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Painting against Time: The Decaying Image in the French Enlightenment

Oliver Wunsch [Harvard University]
Robert H. and Clarice Smith Fellow, 2016 – 2017


Joseph-Marie Vien, Minerva, 1754, wax and oil on wood panel. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photograph by Svetlana Suetova © The State Hermitage Museum

In the fall of 1754, the French artist Joseph-Marie Vien (1716 – 1809) used an unusual technique to paint a picture of the Roman goddess Minerva. The process involved a combination of wax and fire, and it was supposedly based on an ancient method known as encaustic. Vien produced the work under the direction of the comte de Caylus, an amateur and antiquarian who had spent several years researching encaustic through ancient texts and artifacts. When the two men revealed the results of their collaboration, they emphasized several virtues of the technique. They pointed out that it produced vibrant colors with a matte finish, and they noted that the paint dried quickly. But the greatest advantage, they claimed, was that pictures made in this manner were virtually impervious to decay.

My dissertation began as an attempt to make sense of such efforts to find an eternal medium in eighteenth-century France. Encaustic was far from the only process from the period that came with the promise of endurance. Artists experimented with an array of techniques, ranging from enamel to painting on glass, all in the hopes of securing a more lasting future for their work. These processes emerged alongside the nascent field of art restoration, and they grew in parallel with a broader concern for posterity that characterized high Enlightenment philosophy.

As my work progressed, however, it became clear that this phenomenon had developed in response to a countervailing tendency. Much of the writing from the period on the importance of durability also drew attention to an implicit enemy: a dissipated artist, heedless of posterity, whose fragile or decomposing works were intended only for the present. This opposing figure, caricatured as it sometimes could be, was not an imaginary specter invented for rhetorical effect. On the contrary, it was embodied in one of the eighteenth century’s most celebrated painters, Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), whose unorthodox techniques caused his pictures to decay rapidly. And the problem was not limited to Watteau. French painters’ growing infatuation with pastel — an impossibly fragile medium that came to dominate the century — demonstrated the pervasiveness of the issue.

After I recognized this tension between the pursuit of permanence and the indulgence of ephemerality, it became obvious that neither phenomenon could be understood apart from the other. Much of my time as a fellow has been devoted to exploring the conflict between them, positioning it at the center of my project. The larger goal of the dissertation has remained the same — I continue to track the development of artistic attitudes toward permanence during the eighteenth century — but the argument itself has shifted. Rather than treat durability as the dominant goal of artists from the period, I argue that what made the eighteenth century distinctive was that this goal could no longer be assumed. New commercial pressures incentivized rapid production over permanence, while the liberalization of painting as a profession relaxed craft standards. Growing opportunities for public recognition, meanwhile, offered artists immediate renown in the present, which came to compete with the lure of posterity. As a result, a fundamental question emerged about art’s definition and purpose: must great art transcend time, or can its meaning and materiality remain specific to its moment?

In part, my argument is meant to intervene in an ongoing reevaluation of the Enlightenment in contemporary scholarship. Historians have recently called attention to the divided temporal consciousness that characterized the culture of the period. On the one hand, philosophers such as Denis Diderot and Voltaire professed their devotion to the cause of posterity. On the other, many of these same writers embraced a worldly sphere governed by gallant displays of wit and an extemporaneous pursuit of transitory pleasure. My project affirms this underlying dialectic but emphasizes its distinctive ramifications in the visual arts, where transience and endurance had decidedly different effects because they manifested themselves materially.

On a methodological level, the project is also meant to prompt greater reflection on the role that decay plays in historical scholarship. Art historians have generally regarded ephemeral materials and techniques as a problem for museum conservators, not as a relevant subject for art’s historical interpretation. But decay becomes difficult to separate from the meaning and historical significance of work produced by artists from centuries ago who reflected upon how the objects that they created would travel across time. The mottled surface of a painting can provide clues about the way those in the past thought about generations to come, and it can help us understand how our sense of obligation to the future continues to evolve.


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