UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Diderot, art, and the eighteenth-century ethos De Rosier, Charlotte Milam


This study explores the interdependent relationship between Diderot's writings on art, the art of eighteenth-century France, and the times that produced them both. Accordingly, the study falls into three principal related sections, with each enlarging upon a specific facet of the topic. Proceeding from the premise that both Diderot and the paintings he discussed belonged within a particular cultural context of tastes, ideas, and historical facts, the first principal division, "Diderot in the Scheme of Things", begins as a brief survey of the artistic realities that prevailed in France prior to the approximate period spanned by the Salons in order to present a general view of the eclectic body of art on which he based the substance of his commentaries. The related section on "Diderot's Aesthetics" specifies a certain problem in discussing Diderot's writing on art and demonstrates that Diderot's artistic notions cannot be treated from a general aesthetic standpoint but can be understood only in terms of the individual criticisms themselves. The "Essay on Painting" presents a compendium of the themes and ideas that Diderot applied in those individual criticisms. Both the section entitled "Diderot's Aesthetics" and the one dealing with the "Essay" present transitional introductory material for the second major division, "The Salons: 1759-1781", which deals with individual criticisms of specific paintings to show Diderot's critical method at work in a varied range of representative works and to show in what way Diderot fails to understand the paintings before him in the idiom of the artist. On the basis of this conclusion, it would be easy to dismiss much of his commentary on the ground that it is quaint but inadequate; the final major division builds on this possible conclusion, however, to explore a further facet of the Salons and shows, through its focus on the Salon of 1767 that Diderot's commentaries were not merely criticisms of art but of society as well and that his attitude toward the needs and faults of society conditioned his approach to art. In its substance, this section offers the view that because of--rather than in spite of--its polarities and inconsistencies, Diderot's thoughts on contemporary art provide a faithful reflection in small of identical conflicts and aspirations in the larger context of eighteenth-century French society. Diderot's values and the values of his time emerge from his application of those values to contemporary art. With art as the matrix, the values of the man. and those of the society present themselves at the conclusion of the study as a mosaic of concepts in opposition--a mosaic where each conceptual element attains its meaning in juxtaposition, rather than in harmony, with the others.

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