The failure of the Enlightenment

Probably one of the most important movements in art, the enlightenment encompasses some of the greatest changes not just in art but how we view art and society as a whole. As we explore the ideas of the enlightenment and the art of the time we will find parallels as well as distinctions in philosophical ideas of the time and the work being produced. These similarities and distinctions are formed due to social, political and religious thinking of the times and areas surrounding the artists and their own personal beliefs and understandings of the subject of enlightenment.
While the ideas of the enlightenment stretch from the end of the Middle Ages to the 19th century, it is not until the middle of the 18th century that we start to see these ideas even take shape. And while they seem to come together in the 19th century the ideas of the enlightenment will not during this time or even our time be fully realized in society as much as it is in art.
I will attempt to explore the aspects of art and its connection with the enlightenment from the “taste of nature” to the enlightenment in America. The four areas of focus will be the Late Baroque/Rococo period in Great Britain, Scotland, Central Europe, and America. In particular examining the works of William Hograth (1697-1764), Marriage a la Mode, 1743, Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), Rev. Robert Walker Skating, 1790s, The Asam Brothers, Egid Quirin (1692-1750) and Cosmas Damian (1686-1793) Weitenberg Abby Church, and Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), George Washington at Princeton, 1779 and how their works relates to the enlightenment ideas.
Before we can examine if the ideas of the enlightenment connection with the art of the time it is important to understand what we are talking about, in other word what are the enlightenment ideas? There are seven main ideas of the enlightenment; human autonomy, the importance of reason, that enlightenment is universal, progress, secularism, the centrality of economics to politics, and the idea of popular government (Olson). They can be broken into three areas; the idea of the individual as independent thinker, the separation of Church and State, and the ability for people to govern themselves. These ideas while separate depend on each other to exist.
The idea of the individual artist as an independent thinker started with the introduction of the art market in Holland, but did not start to be understood until the forming of Academy of Art in France. Unlike the early part of the Baroque period artists in the late Baroque/Rococo period show more freedom of individual thought and style in their works. This comes in part to the introduction of the Academy but is also related to the growth of the middle class in the late Baroque period. This growth allowed more people to buy art and show their likes and dislikes in the collection of art during the period.
It is through this growth that artists were able to explore more independent styles and ideas in their works. We see examples of this in the works of Hograth, Raeburn, Peale styles during the time. More so in the works of Hograth and Peale who while learning from the styles of earlier artists showed more individual styles in their work than that of Raeburn whose Dutch influence is shown in his work Rev. Robert Walker Skating, 1790s, and the Asam brothers who showed great influence by Bernini in their works.
Hograth who did genre-like paintings of the time did his work with commentaries on the social status of the people in Great Britain, while Peale and other artists of the American Enlightenment created works with a more realistic style and even though Raeburn’s Dutch influence could be seen in his work, his portraits took on the more natural form of paintings of the enlightenment than those of the Dutch Masters that influenced him.
This is not to say that artists of this time were totally independent in their thinking. As in the example I gave of Rev. Robert Walker Skating, 1790s much of these artists works were influenced by the great artists of earlier styles and techniques of Europe especially that of Italy and Dutch areas. This was due in part to the liking and wants of the art market which is influenced by peoples understanding of what art should be. Though the works were not controlled by a Monarch they were greatly influenced by the art market and desires of society as a whole. So while they had greater freedom in expressing their ideas, the artists would change from becoming slaves to the idea of one individual or the demands of the church to the ideals of the desires of social needs and wants. This concept would not just take hold in the ideas of the Individual but also through the idea of the separation of Church and State.
The idea of separation of Church and State, while an idea of the enlightenment would not be fully understood or even achieved during that time or even in today’s society. Though the late Baroque period of art would see the less control of the Church over the government, there would still be influences of the Church in Europe and America during the end of the enlightenment. Part of this freedom came from the philosophical questions about God and the role of the Church in society and the government. It would also be influenced with the introduction of the Academies which would teach about individual ideas and concepts of the time as well as introduce science and new ways of thinking.
As we examine the works of Hograth, Raeburn, Peale we can see a clear separation from the earlier influences of the Church in works of art. These artists’ works would reflect life as they saw it and not as moral or even spiritual guides or stories being laid out. Hograth’s Marriage a la Mode, 1743 while focused on the idea of a wedding would be more about the ups and downs of life than hold any kind of religious symbols or works that we would see in other marriage portraits of the earlier Baroque. Peale’s George Washington at Princeton, 1779 would be like most of the works of the time, historical in nature, and not like some earlier Baroque works that would add religious meaning or symbols to portraits of leaders of the time. Even Raeburn’s portrait of Rev. Robert Walker Skating, 1790s would show the Reverend not giving a lecture or preaching to people, but simply enjoying one of life’s simple pleasures.
But this is not to say that the Church did not have some influence on art or even society during the time. While most artists were looking to create their own styles of work, artists like the Asam brothers were greatly influenced by the works of such artists as Bernini and others who would create great masterpieces in the name of the reformation. Their work on the Weitenberg Abby Church showed not just a liking to Bernini but also a following of his ideas in creating works that not only spoke of the Church’s role in Central Europe but also designed as a stage to draw people in. The root idea of the enlightenment’s separation of Church and State coincides with the idea of a popular government system not ruled by a Monarch.
Though the idea of the artists working as an individual and not strictly for a monarch started with the art market in Holland and continued with the formation of the Academy of Art in France, it would have a greater acknowledgement in Great Britain and America during the enlightenment. Artists of these areas would have more freedom to create art that fit more to the liking of the people than that of a Monarch. This was due in part to Great Britain forming of a Parliament in the early 1700’s and America’s introduction of a government designed for and by the people.
We would see less of this idea in Central Europe areas like Germany not so much because of the form of government but more due to the late arrival of Central Europe in the enlightenment due to the 30 year war. So while the works of the Asam Brothers seems more like earlier Baroque art that was influenced by the Church and controlled by the Monarch there is little evidence that this was the case in those areas in Europe.
Hograth’s work which was more of a commentary on the sad state of the élite was a clear sign of artists moving away from the desire to impress the Monarch. And though Raeburn and Peale had both done portraits of prominent leaders and rulers during the time, their works were more of homage to those people than those of the earlier works in the Baroque who sought to seek favor with the Monarch.
As we examine the ideas of the enlightenment of the period with art, we can see that there are many parallels and a conflict in the ideas of the enlightenment and how they relate to the art of the time. The idea of separation of Church and State and the diminishing control of the government over artists and the art during the time were successful during the enlightenment. It is in the idea of the artist as a complete individual seems to simply change hands and not exist completely in the idea of enlightenment in art.
While artists were free to explore more ideas in their arts, and they were not subject to the control or wants of the Church or Monarch, they did become workers to the ideals and desires of the market of the times, whether it was the growing middle class, the more sociable and influential upper class or the taste of museums and galleries artists would continue to work for the desires of others in their art.


  1. Hello!

    Was this writing based on the final essay for the Art and Ideology of the enlightenment class? Because if it was, then would you please let me know what the question was? I’m currently enrolled in that class, but never got to finish my essay because my computer recently crashed. I don’t have the question written anywhere. Please let me know as soon as possible. The essay was due yesterday. Thanks!

    ~ Dee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s