness and unripeness of intellect, a certain savage earnestness incapable of admitting or even perceiving jest; together with an almost passive state of the imagination, in which it is no more responsible for the spectra it perceives than in actual dreaming. Afterwards, they are conceived by deliberately selective imagination, under forms of beauty which imply in the designer a relative perception and rejection of all that is vulgar and ludicrous.

      Together with these three great mental changes an important transition takes place executively, within very narrow limits oftime, between the early and late work. The figures of the firstperiod are outlined by fine incision, then filled withblack paint laid frankly, and modifying the incised outline, on the red or pale clay of thevase, and the lines of the muscles and drapery arethen scratched through to the clay. It is not easyto thicken a line thus incised, and the severity andfineness of style in the drawing are greatly secured by this inability. In the secondstyle, the figures, similarly outlined by incision, are enclosed first with a black lineabout the eighth of an inch broad, and the external spaces are then easily filled withthe same pigment; but this outlining the figures with a broad band, gradually inducedcarelessness in contour, while also the interior lines of drapery &c. being nowpainted, became coarse if too quickly laid, (the incised line, on the contrary, might behasty and wrong, but was always delicate). Hence, in concurrence with gradualdeadening in conception, arose a bluntness in work which eventually destroyed theart.

      The best vases, taken for all in all, are however those with light figures on blackground, just after the transition (the lower Poseidon in 203 is from a very fine one);but decadence rapidly sets in, and the best field for general study will be found invases with black figures of the most refined epoch, such as 201 and 220.

      203. Poseidon.

      In the upper figure, the serpent-body represents the force of undulation, but isborrowed from Eastern design. White hair is given generally to old men, but herepartly represents foam.

      The lower design is pure Greek, and very noble.


      • Bineteau, P. - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Helios, Athena and Hermes Apollo, as the solar power, with Athena and Hermes, as the morning breeze and morning cloud.
      • Kaeppelin et Compagnie - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Athena and Hermes Beneath, Athena and Hermes, the Olympian deities.


      • Rey, A. - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Athena with attendant Nymphs Athena, as the morning breeze on the hills with attendant nymphs.
      • Rey, A. - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Athena and Poseidon Beneath, The contest of Athena and Poseidon, from one of the last vases of the early time, on the very edge of the transition.




      • Housselin, Alexis Louis Pierre - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Hermes releasing Io from Argos Above, Hermes releasing Io from Argus.
      • Rey, A. - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Hydria, showing Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Latona, representing the Course of a Summer's Day In the centre, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Latona, representing the course of a summer’s day.
      • Housselin, Alexis Louis Pierre - Print of the Decoration on a Greek Cylix, showing Hermes Beneath, the flying cloud—Hermes.



      • Above, Zeus with Hera.
      • Beneath, Head, probably of Hera, from a somewhat late vase.


    • 212. Hera, Hermes, Herakles, and Ares at the birth of Athena. Ares has an archaic type of the Gorgon on his shield.
    • Steffen, L. - Print of the Decoration on a black-figure Greek Ceramic, showing the Panathenaic Procession 213. Panathenaic procession.
    • 220. Aphrodite driving Poseidon.

    These last six examples require fuller illustration than I can give in this catalogue, and are for future service; 220 is very beautiful, from a vase which once belonged to Mr. Rogers (now in the British Museum) and is of great interest, because Aphrodite, who is here a sea-power, and somewhat angry, wears an ægis at first sight like Athena’s, and indeed representing also the strength of storm-cloud, but not of electric and destructive storm; therefore its fringes are not of serpents.

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