Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 25, 2002
Elise Goodman, ed. Art and Culture in the Eighteenth Century: New Dimensions and Multiple Perspectives Cranbury, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2001. 162 pp.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $52.50 (0874137403)

The Portraits of Madame de Pompadour: Celebrating the Femme Savante

Art and Culture in the Eighteenth Century: New Dimensions and Multiple Perspectives gathers ten essays on topics that will surely interest a broad readership, treating subjects ranging from portraiture to artists’ politics. Collected by Elise Goodman, the essays represent the multiplicity of artistic, social, theoretical, and political voices at work in eighteenth-century art circles. Equally commendable is the variety, not only of subjects under scrutiny, but also of the book’s geographical focus, which includes the expected work on France, England, and Italy, as well as on Spain and Ireland.

In the first and most theoretical essay, "Nature’s Culture in Du Bos’s Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture," John C. O’Neal emphasizes the importance of the idea of nature in Du Bos’s treatise. While aesthetics had long been entwined with ideal or belle nature, Du Bos redefines nature in the Réflexions critiques to encompass "the knower and the known" (15), both in the work of art under scrutiny and as a source of knowledge for the bourgeois spectator. Nature in this case privileges a spectator’s emotional response to a work of art (including music and theater) over earlier, rule-bound methods of interpretation. Thus by popularizing nature, Du Bos was able to arm the bourgeois consumer of art with the tools necessary to understand and evaluate it, and this was a remarkable strategy for its time.

Alden R. Gordon addresses the biography of Madame de Pompadour, arguing that many scholarly treatments of her life can be traced to one particularly tenacious literary hoax: the supposed journal of Madame du Hausset, one of her ladies-in-waiting. Despite lingering doubts regarding the journal’s authenticity, modern scholars continue to use it. Gordon notes that such desire for "voyeuristic intimacy" reveals more about modern authors than the historical Pompadour. For example, Gordon shows how the journal is full of reasons to suspect its authenticity, including the fact that it was written as if Madame de Hausset was Pompadour’s only lady-in-waiting, when in fact she was part of a rotation of three. Gordon provides extensive evidence that the journal was most likely the work of Gabriel Sénac de Meilhan, whose interest in creating the hoax is discussed extensively. Gordon’s essay, much more than a literary "whodunit," is a meditation on the process of interpreting the past.

Anne L. Schroder continues the theme of historical myth in "Reassessing Fragonard’s Later Years: The Artist’s Nineteenth-Century Biographers, the Rococo, and the French Revolution." Schroder dispels the myth that Fragonard’s later years were obscure and miserable. Many later authors (particularly, as she notes in a thorough discussion, the Goncourts) portrayed Fragonard as ridiculous or merely pitiable: an obsolete and contemptible reminder of the failures of Rococo culture, which he was believed to have embodied personally as well as artistically. Schroder’s extensive research reveals that the aging artist was not negatively received, but in fact the opposite: he was productive, well respected, influential, and financially secure, and she provides a convincing discussion of the political intrigues that sought to portray him otherwise.

Jolynn Edwards’s contribution investigates the art collection of John Law, former Comptroller-General of France. Her title, "John Law and His Painting Collection: Connoisseur or Dupe?", encapsulates her interest in discovering whether Law "knew his paintings as well as he knew the emerging capitalist system" (59). But this is a far from easy proposition: it requires Edwards to situate Law’s collection within the context of art collecting during the period. She provides a painstakingly detailed picture of the works listed in the Law inventory, discussing such important issues as the meaning of copies and workshop images within the context of collecting during this period. She concludes that Law’s collection appears to have included original and important copies by the most desirable artists of the time. By reconstructing the long-dispersed art collection of this important eighteenth-century figure, Edwards provides a valuable glimpse into the practices of art collecting among the elite.

Catherine Whistler analyzes the lingering marginality of eighteenth-century Spanish art and academic practices. She shows that, despite the significance of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, that institution suffered from an inferiority complex due to its dependency upon aristocratic support, requiring academic practice to be subordinated to ceremony. Whistler relates a poignant example: Members of the academy and their students, "who were to remain mute," were relegated to a room adjoining the one where official ceremonies took place, underlining the marginality of their role to the Academy’s administration. By allowing us a glimpse into the complex workings of the Spanish academy, Whistler’s essay helps to counteract the tendency, even among scholars of the eighteenth century, to undervalue that country’s place among founding art academies. By recovering the embattled history of the Spanish Academy, Whistler’s essay exposes historical and modern prejudices.

In the collection’s most visually focused essay, Patricia Crown posits that women’s clothes had a particularly important role to play in the art of William Hogarth. Keenly aware of and interested in women’s fashion, Hogarth often employed clothing as a subtle signifier in his narratives. Situating her discussion within the context of eighteenth-century English ideas about women’s relationship to the wearing and selling of elements of dress, Crown deftly "reads" the female figures in several of Hogarth’s prints for what their clothing tell a viewer about character and plot. She also provides an important context for Hogarth’s production in terms of the cultural significance of the fashion trade. Such details as the fabric and fit of clothes, whether they were fashionable or outmoded, as well as the use of accessories like fans or handkerchiefs, Crown argues, are powerful carriers of meaning in their own right.

In "Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and the Grand Whiggery," Martin Postle discusses the two men’s friendship and Reynolds’s political leanings as revealed in several works of art he produced. Postle reveals Reynolds as increasingly sympathetic to Whig politics from the 1750s to the 1790s. He suggests that Reynolds’s politics and his artistic theories were more closely linked than has been previously thought, and shows how the artist was influenced by like-minded friends to produce work with political meaning, such as, for example, Ugolino and His Children in the Dungeon, his first major history painting. The tragic hero Ugolino, a sort of Whig mascot, was compared to a "liberty-loving English lord" (114). In addition, Reynolds’s interest in painting significant Whig personages and exhibiting their portraits in the annual Royal Academy exhibitions further tied him to Whig politics. Postle particularly emphasizes Reynolds’s portrait of "archetypical Whig grandee" Admiral Augustus Keppel (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich). Postle’s convincingly discusses the way Reynolds’ personal and intellectual relationship with Whig friends such as Burke and Charles James Fox, as well as his own interest in politics, contributed a fascinating dimension to his art and art theory.

Andrew Carrington Shelton focuses on a different aspect of British art in his "Storming the Acropolis: Gender, Class, and Classicism in Eighteenth-Century England." Shelton introduces the reader to Sarah Clayton, a wealthy single woman who inherited her family’s merchant fortune, via a portrait of her by Joseph Wright of Derby. Through Shelton’s nuanced discussion of the portrait, we learn that there is more to this lady than meets the eye. Though traditionally discussed in terms of its no-nonsense realism, the portrait contains, literally in the hands of the sitter, a seemingly incongruous reference to the Classical past with its attendant glamour and status: a plan of the Propylea on the Athenian Acropolis. Misread by scholars until now as an architectural project in her native Liverpool, the plan of the Propylea can be read, as Shelton argues, not only as a reference to Grand Tour-style education and status—or at least the sitter’s desire for them—but also as a demonstration of her unusual ability (as a woman) to comprehend nonmimetic images. As such, the portrait overturns traditional expectations and proves itself to be a rich example of the art of self-fashioning.

Finally, William L. Pressly discusses the importance of prints in the oeuvre of James Barry in his contribution, "James Barry and the Print Market: A Painter-Etcher avant la lettre." Pressly adds to our picture of Barry’s creative achievement with a discussion of how the artist’s own relationship to the print medium as it relates to larger eighteenth-century ideas regarding artistic creativity. Barry seems to have produced prints for many different reasons and occasions, some as reproductions of work in other media (his and others’), and some as works of art in their own right, which use experimental techniques not possible in other media. Pressly adds three new prints to Barry’s oeuvre (documented in his own, extensive catalogue raisonné of 1981). His discussion of the two new extant prints is situated carefully within the context of Barry’s complex process. Particularly valuable is Pressly’s analysis of the range of possibilities Barry’s technique offered the uniquely imaginative artist.

Careful scholarship as exemplified in Art and Culture in the Eighteenth Century not only educates a specialist or advanced lay reader on the topic at hand, but also provides a model of scholarly inquiry that, at least in theory, can change the way other subjects are viewed, approached, and studied as well. It maintains a depth of inquiry that will be appreciated by art-historical and related communities, and is sure to become indispensable reading for those interested in eighteenth-century art and culture.

Alden Cavanaugh
Indiana State University

Please send comments about this review to