The art critic John Ruskin devoted three chapters of his multi-volume treatise Modern Painters (1843-60) to the depiction of water in all its forms: as clouds, snow, lakes, rivers, oceans, and waterfalls. “What shall we compare to this mighty, universal element, for glory and beauty?” he asked. Portrayals of water, Ruskin further argued, can be a tool for measuring artistic skill, particularly when one examines the degree of truthfulness in pictures of nature’s sublime cascades. Selected from the wealth of 18th- and 19th-century British landscapes in the RISD Museum’s permanent collection, the nine watercolors and drawings displayed in this gallery challenge us to follow Ruskin’s lead by admiring and comparing a century of waterfall imagery.
According to Ruskin, the greatest painter of waterfalls was J.M.W. Turner, who alone could illustrate “the majesty of motion” of these tumbling torrents. Here we see Turner’s powerful presentation of the Alpine gorge Dazio Grande, 1843, juxtaposed with depictions of waterfalls by John Robert Cozens, John Constable, Edward Lear, and other master landscape painters to reveal the variety of materials, colors, lines, and brushstrokes used to portray these turbulent torrents. This diversity of styles and media in turn gives each cataract a unique character-playful, poetic, breathtaking, or terrifying-thereby capturing the rainbow of emotional responses such sites elicit.
For many period viewers, these works celebrated both the sentiments inspired by waterfalls and the active agency of rushing rivers in Earth’s geological history, slowly carving into the planet’s surface to form magnificent mountains or gentle valleys. Artists, scientists, writers, and tourists traveled great distances to gaze on rocks and rapids, and this exhibition follows Turner, Ruskin, and their contemporaries to such sites of artistic and poetic inspiration in Britain, Switzerland, and beyond.