Panel 6: Arts, Science & Enlightenment

‘A’ Pit, Backworth, Newcastle upon Tyne, unknown artist. Laing Art Gallery.

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Chair: Dr Richard Taws – Reader in the History of Art, University College London

Josie Dyster

Object in Focus: Voltaire and The Triumph of Truth

Previous work on depictions of Voltaire has largely focussed on the famous French writer’s construction of his own celebrity, or on posthumous cult of his persona. However, recent work on Voltaire’s iconography has brought more obscure images into focus, allowing us to examine in greater detail the visual and material reception of Voltaire. One such image is Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1774 portrait of Scottish philosopher James Beattie, The Triumph of Truth, which features Voltaire as one of its three background figures. Voltaire is unmistakable, bearing his usual smirk as he and his fellow philosopher (likely Hume) are struck down by Truth, while Beattie gazes serenely on in the foreground.

The Triumph of Truth is a clear meeting point of the visual and the textual; not only is Beattie depicted holding a copy of his 1770 Essay on Truth, and wearing the robes of the honorary doctorate he received for this work; the inclusion of Voltaire is a clear nod to Beattie’s critique of Voltaire both in his 1770 Essay, and arguably in his unpublished 1760s satire Castle of Scepticism, which was privately circulated among men and women of letters. By focusing on The Triumph of Truth, I seek to explore how we might consider Reynolds’ painting and Beattie’s two texts as extensions of one another, and what Beattie and Reynolds’ portrait of Voltaire might look like when we consider these three works, as well Reynolds’ and Beattie’s correspondence, as one whole. In attempting to answer these questions, I will argue that it is vital to consider this work, and objects like it, in light of their peripheral texts, and vice versa, and that other representations of Voltaire, both visual and written, ought to be considered in this way when attempting to build a comprehensive iconography.

Tara Lee

Revolution in Utero: The Book of Urizen and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

This paper will discuss William Blake’s The [First] Book of Urizen (1794) in relation to the rich visual culture surrounding the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Arguing that visual traces of this document can be found throughout The Book of Urizen, it presents this illuminated book as a pessimistic commentary on the attempts by the leaders of the French Revolution to bind the nascent republic in legal form. In doing so, the paper situates The Book of Urizen within the context of the language of embryonic growth used in contemporary discussions surrounding the establishment of revolutionary France’s new legal institutions. Following Rousseau’s usage of the metaphor of the organic body politic in his 1762 work The Social Contract, metaphors of embryonic growth proliferated in the revolutionary writings and speeches of the 1790s. However, as the Revolution continually failed to construct a ‘modern state’, evolving into ‘a series of transformation scenes, in which forms of government and ruling factions succeeded one another with bewildering rapidity’, it became apparent that while the new polity had been enthused with life, unforeseen difficulties, however, lay in giving it a working body. [1] Suffering multiple failed attempts at rebirth, revolutionary France, like Urizen, continually struggled to acquire living form outside of the intellectual womb.

[1] Dorinda Outram, The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class and Political Culture (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 3-4.

Sofia Carrola

“Illustrant dum Infuscant”: The Science Book Illustrated in Portugal

“Illustrant dum Infuscant”, which translated literally means “illuminate while darkening” is a sentence that complements an illustration in the work of Joaquim Carneiro da Silva and describes a typesetting technique which consisted of “dying certain types that when darkened became suitable for text printing, while enlightening their readers”. However, the sentence reveals more than just a mere technique of graphic composition. While the expression is being used and referred to, leading to the idea of “enlightenment” through words (that are revealed when dimmed), Carneiro da Silva chooses an image that complements the expression and illustrates its thoughts. The image appears as a sort of idios kósmos (private world) that favours a single apprehension through sight. The act of using the image as an educational and instructive tool, outspread in Portugal throughout the 18th century. The printed book was among areas where this efficiency was recognised.

Scientists, politicians, militaries, industrials and artists gave into the development of this revived educational utility, thus sharing the Church’s long indulged interest in exploring the communicative virtues of the image. The consent of different points of view appealed to this new age, of an image on paper. Moreover, it demanded that one was to think through the image and with the image itself. Just as other arts, illustration undertakes a comprehensive circumstance throughout its progress. Its language develops and prospers by interacting with further arts and sciences.

If it is compelling to understand the bond between the Art of Illustration, Science and Visual Thinking, then it is equally important to comprehend how this connection is disclosed and moreover, how the book and the printing added to the statement of this affinity, in the 18th and 19th centuries in Portugal.

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One thought on “Panel 6: Arts, Science & Enlightenment”

  1. I really enjoyed all of the papers in this panel – thank you!

    Josie, I found your discussion of the differences between Beattie’s public critique of Voltaire and that intended for more private circulation especially interesting, and I really identified with your closing comments on the place of portraits in philosophical discourse.

    Sofia, I was fascinated by the wonderful scientific images you presented and wonder how successful you think this enlightenment project was in achieving its educative aims? For instance, how far did the reach of these publications extend, who read them, how much did they cost, how high were literacy rates at this time? (I’m happy for this question to be addressed during the live session)

    Thanks again!

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