Enlightenment's Influence on 18th & 19th-Century Art & Architecture

Enlightenment's Influence on 18th & 19th-Century Art & Architecture
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  • 00:00 Enlightenment and Art
  • 3:18 Enlightenment and Architecture
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the influence of the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment on art and architecture. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Enlightenment and Art

This lesson should be pretty easy. I mean, it's obvious, right? Good lighting is very influential on an artist's ability to create a work of art. Oh, wait - Enlightenment, not lighting. Yeah, that's something different entirely.

The Enlightenment was a philosophy that promoted individual thinking and rational logic as more valuable than tradition. Enlightenment thinkers rejected the traditional assumptions about, well, everything, and committed themselves to things that they could demonstrate through unbiased, scientific experiments. We got a lot out of the Enlightenment, from the theory of gravity to the French Revolution and the American Constitution, which challenged traditional ideas of government in favor of the notion that all men are created equal. Well, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that a philosophy that toppled governments and helped define our place in the universe also had some pretty notable impacts on the arts.

The Enlightenment first really took off in the 18th century at a time when art was focused on the frivolous lives of the rich and famous in a style called the Rococo. This is an example of that art:

Example of Rococo art

And here's a reaction against that with an Enlightenment perspective:

A Philosopher Giving a Lecture at the Orrery
A Philosopher Giving a Lecture at the Orrery

This is A Philosopher Giving a Lecture at the Orrery, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby around 1765. The dramatic, dark shadows create a pretty strong contrast to the light, fanciful piece of Rococo painting. These people, of various ages and sexes, are gathered around a model of the solar system, seeking truth and fulfillment through science, personal education, and intellectual pursuits.

This same idea is actually somewhat echoed in this piece, the Breakfast Scene by William Hogarth. In this scene, the master and mistress of the house - young, rich aristocrats - are tired from a night of partying and various affairs. The steward of the house throws his hands up in disgrace, clutching unpaid bills as the young couple wastes their fortune on frivolities. So from the get-go, we can see how the Enlightenment encouraged education and civilized, intellectual pursuits.

Breakfast Scene
Breakfast Scene

However, the Enlightenment did not mean exactly the same thing to everybody. In France, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that humans were naturally good, but twisted by society. This, combined with the Enlightenment belief in individual equality, led to a strong focus on peasant life. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin painted simple, calm scenes of peasants engaged in pure, moral, and unselfish lives. Jean-Baptiste Greuze created sentimental scenes of true joy, such as this one of a peasant wedding, which is celebrated with little extravagance but is overwhelmingly touching:

The Enlightenment in France produced art that focused on simple and moral life
Painting of a peasant wedding

This idea was actually pretty well received in the United States as well which, of course, had just become a country in 1776. In a nation that celebrated the chance for any peasant to become a leader, portraits depicted common people that made their mark on society, not kings. This piece, painted around 1770 by John Singleton Copley, is entitled Portrait of Paul Revere:

Portrait of Paul Revere
Portrait of Paul Revere

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