‘I Cannot Give Myself to Painting’

Why one of the greatest Victorian artists walked away. /

"For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that, except in a graceful and minor way, women could not paint or draw,” the renowned Victorian art critic John Ruskin said in 1883. “I am beginning lately to bow myself to the much more delightful conviction that no one else can.”

The change began, he explained:

When I was at Venice in 1876—it is about the only thing that makes me now content in having gone there—two English ladies, mother and daughter, were staying at the same hotel, the Europa. One day the mother sent me a pretty little note asking if I would look at the young lady’s drawings.

On my somewhat sulky permission, a few were sent, in which I saw there was extremely right-minded and careful work, almost totally without knowledge. I sent back a request that the young lady might be allowed to come out sketching with me. … She seemed to learn everything the instant she was shown it—and ever so much more than she was taught.

The drawings of the 23-year-old Lilias Trotter, he said, make you feel “that they are exactly what we should all like to be able to do.”

Ruskin quickly became a close friend and mentor; Trotter was, to him, a kindred spirit and astute pupil. Throughout Trotter’s early twenties, while her friendship with Ruskin blossomed and influenced her artistic pursuits, she was also being influenced in other arenas.

English evangelical movements and the preaching of D. L. Moody stirred Trotter, her eyes “opened to see the loveliness of the Son of God and His right to control her redeemed life.” She was raised by an Anglican mother. And at age 12, she had clung to God in prayer through the trial of her father’s ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 32 / October 1, 2015
  1. Editor’s Note

    Issue 32: Sloths’ splendid slowness, Lilias Trotter’s gambit, and a cross-eyed view of God. /

  2. Who Are You Calling a Deadly Sin?

    The sloth’s slowness is its virtue. /

  3. The Cross Alone Is Our Theology

    What must God be like? Jesus’ death upsets every simple answer. /

  4. The Basics of Iridescence

    ‘the bare bones of that fleeting / soap-bubble sheen’ /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 32: Links to amazing stuff. /

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