The Enlightenment

“In 1700, Louis XIV still ruled as the Sun King of France, presiding over his realm and French culture from his palatial residence at Versailles.  By 1800 revolutions had overthrown the monarchy in France and achieved independence for the British colonies in America . . . . Against this backdrop of revolutionary change came major transformations in the arts.”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 321

French Revolution: peasants storm the Bastille prison in Paris on July 14, 1789. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online

The Three Estates and the French Revolution
While the French aristocracy lived in luxury, the large burden of taxation fell upon the “Third Estate” (the bourgeoisie, urban workers, and peasants).  The First Estate was the clergy (France remained Catholic after the Protestant Reformation), and the Second Estate was the nobility, whose title came through land and inheritance, and who controlled 90% of the nation’s wealth.  Inspired by the American Revolution (which was largely a reaction against “taxation without representation”), the Third Estate rose up against the aristocracy in the French Revolution in 1789, and the ancien regime came to an end.

The Enlightenment
The intellectual context of the French and American Revolutions was the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment.  Descending from the Humanism of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment questioned all traditional values, customs, and accepted truths, and transferred faith in god and king to the modern belief in the certainty of “Reason” and “Science.”  The Enlightenment also challenged the ancient tradition of Absolute Monarchy, and a social system predicated on birth rights:

“Rousseau, for example, began to question the idea of the divine right of Kings. In The Social Contract, he wrote that the King does not, in fact, receive his power from God, but rather from the general will of the people. This, of course, implies that “the people” can also take away that power! The Enlightenment thinkers also discussed other ideas that are the founding principles of any democracy—the idea of the importance of the individual who can reason for himself, the idea of equality under the law, and the idea of natural rights. The Enlightenment was a period of profound optimism, a sense that with science and reason—and the consequent shedding of old superstitions—human beings and human society would improve.”
1700-1800 The Age of Enlightenment, Smarthistory

French Revolution Enlightenment 

Encyclopédie 1751-1765

The Philosophes and the Encycopédie
One of the greatest works of the Enlightenment was the Encyclopédie– a compendium of knowledge and learning.  Denis Diderot, one of the leading contributors, summed up the utopian goals of the project:

“The aim of an Encyclopédia is to bring together the knowledge scattered over the surface of the earth, to present its overall structure to our contemporaries and to hand it on to those who will come after us, so that our children, by becoming more knowledgeable, will become more virtuous and happier; and so that we shall not die without earning the gratitude of the human race.”
Diderot, 1755, p. 635; trans. S. Clennell

Louis Michel Van Loo, Portrait of Denis Diderot, 1767

Art for the Public
In their optimistic vision of a new society governed by free citizens, Enlightenment philosophers conceived a new role for art.  In the past, art had served the Church and State, but Enlightenment philosophers believed that in the new society, art should be “for the people,” and that it should be moral instead of immoral, and teach people right and wrong.  For this reason, they denounced Rococo art for its  “frivolous” subjects and lack of moral values.  Denis Diderot, one of the leading Enlightenment philosophes, published regular reviews of the official French salon in which he criticized the popular artists of the Rococo.    In 1763 he had this to say about the Rococo painter François Boucher:

“I am no Capuchin, but I’ll admit that I should gladly sacrifice the pleasure of seeing attractive nudities if I could hasten the moment when sculpture and painting, having returned to decency and morality, will compete in promoting virtue and purity of morals.  I think I have seen enough teats and bottoms.”

In contrast, Diderot argued that the aim of art should be “to make virtue attractive” and “vice odious.” (Essai sur la peinture).

Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture at the Orrery, 1763-65

Reflecting the new Enlightenment faith in Science, this picture shows a group of young children being shown an “orrery” — a mechanical model of the solar system. They are being shown how shown how the earth revolves around the sun – a doctrine that was censored by the church just a century earlier! The painting’s use of familiar Baroque techniques (Caravaggio’s tenebrism, and his dramatic composition) is here used to serve a very new kind of religion:  the religion of science.

The Cult of the Natural
Reaction against aristocratic culture led to a rejection of many of the trappings of aristocratic privilege.  A more “natural” style of dress came into fashion, and powdered wigs were abandoned, as can be seen in the portrait of Denis Diderot pictured above.  Diderot’s relaxed pose and “natural” hairstyle (he isn’t wearing a wig!) would have identified him as a “progressive” thinker in his rejection of aristocratic fancy dress.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Saying Grace, 1740

The humble simplicity of peasant life also became attractive.  This painting by Chardin depicts a peasant family saying grace before a mealGenre scenes such as this became popular because they embodied Enlightenment ideals of simplicity, nobility, and virtue, and were a welcome alternative to the frivolous and lascivious themes of Rococo art.

William Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode: The Marriage Contract, 1743-45

The influence of Enlightenment ideas can be seen in the work of William Hogarth, a British painter who specialized in “moralizing genre” scenes.  Usually conceived as a series, Hogarth would typically narrate an extended story through a sequence of canvases, which were then made into engravings that could be mass-produced and sold to a wider public (prints are much cheaper than paintings, and therefore accessible to a much wider audience).  Hogarth’s scenes of everyday life parallel the rise of the literary novel in England:  unlike poetry, novels were written in prose (everyday language), and dealt with everyday life.   Novels were also published in installments in the popular press, so they reached a broad public, much like Hogarth’s prints.  Hogarth’s audience was prosperous merchants and professionals, the new middle classes that were the driving force of change in the 18th century.

Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode is a satire on the tradition of the “arranged marriage” — an ancient aristocratic custom. The first scene takes place in the Mansion of Earl Squander, who is arranging the marriage of his son to the daughter of a wealthy ship owner:

In the first scene the aged Earl (far right) is shown with his family tree and the crutches he needs because of his gout. The new house which he is having built is visible through the window.

The merchant, who is plainly dressed, holds the marriage contract, while his daughter behind him listens to a young lawyer, Silvertongue. The Earl’s son, the Viscount, admires his face in a mirror. Two dogs, chained together in the bottom left corner, perhaps symbolise the marriage.

Hogarth’s details, especially the paintings on the walls, comment on the action. A grand portrait in the French manner on the rear wall confronts a Medusa head, denoting horror, on the side wall.”
National Gallery, London 

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, 1743

The next scene portrays the couple’s inevitable demise:

“In this, the second in the series of paintings, the marriage of the Viscount and the merchant’s daughter is quickly proving a disaster. The tired wife, who appears to have given a card party the previous evening, is at breakfast in the couple’s expensive house which is now in disorder. The Viscount returns exhausted from a night spent away from home, probably at a brothel: the dog sniffs a lady’s cap in his pocket. Their steward, carrying bills and a receipt, leaves the room to the left, his hand raised in despair at the disorder.

The decoration of the room again comments on the action. The picture over the mantlepiece shows Cupid among ruins. In front of it is a bust with a broken nose, symbolising impotence.”
National Gallery, London 

William Hogarth’s Marriage-a-la-Mode, c. 1743 (Smarthistory)

John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Paul Revere, 1768-70

Enlightenment thought also inspired a new way of thinking about the concept of “nobility.”  Questioning the traditional idea of nobility as a “birthright,”  Enlightenment philosophers argued that nobility came from character rather than birth — and artists of the 18th century explored a new approach to portraiture that explored “character” rather than the external trappings of social rank.  In this portrait of the soon-to-be American hero Paul Revere, Copley emphasizes the silversmith’s down to earth simplicity and virtue, which contrasts dramatically with the artificial and self-aggrandizing conventions of aristocratic portraits of the period.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe (5’ X 7’), c. 1770

Born in Philadelphia (while still a British colony), Benjamin West spent most of his professional career in London.  In this work, West represents a recent battle that took place in Quebec, Canada, during the French and Indian War.  The British Royal Academy believed that contemporary events were not suitable for serious paintings because they were not “noble” or “heroic” enough, but West challenged this by painting a contemporary event on a scale that was normally reserved for epic scenes from history, mythology, or the bible.

Although clothed in contemporary costume, the figures are painted in the “grand manner” style:  underneath those clothes are heroic figures posed and proportioned like classical sculptures.  In this way, West made a claim for the validity of a “modern history painting,” and for the first time, a modern “hero” takes the place once reserved for kings and figures from the bible or classical history.

Iconic:  The Death of General Wolfe (Royal Ontario Museum)


Web Resources:

1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment, Smarthistory 

Paul Brians,  “The Enlightenment,” Washington Sate University

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