The Origins of Art Criticism: 1750-1850

According to Théophile Gautier, writing in 1854, “In his immortal Salons, Diderot founded the criticism of painting.” Indeed Gautier modeled his method of discussing contemporary art on the process that Denis Diderot (1713-1784)  established. Art criticism emerged from the art public itself and its response to the Salon exhibitions. The Salon established the art exhibition as an independent entity, and, even though the exhibition was sponsored by the crown and was intended to show off the talents of France, any political or nationalistic goals held by France were soon overshadowed by the presence of “art,” existing in its own right, to be looked at. By the first decades of the nineteenth century, the role of art began to shift from being in the service to the state to existing in its own right. Consequently the role of the art critic shifted as well and, in France, Diderot and Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) exemplified the changing definition of art, the changing demographic of the audience and the new roles being played by artists. The new “art public” and its spokesmen, the art critics, began to redefine the social task of art in the eighteenth century, an age when the royal hand of the monarchy oversaw the development of art and its purpose. When the “first” art critic Denis Diderot emerged, he began writing at a time when major social changes were acting as a subtext for works of art.

Art should have a moral effect but what lessons should be taught? For Diderot this question of didactic content was an important one but the query itself was suspended between two competing interest groups: the prevailing order of aristocracy and the aspiring order of the bourgeoisie. Denis Diderot, who is considered the first important art writer, produced a body of work caught between contradictions seen best in hindsight–his royal audience and the Enlightenment ideals he believed in and preached to his well-born audience. Although Diderot learned about art through studio visits with the artists, his audience, European despots, who sported the sobriquet “enlightened,” were informed of French art through an internationally distributed newsletter, edited by Friedrich-Melchior Grimm and not subject to French censorship. Because his audience is unable to see the works of art to which he is refereeing, Diderot relief heavily on description of each object.

The irony of Diderot extolling middle class virtues to the lusty Czarina of Russia, Catherine, is intriguing and one can only wonder what the great queen thought when she read in his review of the Salon of 1763, “First, I like genre–it is moral painting.” Diderot’s art writing was engaged and political, a model for Marxist writers two hundred years later. Like many French thinkers, Diderot was indebted to English writers, especially the philosopher John Locke for moral precepts in a new secular age and to one of the first modern novelists, Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela for descriptive narrative flow. Art criticism, then, became a didactic hybrid, combining teaching with a story line. Diderot joined his fellow intellectuals in creating a new kind of literature and, throughout his writings, he was always seeking a new art form–an appropriately moral approach–for the new class. It was Diderot’s ambition that would define this class through Enlightenment ideas of reason and order. As one of the editors of the ongoing project, Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et dés Métiers, Diderot was well suited to the task of observing and recording, but, with art, he took the process of cataloguing one step further and crafted the art of judging.

When viewing the works of François Boucher, Diderot wrote in 1765, “Depravity of morals has been closely followed by the debasement of taste, color, composition,” and suggested a year later that an appropriate alternative to aristocratic frivolity would be antiquity: “It seemed to me that we should study the antique in order to learn to see Nature.”  But Diderot demanded more than mere stylistic servitude, “First of all, move me, surprise me, rend my heart; make me tremble, weep, shudder, outrage me, delight my eyes, afterwards, if you can.”  “Whatever the art form, it is better to be extravagant than cold.”  Although Diderot did not live long enough to witness either Neoclassicism or Romanticism, both of which are anticipated in his writings, he articulated many important concepts in his art writing with his emphasis on naïveté, which led to primitivism (simplicity and clarity) and the grand ideal of Poussin: “Paint as though in Sparta,” he begged the artists. Diderot believed that art should teach moral development but at the same time believed in the new idea of genius. Although the moral sentiments of the works by Jean-Baptiste Greuze were admirable, Diderot lamented that he was “no longer able to like Greuze” and he came to prefer Jean-Bapiste Chardin who was not only morally sound but also the superior artist, in his opinion.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Silence! (1759)

The early to mid-Eighteenth Century period is one of transition, for intellectuals found it hard to either predict the future or to foresee the logical consequences of the newly forming ideals of “reason,” “democracy,” and “equality.”  Diderot’s public counterpart, the art writer, La Font de Saint-Yenne, also took a middle path and equated the aristocrats with the ancients.  The aristocrats, in turn, took the prudent course of denouncing decadence and corruption and joined in the vogue for the natural by praising simplicity and order. Threatened by the wayward behavior of their hapless monarchs, the French nobles attacked royal despotism of King Louis XVI and his Austrian-born Queen, Marie Antoinette, in defense of their own privileges and positions.  The new French government reached back into the ancient past to justify and legitimate the new ideas of “liberty.” Old ideas of Roman virtue and Greek democracy were revived to promote and explain the radical changes. Previous artistic styles, Baroque and Rococo, were jettisoned because of their unseemly connection to aristocracy and vice.  Artists turned to ancient art, fortuitously available due to the recent discovery of ancient Roman cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 in the 1740s. But after the French Revolution of 1789, the “new” “classical” art was re-deployed to legitimate the new regimes–the First Republic, the Directory, the First Empire–until the July Revolution of 1830 announced the general acceptance of Romanticism and the arrival of “art-for-art’s-sake.”


Gustave Courbet. After Dinner at Ornans (Salon of 1849)

This new territory was inherited by Théophile Gautier who would oversee an extraordinary series of artistic changes, from Romanticism to Realism to the waning of the Salon system that had given birth to art criticism. Gautier was writing to a very different audience from that of Diderot. His audience was, first of all, French, rather than international, and second, his readers were present, had attended the Salons and were familiar with the art and the artists. The demand for sheer description was a less of a burden on him than it was on Diderot, but, like Diderot, Gautier also lived in “interesting times.” He had matured in a society that had a particular idea of the “beautiful” only to find himself confronted with Gustave Courbet who courted the ordinary (ugliness). Nevertheless, Gautier had also inherited the fully developed concept of “art-for-art’s-sake” that justified excursions into naturalism, devoid of ideal beauty. In his book, The Art Criticism of Théophile Gautier (1969), Michael Clifford Spencer, pointed out that Gautier’s facility as a writer allowed him to describe, with superior writing, paintings by artists he actually did not care for. He also pointed out the prevailing concern of the post-Romantic period with the role of the imagination in art. For Gautier’s colleague, Charles Baudelaire, the imagination was “the queen of the faculties,” for Gautier, the artist worked from the “microcosm,” the starting point in the intellect and expanded upon the germ to a broader conception of the recreation of the outside world.

But Gautier is best known today for his ringing defense of artistic freedom or in the “right” of a work of art to exist as art and to be unshackled from fulfilling any other social role. In the “Preface” to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier pilloried literary critics who expected a book to fulfill what he called a “utilitarian” function. He asserted, with some wit, that

We cannot make a cotton cap out of a metonymy, or put on a comparison like a slipper ; we cannot use an antithesis as an umbrella, and we cannot, unfortunately, lay a medley of rhymes on our body after the fashion of a waistcoat. I have an inti- mate conviction that an ode is too light a garment for winter, and that we should not be better clad in strophe, antistrophe, and epode than was the cynic’s wife who contented herself with merely her virtue as chemise, and went about as naked as one’s hand, so history relates.

It should be pointed out that Gautier had no liking for his colleagues and condemned the journalists of the newspapers of his time who dis-enchanted the visual arts, the theatrical arts and the literary arts. These opinionated writers harmed artists and audiences, robbing the artist of the opportunity to freely make without having an eye to the reception of the work, rather than to the work itself. The viewer, the listener, and the reader were all preempted by the critic who formed the opinion for the audience. Page after page, Gautier condemned the paragons of  society’s “virtue,” who attempted to impose a stultifying morality upon artistic creation. Of course, one should take into account that the full name of the novel was Mademoiselle de Maupin. A Romance of Love and Passion, and, therefore, one should understand that his “Preface” was as much a preemptive strike against moral approbation as it was a plea for artistic freedom from chiding critics.

There is nothing truly beautiful but that which can never be of any use whatsoever; everything useful is ugly, for it is the expression of some need, and man’s needs are ignoble and disgusting like his own poor and infirm nature. The most useful place in a house is the water-closet.

Gautier, however, was a stern judge of art he decided was inferior and reserved his particular scorn for juste milieu artists, or the “official” artists, such as Paul Delaroche, whose works were skillful and entertaining history paintings. As Lynette Stocks pointed out in her article, “Théophile Gautier: Advocate of “Art for Art’s Sake” or champion of Realism?” Gautier called Delaroche and Horace Vernet ballons boursouflés de lounges. His dislike of these middle or the road compromising (and very successful artists) indicated his championing of original art or artists who had a new and unusual approach to art, whether Romantic or Realist. If a taste for the new and the avant-garde was the defining characteristic of Gautiers’ art criticism, then he had an open and eclectic mind for art, a necessary virtue in France where the political and social and artistic terrain was constantly sifting, making the foundation of an art critic a slippery one. But Gautier had what we call today “an eye” for compelling works of art and stood his ground and had the foresight and the insight to praise both Gustave Courbet’s audacious After Dinner at Ornans and Ernst Meissonier’s moving The Street After June Days, exhibited at the same Salon of 1849, regardless of the thorny political paths after the Revolution of 1848.

As James Kearns pointed out in his 2007 book Théophile Gautier, Orator to the Artists: Art Journalism in the Second Republic, Gautier, as the art critic for La Presse, was a profoundly significant influence in the professional lives of artists. As the significance of the Salon waned, the importance of the art critic increased. His influence or impact operated through praise rather than condemnation and he was respected by the artists of his time, because, unlike some of his colleagues, he was did use “good taste” as his standard for judging. There were, however, limits to his criticism. Although Gautier had a fine instinct for the prevailing political winds of his time, his mode of art criticism was slowly becoming out of date. Like Diderot before his, the descriptive mode of art criticism, or what Eugène Delacroix called “pretty word painting,” approached its natural limitations. Gautier may have been excellent at describing the art of his day, but he lacked the dab hand at capturing its essence–a gift that Charles Baudelaire displayed so well. But Gautier established the importance of the role of the art critic and his journalistic work laid the foundation for the way in which art criticism would be the first word or those “present at the creation” on contemporary works of art. For art historians to come, it would be the writings of these art critics which would provide the subtext for art history.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.  Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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