UA1-WA:P2-p3 Research point: the Enlightenment

This Research Point asks for study of the Enlightenment and its impact on art and architecture.

“The Enlightenment” refers to a range of ideas and attitudes in the last three quarters or so of the eighteenth century. It is generally seen as European, but for me it’s exciting because my own country finally has a chance of at least a footnote in some of the books. That excitement is tempered by the knowledge that “my country” started with the colonization of Australia by the English. The area in which I live was originally inhabited by the Cam-mer-ray-gal Group of the Ku-ring-gai Aboriginal Tribe. The “Enlightenment” had its limitations, one being that it pretty much ignored or denied the existence of other cultures including the people already living here – with devastating results. So before I begin I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the land where I am, and direct any readers interested to for more information.

There are dangers in looking back and writing about “movements” and “revolutions” because at the time things probably weren’t so neat and linked, steps in a progression. Labels are added later, as we try to make sense and order – information – out of a whole heap of data. So labels it is.

The seventeenth century “intellectual revolution” included Galileo’s observations with his telescope, discovering new astronomical phenomena that were impossible to reconcile with classical explanations and also his arguments for a new approach to science, using one’s senses and reason to explore the mysteries of nature; Kepler used Tycho Brache’s earlier observations to develop new “laws” of planetary motion; Newton developed mathematically a theory of universal gravitation, a quantitative system for understanding the world and the cosmos; Descartes applied reason to his fundamental statement “I think therefore I am” to develop a system of knowledge; Locke wrote about natural rights and government, religious tolerance and property.

These ideas and more began to circulate more widely, be developed and be applied in the eighteenth century. One impact I was surprised to find was the “agrarian revolution”. In a vague way I had assumed the enclosure of common land in England was a classic land-grab by the wealthy and never mind the cost to the poor. While this would have been part of it, it seems that enclosures were a vital part of improving agricultural practice, allowing trial of new methods and investment in equipment and land improvements. The results included wealth for some and dislocation for others, but also a break from the ongoing cycle of famine for the population in general.

To quote an earlier post (4-Apr-2013) “in the period of The Enlightenment there was focus on the application of reason and interest in combining voyaging with science. Knowledge was liberating, challenging ancient certainties, but “knowledge is power” was quite literal, with men such as Francis Bacon alert to the political possibilities of science. The voyages of exploration had a very pragmatic quality – they were looking for things to bring back, to improve and use for the benefit of the empire.”

This interest in voyaging and colonization is what finally earns my home a passing mention – “Never was an empire won at smaller cost than was ours in Canada and India. As to Australia, Captain Cook had merely to pick it up out of the sea” (Trevelyan, 1964 edition, p. 189). Any mention is better than nothing?? That really is just awful. In fairness, the book was first published in 1942 and was focused on English social history.

Adam Smith worked with ideas around wealth, property and trade. Malthus wrote about populations and also the testing of theories by experimentation. Montesquieu developed theories of politics and the separation of powers. He also wrote about the influence of climate on man and society. It would be interesting to investigate that – was there anything there that, if more widely known and accepted, might have influenced those explorers and their judgments about so-called savages?

Carl Linnaeus developed a biological taxonomy, carefully classifying relationships based on carefully observed similarities. DNA and cladistic methods have shaken this up a bit, but I think the point is that as part of the Enlightenment people believed they could understand, classify, explore, theorise, challenge, progress. The rational, critical, active mind of the individual could engage with the world around them, to develop and use theories about it.

André Le Breton hired men including Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert to produce a new Encyclopaedia and from my brief reading this seems to be both an example of and a collection of all these new rational ways of thinking about and understanding the world.

Mention of Diderot brings me back to the major focus, which is Art. Like all the others mentioned above Diderot did much more than a simple one-liner can encompass, and in addition to being an encyclopedist Diderot was an art critic. Indeed “the middle of the eighteenth century in France saw the invention of art criticism as we know it” (Fried, 1980, p. 2) – and it seems reasonable that at a time when men (mainly) were developing theories about everything, art would be included.

This Research Point has grown out of proportion and I’m still skipping from topic to topic and leaving out most. In the interests of time I will just note down some points showing some interaction of thought between the Enlightenment generally and art in particular.

In France the “philosophes” or intellectuals regarded the decorative, intimate and elegant art leading up to the 1750s as frivolous, hedonistic style over substance. Diderot believed art should have express serious political, social and or moral principles. Rousseau “called for … plain manners, not the insincere politeness of artificially refined people; what he admired was not the liberal spirit of ancient Athens but the severity, rigour, and discipline of Sparta” (Roberts, 1989, p. 26). Neoclassicism “is related to man’s desire for perfection and is summed up in Rousseau’s piercing phrase ‘I want to be what I should be’ ” (Brookner, 1980, p. 27).

Chénier, a student of Montesquieu and Rousseau believed “only in the open and free climate of democracy would the artist be free to develop his talent fully and only within such a society would the arts remain healthy” (Roberts, 1989, pp. 31-32).

Goethe “even formulated a law, the Law of Required Change, to explain the inner necessity of abandoning old ideas and embracing the new” (Brookner, 1980, p.25)

David, the subject of my previous post (5-Oct-2013), displays the impact of some of the new ideas swirling around in both his paintings and his active participation in both the political and revolutionary process. “His art is more than a personal statement; again it expresses the deeper, spiritual changes within his world” (Roberts, 1989, p. 6). Although he had achieved success with the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture David became a vocal critic of the institution, which was abolished (although later re-established) – another instance of the rejection of old ideas combined with a belief in progress.

Francois Boucher A young lady holding a pug dog mid 1740s

Francois Bouçher
A young lady holding a pug dog
mid 1740s

One of the pleasures of reaching more recent history is that I have been able to view some works locally which illustrate the changes. As mentioned above, in the period prior to the Enlightenment there was a preference for light, frivolous and decorative paintings. The work on the right is in the Art Gallery of NSW (catalogue entry here). This delightful young lady looks fresh and pretty, carefully made up with powdered hair, rouged cheeks and a beauty spot (mouch) beneath her eye. She ties a ribbon on her little dog, which seems almost as dainty. In this rococo work there is a lightness of touch, an exuberance and sense of joy in the rich glowing surfaces of skin, fabrics and jewels. This would certainly seem to fit in the category of works dismissed by Diderot as frivolous, an indulgence in extravagances.

It would not sit well in a world of serious men asking and answering serious questions, propelling civilisation forward in triumphant progress.


Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg
A shipwreck off a rocky coast

On the right is another work from the Art Gallery of NSW (catalogue entry here – my photograph is particularly poor, so I recommend clicking through to see a very much better one). This dramatic scene shows the end of a storm, a wrecked ship, a few survivors and, in the left foreground, a struggling figure being swept away in the crashing waves. The information label at the gallery notes that the painting “dates from the period of [Loutherbourg’s] hugely successful early Parisian career when his Solon exhibits were fêted by the critic Denis Diderot”.

I can see that Diderot could have noted of this painting “the nobility of certain masses of rock, the persuasiveness of the rendering of space”, as he did of another of Lutherbourg’s paintings (Diderot, [n.d.] cited in (Fried, 1980, p.119)). This painting could well have “persuaded him beyond all doubt of the work’s dramatic and expressive unity” (Fried, 1980, p. 85).

A side exploration: On the Art Gallery of NSW website I found another work, a 1794 print after Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, after John Webber, The apotheosis of Captain Cook (see Searching on the title led to a scholarly debate, duelling books at dawn, between Gananath Obeyesekere and Marshall Sahlins around imperialism, conquests, and how explorers such as Cook were viewed by natives. Who writes the history, what is the rational mind and who can speak for the original inhabitants?

Contact wall, Mount Borradaile

Contact wall, Mount Borradaile

There seems to be a few strands, maybe a gradual coalescence: reading for this research point and the impact of the Enlightenment in art and in the foundation of my country; some work I’ve started for a later course task, looking at Rorke’s Drift and the Anglo-Zulu war; the “contact wall” rock art at Mount Borradaile (seen on my holiday, posted 29-Aug-2013); a low level disquiet studying Western Art as an Australian with an english/irish heritage… I’m not sure where this is going, if anywhere.


Brookner, A (1980) Jacques-Louis David. London: Chatto & Windus

Diderot, D. ([n.d.]) Salons, I, 225-26 cited in Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press [online] Available from (Accessed 6 October 2013)

Fried, M. (1980) Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot Berkeley: University of California Press [online] Available from (Accessed 6 October 2013)

Roberts, W. (1989) Jacques-Louis David, Revolutionary Artist: Art, Politics, and the French Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Trevelyan, GM (1964) Illustrated English Social History: 3. The Eighteenth Century Harmondsworth: Penguin.

UA1-WA:P2-p3 Research point: the Enlightenment
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project three: Depicting history – neo-classicism, Romanicism and realism
Topic: Research point: the Enlightenment

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October 2013

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