The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment

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The Enlightenment

6 The Enlightenment on art, genius and the sublime

Enlightenment ideas on art and the creative process were deeply influenced by the contemporary veneration for reason, empiricism and the classics. The business of the artist was conceived of as the imitation of nature, and as far as high art was concerned, this process of imitation should be informed by an intelligent grasp of the processes used to produce classical art. The ancients and their art were seen as models in the judicious selection of the most beautiful elements observed in nature, creating forms of ideal or ‘beautiful’ nature that were derived from a distillation of the very best and a filtering out of physical flaws. The leading art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68) held up Greek statuary for imitation as the embodiment of perfection. Transmitted to the eighteenth century via a robust Renaissance artistic tradition based on the antique, Enlightenment Neoclassicism in its broadest sense attempted not only direct borrowings from the antique (the imitation of architectural motifs, the use of classical drapes to clothe figures, idealised treatment of the human figure based on antique sculpture, reference to sculptural poses), but also an emulation of the order, unity, proportion and harmony felt to underpin all classical art. The principles of classical composition were based on the notion of a clear focus on a central motif (a hero, martyr or saint); grand, unifying (as opposed to sparkling, dappled or disjointed) effects of light and shade that wouldn't distract the eye to the detriment of mental focus on an elevating subject; noble simplicity, balance and symmetry (see Figure 7). You will find in the art of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) the expression of a particularly pure form of classical composition.

Figure 7
Figure 7 Nicolas Poussin, The Holy Family in Egypt, 1655–7, 105 x 145.5 cm, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.The principles of classical composition demonstrated in this painting – balance, symmetry, broad, unified light effects and a prominent, hierarchical positioning of the main figures-influenced generations of eighteenth-century painters. Poussin was greatly influenced by antique friezes and statuary

As the century progressed, the dangers of servile imitation, or a formulaic approach to art, were increasingly recognised as the claims for more ‘natural’ art were asserted. A significant body of opinion developed that was critical of artists who simply imitated the art of the past in a way that degenerated into artifice and mannerism. In the 1760s Diderot, who also wrote as an art critic, was among those who insisted that artists should pay more respect to nature. Study of idealised antique statuary and the principles of anatomy and proportion that had informed it remained important to artists, but it was stressed increasingly that respect for these must not exclude or diminish first-hand observation of the human body. Life drawing classes at the academies of art allowed male artists to study the nude, but the human models were normally posed in highly artificial ways that complied with the conventions of antique sculpture; their poses and the positions of their limbs were fixed in the drawing studio by a complex arrangement of ropes, pulleys and blocks (see Figure 8). Theorists called increasingly for less artificial poses and methods of observation.

Figure 8
Figure 8 Michel-Ange Houasse, The Drawing Academy, c.1725, 61 x 72.5 cm, oil on canvas, Royal Palace, Madrid. Photo: © Patrimonio Nacional

This growing quest for the ‘natural’ extended to changing views on the status of different genres or subjects in art. While high art, inspired by classical or religious subjects, retained its position at the top of the hierarchies perpetuated by the academies of Europe, there was a growing appreciation of the lower genres of landscape, still life and scenes of everyday life, which required more direct observation of a more natural reality. In landscape art, as you will see, the idealised classical landscapes of the seventeenth-century French artist Claude Lorrain (1600–82) remained extremely influential. But there was also an increasing tendency to place more emphasis on directly observed sketches of the landscape that, while still beautifying nature, allowed for imitation of a greater variety of natural effects. Enlightenment artists and critics were emboldened to demand greater naturalism or realism in art, in both style and subject matter, as a result of the popularity of Dutch and Flemish paintings, which had generated a northern tradition increasingly seen as a real alternative to the classical. In England William Gilpin and other artists and writers interested in what they called the ‘picturesque’ advocated travel as a means of viewing real landscapes and directly observed sketches as part of the process of producing views ‘fit for a picture’. The quest for greater naturalism was seen in France as an antidote to the early eighteenth-century excesses of the Rococo, a specific adaptation or ‘debasement’ of the grand classical style characterised by serpentine curves and asymmetric forms applied mainly to portraiture and to erotic and playful mythological subjects (see Figure 9). In the second half of the eighteenth century, a greater respect for nature was seen as a moral solution to the luxury and corruption of the Rococo's aristocratic patrons.

Figure 9
Figure 9 François Boucher, The Triumph of Venus, 1740, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm. Photo: National Museum of Fine Arts.Boucher's frivolous and erotic Rococo style and treatment of mythological subjects exerted a large influence on mid-eighteenth-century taste. Associated with aristocratic decadence, they led to calls later in the century for art that was both more natural and more moral

Given the emphasis on imitation, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Enlightenment concept of the imagination was essentially that of producing new variations on old themes. The imagination was held to combine impressions observed in nature and previous art, but was generally not understood or required to include any great flights of fancy. The pleasure of art lay in the recognition of the familiar reprocessed in ways adapted to modern times. While the Encyclopédie article on ‘Genius’, written by Jean Francois de Saint-Lambert, defined genius as consisting of extraordinary powers of mind, intuition and inspiration transcending mere intelligence, most Enlightenment commentators on aesthetic matters saw such qualities as appropriate to a specific stage of the artistic process (the initial moment of inspiration, the preliminary sketch) rather than as qualities that should dominate or overwhelm. Genius was a quality of mind to be welcomed, but the creative process must also involve reflection, study and observation.

Indeed, many Enlightenment thinkers shared the conviction that good art was largely, though not exclusively, the product of compliance with well-established rules derived from the classics and empirical reason. As Voltaire observed in 1753, ‘I value poetry only insofar as it is the ornament of reason’ (quoted in Furst, 1969, p. 19). Voltaire's aesthetics, like those of most French writers of the eighteenth century, were based on the neoclassical canons of literature laid down in the reign of Louis XIV by such critics as Nicolas Boileau in his Art of Poetry (1674). So while Voltaire was a pioneer in introducing Shakespeare to the European public, he did so with profound reservations and, as it were, holding his nose, arguing that Shakespeare's plays included ‘gold nuggets in a dung-heap’. He presented Shakespeare as a unique genius who succeeded despite such lamentable violations of the neoclassical rules as mixing comic and tragic elements in the same play. Voltaire was in good company in defending the accepted literary canons and explaining ‘genius’ as the exception that proved the rule. Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), President of the Royal Academy in London, adopted the same view in relation to art:

Could we teach taste or genius by rules, they would no longer be taste and genius. But though there neither are, nor can be, any precise invariable rules for the exercise, or the acquisition, of these great qualities, yet we may truly say that they always operate in proportion to our attention in observing the works of nature, to our skill in selecting, and to our care in digesting, methodising, and comparing our observations. There are many beauties in our art, that seem, at first, to lie without [outside] the reach of precept, and yet may easily be reduced to practical principles.

(Reynolds, 1975, p. 44)

The artist, in other words, should not let his imagination run away with him. Hume, too, warned of this danger:

The imagination of man is naturally sublime, delighted with whatever is remote and extraordinary, and running without control into the most distant parts of space and time in order to avoid the objects which custom has rendered too familiar to it.

(Quoted in Hampson, 1968, p. 158)

The deeper irony for today's reader is that it was precisely this unconstrained escapism into long ago and far away, the ‘remote and extraordinary’, that was to captivate and characterise the Romantics.

Summary point: Enlightenment ideas on art and the artist were dominated by reason, moderation, classicism and control. However, there was recognition of the elusive quality of original ‘genius’.

If most aesthetic ideas of the Enlightenment emphasised reason and experience, and classified ‘genius’ as something outside the rules, there was one further concept mentioned by Hume, ‘the sublime’, that seemed to strain Enlightenment rationality to its limits. Theorised by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry, a sublime aesthetic experience was one that inspired awe and terror in the spectator or reader. The sublime was something literally overwhelming, either because of its enormity (a high mountain, a deep chasm, a blinding light), its infinity (the spiritual or timeless) or its obscurity (a cloud-capped mountain, a floating mist, night, intense darkness) – all, significantly, the opposite of the precise, measured, penetrating ‘light’ of the Enlightenment. When faced with the sublime, the viewer, listener or reader felt a kind of paralysis of the will and of the powers of understanding and imagination. At the same time, as an aesthetic experience (grounded in art rather than reality) the sublime allowed for the thrill of danger without its real consequences. Immensely popular in this context across Europe were the ‘works’ of Ossian, ostensibly a poetic cycle by a Gaelic bard of the third century CE, but in fact the invention of James MacPherson (1736–96), who published his prose ‘translations’ in 1760. Napoleon was among the many devotees of Ossian, as much moved by the tales of legendary heroes in a wild, rugged and primitive northern setting as by Homer's more familiar Greeks and Trojans. This kind of exalted experience was increasingly sought in art and by the late Enlightenment was a dominant aesthetic mode:

It is night. I am alone, forlorn on the hill of storms. The wind is heard in the mountain. The torrent pours down the rock. No hut receives me from the rain, forlorn on the hill of winds. Rise o moon from behind the clouds. Stars of the night, arise!

(MacPherson, Colma's lament from Ossian, quoted in Barzun, 2000, p. 409)

In Mozart's Don Giovanni the sublime emerges in the infernal forces that swallow the main character at the end of the opera, and perhaps in the sublime courage of the man who defies them. The image of Prometheus, the demi-god punished for his defiance of the king of the gods, began to haunt the poetic imagination when Goethe (1749–1832) devoted to it a dramatic fragment and ode (1773). For the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it was the possession of a non-material soul that allowed people to seize the infinity of the sublime. This sensation of phenomena straining or exceeding the limits of human understanding was later to form the basis of a fully-fledged Romantic aesthetic.

Summary point: in the Enlightenment the theorisation and popularisation of the sublime began to undermine the eighteenth century's otherwise clear emphasis on the knowable, the rational and controllable.


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