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In eighteenth-century Britain, expanding mercantile enterprise, supported through rapid colonial expansion, yielded broad cultural expectations concerning access not only to wealth, but also to the status traditionally accorded to the aristocratic elite. A burgeoning material economy confused the visual economy producing status. Customary signs of wealth and standing were devalued, awash in a flood of luxury goods. Simultaneously, these very markers, desired for their power to project an image of social standing, were criticized, seen as reflecting selfishness and personal gain, and therefore threatening the ideal of a public sphere of disinterested citizens.
In this destabilizing of traditional modes of negotiating status through appearance, Robert Jones, in his book Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain, recognizes that “class positions came to be expressed through new forms of social address, mediated through a discourse on taste and judgment.” Choosing as his subtitle the title of William Hogarth’s aesthetic treatise, The Analysis of Beauty, Jones seeks to understand the concept of beauty as a discursive node around which eighteenth-century Britons could produce, and then occupy, virtuous and functional subject positions. Jones’s book is not a Humean meditation on the variability of taste, nor is it written in the wake of art historical studies like those of Francis Haskell, plumbing the mechanics of patronage and production. Instead, Jones chooses to present a broad, though not comprehensive, review of the manner in which the taste for the beautiful was deployed in discourses relating to art, aesthetics, moral virtue, and social life.
The author demonstrates, unequivocally and through a great variety of sources, “the ‘cultural urgency’ with which such texts were composed and received.” In five closely argued chapters he examines visual and textual material, embracing treatises on moral philosophy, theoretical writings on taste, aesthetic tractates, and essays published in popular journals. Jones’s choice of texts and images is necessarily somewhat idiosyncratic. As the author states, his examples can only provide “but the briefest indication of what was a large and diverse area of debate, one in which the participants sought tirelessly to redefine what was good, beautiful, or merely proper.” What is more, Jones alters the density of his chapters, providing thick descriptions of discursive traditions in some, while in others slowing his pace so as to address case studies in detail.
In the first chapter, Jones describes what he regards as the most profound change in the period: the “separation of the ability to be moral and cultured from the capacity to exercise political power.” Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, and a prominent Whig, fervently supported the cultivation of public virtues. Taste, for Shaftesbury, was inseparable from his idea of good breeding as a polished exchange between civilized men; in his writings, taste was a sign of political and moral integrity.
By the second quarter of the century, Jones notes that the expanding market for luxury goods had produced a broader community of taste. This economic and discursive expansion spawned alternative discourses challenging Shaftesbury’s elitist theories. For example, in his early theoretical essays of the second decade of the eighteenth century, the portrait-painter Jonathan Richardson freed taste from the aristocratic authority promoted by Shaftesbury, arguing instead that connoisseurship was an acquirable knowledge, accessible to a wider public. Later, Hogarth would argue in The Analysis of Beauty that even previous knowledge was not necessary in order to engage in inquiries concerning beauty. Not rationally perceived, beauty became increasingly a matter of private judgment, registered through a personal response to objects. For Edmund Burke, in his epochal A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, these objects were more explicitly gendered, since beauty came to be associated, especially, with the “beautiful sex.” While for both Hogarth and his artist colleague Allan Ramsay women, rather than men, were often the most “sophisticated and reliable arbiters of taste,” Burke’s decidedly male beholder is always in danger of loosing himself to desire. As Jones puts it “[t]he male observer’s virility becomes central to Burke’s account of taste.” The shift from Shaftesbury’s synthetic view of public virtues and moral judgment to Burke’s “aesthetics of heterosexual excitement” bears upon Jones’s second chapter. Turning to the concrete facture of beauty, Jones tracks the realization of this new, personalized and “feminized” aesthetic culture into the worlds of conduct and adornment.
Broadening his discourse, the author examines the significance of polite femininity or “pleasingness of beauty,” and its paradoxes. Beauty could be both guarantor of women’s social visibility and indicator of their inner virtues. It must also, however, be differentiated from “good natured” and simply “pleasing” qualities—to the point where beauty in a woman is destabilized and associated with “folly, luxury, and effeminacy.” The ambivalent connotations of the beautiful are explored in Jones’s third chapter, in which he addresses Joshua Reynolds’s monumental full-length portrait of the celebrated beauty Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll. Exhibited in April 1760 “for the judgment and appreciation of the public eye,” Jones shows how the meaning of the painting was determined, not only by iconography, the qualities of the painting, or the depicted sitter, but also, in part, by the manner in which that “public eye” was constructed. Rather than restricted to the discourses promoting elitist politeness, Reynolds’s and “Gunning’s” public also encompassed the world of gossip, and what David Solkin has called the “softer pleasures of the market place.”
In his fourth chapter Jones departs from aesthetic norms and from the multiple levels of “reading” beauty, pondering instead the various codings of “ugliness” in the sentimental novels of, predominantly, female writers, such as Charlotte Lennox and Sarah Scott. Since "ugliness"—rather than beauty—demanded seclusion, Jones suggests, the “unbeautiful” woman made no “claims to authority”; this made her particularly receptive to virtue. She aspires, in the words of the female narrator of Sarah Scott’s novel Agreeable Ugliness, to charms that “were more valuable and lasting.” In his sixth and final chapter the author charts the development at the very end of the eighteenth century of what Jones, following Terry Eagleton, theorizes as a feminization of culture in the writings of, among others, Frances Reynolds. In striking contrast to her brother Joshua, in her Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Taste Frances Reynolds finally posits an “ideal of the private or domestic world as the true arena of taste.”
Jones’s study represents a welcome attempt to follow a particular discursive strain through varied territories and disciplines. He seems most comfortable when surveying broad swathes of philosophical material on beauty, extracting citations that are both apt and enlightening. The author’s arguments are, perhaps, better paced and more communicative in his treatment of case studies such as Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Elizabeth Gunning, and the subsequent chapter devoted to a handful of novels. Although Jones’s sources demonstrate a great breadth of opinions and concerns about beauty, he seems to avoid texts that might disturb his narrative, especially those that might subvert the gendered binary underpinning his argument. One does wonder whether it might not have been possible to have put a little more pressure on the main thesis, not only by addressing “ugliness,” and introducing more active or even resistant articulations of beauty from works by female painters or authors, or considering male beauty into consideration. It would also be interesting to see how Jones’s thesis might account for a queering of the discourse on beauty in the texts he discusses, such as Millennium Hall or Montagu’s travel writing. Finally, the discourse on beauty and ugliness might, also, be considered in a context even wider than that of “middle-class” anxiety and the “feminization of culture.” When the female narrator in Scott’s novel Agreeable Ugliness states that she “entered the World in native Ugliness,” one is tempted to see the debate on beauty and ugliness in a larger discursive field, one embracing racial, that is racist, discourses concerning self-hood and otherness so prevalent in eighteenth-century culture.
Jones’s loyalty to his bold thesis makes this collection of extended essays more than the sum of its parts. The author presents an internally logical argument, enjoining the reader to agree with his narrative history. While we might not all concur with his overarching argument, it is impossible not to appreciate its interdisciplinarity, its precision and its ambition.
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