WHILE MY PROJECT IS BROADLY INTERESTED in the interdisciplinary work of what I will call sanitary art in nineteenth-century Britain, this essay is primarily concerned with a watershed moment in the production of that interdisciplinarity. In 1842, Edwin Chadwick published his Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population; the following year, John Ruskin published the first volume of Modern Painters. Incomparable in subject, genre, and style, these texts would nonetheless participate in the same cultural project, producing between them a discourse of ''dirty'' art that challenged and eventually redefined nineteenth-century aesthetic standards. This essay argues that Ruskin employed the discourse and ideological necessity of sanitary reform from his earliest work, enforcing through his celebration of modern painters an aesthetic preference for the bright, clean colors of J.M.W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites over the pestilential tones and dark obscurity of the Renaissance Old Masters. Moreover, Ruskin's sophisticated preferences were circulated and popularized by a cultural event more generally accessible than Modern Painters. Isolating a mid-Victorian moment when the agitation for urban cleanliness began to dominate a variety of social discourses, this essay will also argue that Chadwick's powerful sanitary idea was channeled through a public controversy in the mid-forties about the aesthetic status of ''picture cleaning'' in the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. When the dust from this debate finally settled, it was swept away along with the dirty aesthetic theories that had accumulated over previous centuries. Left in its place was the thesis of Modern Painters, and a new standard of aesthetic hygiene for Victorian art.
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Research Article| May 01 2002
Eileen Cleere; Dirty Pictures: John Ruskin, Modern Painters, and the Victorian Sanitation of Fine Art. Representations 1 May 2002; 78 (1): 116–139. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2002.78.1.116
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