Maurice Quentin de La Tour (5 September 1704 – 17 February 1788) was a French Rococo portraitist who worked primarily with pastels. Among his most famous subjects were Voltaire, Rousseau, Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour.
Contemporary accounts describe Quentin de La Tour's nature as lively, good-humoured, but eccentric. In many of his self-portraits he depicts himself smiling out from the frame towards the viewer and his artistic career he “seems to have produced more glad-faced self-portraits than any other artist” (1).
We chose this portrait as the personification of the Enlightenment and lets see why.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT, Philosophy and Society
The global expansion of European influence was matched by the extension of the boundaries of European knowledge that marks what has been called the Age of Enlightenment. It was in essence a new way of thinking critically about the world and about humankind, independently of revealed religion, of myth, and of tradition.
First comes the science.
We have observed (in the previous article on Baroque) its beginnings in the seventeenth century, with the mathematical and scientific achievements of Descartes, Pascal, Newton, and Leibnitz.
Throughout the century, England enjoyed great material prosperity generated by inventions industry and democratic and agriculture and by international trade.
THE EXPERIENCE OVER DOGMA - Doctrine of Empiricism
The middle-class, democratic values reflected in writings by Locke, whose works became almost the gospel of the Enlightenment. What we know, wrote Locke, comes to us through sense perception of the material world and is imprinted upon the mind as upon a blank tablet. From these perceptions alone we form ideas. Our ideas are not innate or God-given; it is only from experience that we can know (this is called the "doctrine of empiricism"). Human beings are born good, not cursed by original sin. The law of Nature grants them the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, as well as the right to freedom of conscience. Government is by contract, and its purpose is to protect these rights; if and when government abuses these rights we have the further natural right of revolution. (☝French Revolution 1789).
Happiness is to be gained by the rational pursuit of pleasure, which involves regard for the good of others. The founding documents of the United States clearly reflect these principles and these beliefs form the credo of American democracy. The work of Newton and Locke inspired the intellectuals of France.
What is HAPPINESS according to the 18th cent. philosopher?
English poet Alexander Pope, a contemporary of Voltaire had declared: "The proper study of mankind Man!" New philosophies of human beings and of society as part of physical nature were advanced thinkers in France. They criticized the powers of church and state as irrational limits placed upon political and intellectual freedom. They believed that, by the accumulation and propagation of knowledge, humanity could advance by degrees to a happier state than it had ever known. This conviction matured into the characteristically modern "doctrine of progress" and its corollary doctrine of the perfectibility of humankind. By the end of the century, the Marquis de Condorcet, in his Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, could make of the doctrine of progress a kind of religion of utopia.
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA 1745
Animated by their belief in human progress, the philosophes went about the task of gathering knowledge and making it accessible to all who could read their program was in effect the democratization of knowledge. Diderot, a genius whose brilliant, critical intelligence greatly influenced the rationalistic and materialistic thinking of the Enlightenment , became editor of the pioneering Encyclopedia 1745.
The Encyclopedia proposed to include all available knowledge - historical, scientific, technical, as well as religious, moral and political theory. Diderot's contemporary, Buffon, undertook a kind of encyclopedia of the natural sciences. His Natural History, a monumental work of forty-four volumes, was valuable especially for its zoological study and had the general effect of inspiring in the reading public an interest in the world of nature. Scientific investigation and technological invention opened up great new possibilities for human understanding of the world and control of its material forces. Research into the phenomena of electricity and combustion, and the discovery of oxygen and the power of steam had enormous consequences. Steam power as an adjunct to, or replacement of human labor began a new era in world history.
“HEART” over “HEAD”
With the increasing political and cultural influence of the middle classes, the later century witnessed a reaction to the rationalism, skepticism, materialism, and sometimes atheism of the philosophes. Their concern for humanity only in the abstract sense rather than with the facts of everyday living and the feelings of ordinary people, led the reading public to turn instead to the narratives of the newly popular novel, rather than to the philosophical essay, for a true account of the human scene. This accompanied the rejection of the "Rococo" style in art as an artificial and aristocratic taste untrue to the experience of plain people, who now demanded "naturalness" in art as well as in literature. "Naturalness" was not simply truth to visual perception; it meant truth to human emotions sensibility" in the language of the day involved sensitivity and sincerity of feeling, rather than cynical rationality. It meant moral fervor in place of licentiousness, modest domestic settings in place of the glitter of court and salons. Again, in the language of the day, one should listen to the dictates of the “heart" ❤ rather than the to reasoning of the "head". This new emotionalism, which would gradually replace the rationalism of the Enlightenment, we presently shall see as the first manifestation of Romanticism and of the modern spirit.
The smile of La Tour’s portrait sharpens into a malicious grimace in the famous bust of Voltaire as an old man.
Voltaire played a great part in the Enlightenment, introducing Newton and Locke to the French intelligentsia. Voltaire becomes the spirit of Enlightenment. The smile that artist records so strikingly reflect the grim satisfaction Voltaire must have felt at the changes of state and consciousness that brought by the progress of human mind.
Source: 1. Laura Cumming (2010). A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits. London: HarperPress. p. 159
2. Gardner's ART through the Ages, 10th edition.