Europe 1300 - 1800
- A beginner's guide to the Age of Enlightenment
- A beginner's guide to Rococo art
- The Formation of a French School: the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture
- Antoine Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera
- Watteau, Pilgrimage to Cythera
- Boucher, Madame de Pompadour
- The Tiepolo Family
- Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with her Daughter, Julie
- Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with her Daughter
- Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait
- Vigée Le Brun, Madame Perregaux
- Unlocking an 18th-century French mechanical table
- Bernard II van Risenburgh, Writing table
- Construction of an 18th-century French mechanical table
- The inlay technique of marquetry
- Fragonard, The Swing
- Fragonard, The Swing
- Fragonard, The Swing
- Fragonard, The Meeting
- Greuze, The Village Bride
- Architecture in 18th-century Germany
- Joachim Michael Salecker, Cup with cover with Hebrew inscriptions
- Maria Sibylla Merian, an introduction
- Maria Sybilla Merian's Metamorphosis of a Small Emperor Moth on a Damson Plum: Getty Conversations
- Rococo Art
A beginner's guide to the Age of Enlightenment
Scientific experiments like the one pictured here were offered as fascinating shows to the public in the mid-eighteenth century. In Joseph Wright of Derby's painting A Philosopher Giving A Lecture at the Orrery (1765), we see the demonstration of an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system that was used to demonstrate the motions of the planets around the sun—making the universe seem almost like a clock.
In the center of the orrery is a gas light, which represents the sun (though the figure who stands in the foreground with his back to us block this from our view); the arcs represent the orbits of the planets. Wright concentrates on the faces of the figures to create a compelling narrative.
With paintings like these, Wright invented a new subject: scenes of experiments and new machinery, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (think cities, railroads, steam power, gas and then electric light, factories, machines, pollution). Wright's fascination with light, strange shadows, and darkness, reveals the influence of Baroque art.
Toward the middle of the eighteenth century a shift in thinking occurred. This shift is known as the Enlightenment. You have probably already heard of some important Enlightenment figures, like Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire. It is helpful I think to think about the word "enlighten" here—the idea of shedding light on something, illuminating it, making it clear.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment, influenced by the scientific revolutions of the previous century, believed in shedding the light of science and reason on the world in order to question traditional ideas and ways of doing things. The scientific revolution (based on empirical observation, and not on metaphysics or spirituality) gave the impression that the universe behaved according to universal and unchanging laws (think of Newton here). This provided a model for looking rationally on human institutions as well as nature.
Reason and equality
Rousseau, for example, began to question the idea of the divine right of Kings. In The Social Contract, he wrote that the King does not, in fact, receive his power from God, but rather from the general will of the people. This, of course, implies that "the people" can also take away that power! The Enlightenment thinkers also discussed other ideas that are the founding principles of any democracy—the idea of the importance of the individual who can reason for himself, the idea of equality under the law, and the idea of natural rights. The Enlightenment was a period of profound optimism, a sense that with science and reason—and the consequent shedding of old superstitions—human beings and human society would improve.
You can probably tell already that the Enlightenment was anti-clerical; it was, for the most part, opposed to traditional Catholicism. Instead, the Enlightenment thinkers developed a way of understanding the universe called Deism—the idea, more or less, is that there is a God, but that this God is not the figure of the Old and New Testaments, actively involved in human affairs. He is more like a watchmaker who, once he makes the watch and winds it, has nothing more to do with it.
The Enlightenment, the monarchy and the French Revolution
The Enlightenment encouraged criticism of the corruption of the monarchy (at this point King Louis XVI), and the aristocracy. Enlightenment thinkers condemned Rococo art for being immoral and indecent, and called for a new kind of art that would be moral instead of immoral, and teach people right and wrong.
Denis Diderot, Enlightenment philosopher, writer and art critic, wrote that the aim of art was "to make virtue attractive, vice odious, ridicule forceful; that is the aim of every honest man who takes up the pen, the brush or the chisel" (Essai sur la peinture).
These new ways of thinking, combined with a financial crisis (the country was bankrupt) and poor harvests left many ordinary French people both angry and hungry. In 1789, the French Revolution began. In its initial stage, the revolutionaries asked only for a constitution that would limit the power of the king.
Ultimately the idea of a constitution failed, and the revolution entered a more radical stage. In 1792 King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were deposed and ultimately beheaded along with thousands of other aristocrats believed to be loyal to the monarchy.
Want to join the conversation?
- Who wrote this? How can I cite this?(7 votes)
- The original source:
Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Age of Enlightenment, an introduction," in Smarthistory, January 7, 2016, accessed July 15, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/a-beginners-guide-to-the-age-of-enlightenment/(3 votes)
- How does the scientific revolution cause problems woth power and the monarchy in france?(0 votes)
- science then, as science now, challenges the assertions of those who claim the right to wield power. science attempts to look at experientialy verifiable phenomena. A king's claim to rule by divine right cannot be verified scientifically, so it is challenged by science, then and now.(11 votes)
- Regarding Houdon's bust of Voltaire. It appears to have been crafted in the veristic (hyper-realistic) style of the Roman 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. Was it Houdon's intention to reference classical Rome?(3 votes)
- It is a nice assumption to make. While there is no information about a direct reference to veristic style from Roman period, we may argue that the forces behind both artworks were similar. There was a shift towards Humanism, civic duty, the power of ideas above the power coming from somewhere else (such as religion, for example).(3 votes)
- how is the scientific revolution similar to the enlightenment?(2 votes)
- The Scientific Revolution isn't necessarily the same thing as the Enlightenment, but instead a conjoined movement that affected it. The thought processes that developed during the Scientific Revolution (like Francis Bacon's inductive reasoning and Descartes's deductive) helped form the Scientific Method. From there on, the scientific method was applied to different aspects of life, resulting in Enlightenment thinkers like Montesquieu coming up with separation of powers. For similarities, (and this is just my perspective), I would think that the most similar parts of both movements are the gradual departures from previous superstition into a more logical, reasonable world -- hence the name "Age of Reason."(3 votes)
- What was the difference between the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, or were they the same?(1 vote)
- These were different. The scientific revolution was about method and the WAYS to arrive at truth. The Enlightenment was about the very nature of truth.(4 votes)
- How was the age of enlightenment affected nature? we were given the task of writing an essay with the topic being 'the age of enlightenment and nature' and i am having difficulties linking the two(1 vote)
- I think cheeseburgers work well with fries(2 votes)
- Why did the revolutionaries behead the aristocrats associated with the monarch? Wouldn't they get charged with mass murder because they beheaded so many people?(1 vote)
- The revolutionaries BECAME the government, and there was no-one to charge them with murder or mass-murder.(3 votes)
- where is the book?(0 votes)
- Can someone write an article about the two controversies of the late 17th century;(between poussenists and rubenists and ancients and moderns)(0 votes)
- It was an essential feature of the European Renaissance to praise recent discoveries and achievements as a means to assert the independence of modern culture from the institutions and wisdom inherited from Classical (Greek and Roman) authorities. From the first years of the sixteenth century, a key conceit used to this end by the most eminent humanists was that of the "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" — the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass — which together allowed the Moderns to communicate, exert power, and travel at distances never imagined by the Ancients. When the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns later arose in France, this conceit of "Three Greatest Inventions of Modern Times" would almost invariably be adduced as evidence of the Moderns' superiority.(3 votes)