Diderot’s Pleasures

Over the summer I read Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1767 and he became one of my favorite art writers. He knows what he likes, and he knows how to say why it’s good. As you read it you get a sense of him moving through the space of the Salon, observing the paintings, listening to the other viewers, and making his judgments, quickly, with wit and with feeling.

Diderot is credited with the invention of modern art criticism. Before him there were theories about art and histories of it, and theoretical histories—but there weren’t examples of writers who would look at a bunch of artworks and then record their response. He was the first writer to put into words the bodily experience of being among works of art, and having a sense of how his taste conditions a response to them. His approach was descriptive, lively, often conversational—a way of writing that defined journalistic criticism and persists in the best examples of it today: the reviews of Andrew Russeth, Peter Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz. All of those critics write for general interest publications. But the general tone in art criticism today is set by the professional press, the many magazines and journals that are dedicated entirely to art, and for the most part in those publications a sense of taste—or taste as a sense that is connected to an embodied experience of art—is invisible, excised during the writing process, as writers try to project an air of scholarly objectivity, and inscribe art into the systems that govern the professional art world.

In the preface to the edition of Diderot’s writing that I read, Thomas Crow talks about how salon reviews were written before Diderot, and they were widely read and anticipated, because for people who couldn’t make it to Paris for the Salons these reviews were the only way to keep up with the latest in painting; reproductions weren’t available. But these reviews were mostly written for aristocratic collectors around Europe, who factored salon reviews into their choices of whether or not to purchase paintings, and so writing about art was highly regulated. Painters of the academy didn’t want outsiders commenting on their work because it could affect their sales. Diderot’s choice to write in a non-academic style, one that echoed the voice of art’s new public, the people who came to look at the Salons but didn’t have the money to buy anything there, was therefore a political gesture.

Diderot’s choice to write in a way that expresses the potential for spontaneity and emotive response in encounters with art works runs nicely parallel to his main criterion for good art—he likes art that is full of life.

Because Diderot is always looking for life in a work, he can address the subject of a portrait directly: “Madame la Princesse de Chimay, Monsieur le Chevalier de Fitz-James, her brother, you are terrible, absolutely terrible; you are insipid, utterly insipid. Into storage. No nuance, no transitions, no modulation in the flesh tones. Princess, tell me, don’t you feel the weight of this curtain which you’re holding? It’s difficult to say which of the siblings is the stiffest and the coldest.” Sometimes he inserts himself into paintings and imagines himself interacting with the people in them—he talks about the passions or passionlessness of the people depicted as if they’re real, as if he knows them, or could know them. On a historical painting by Halle: “Now tell me, if you will, who is this thin, ignoble, expressionless, characterless man reclining in this tent? ‘It is King Scilurus.’ That, a king! A Scythian king! Where is the pride, the feeling, the judgment, the undisciplined reason of savage man? This is a wretch.”

His judgments are terse (“He also exhibited pictures of fruit and some portraits; the fruit is beautiful, the portraits are bad.”). Or they start out that way. As he writes the review he leads you through the details that produced his judgments, and animates them: “Well, this is heavy-handed and tiresome. The scene unfolds in front of a landscape. And what a landscape! It’s  ponderous; its trees resemble those on the shop signs from the Notre Dame bridge; there’s no air between their trunks and branches; no lightness; no vibrancy in the leaves, which are so firmly glued to together that the wildest hurricane wouldn’t detach a single one.” Then he goes on about “Cupid the Knife-Grinder” present in the foreground. His gut reaction becomes the reader’s gut reaction, but he doesn’t leave it there. He can be nasty but he gives enough description of the work to enrich his account of it—he hits the gut, but gives a sense of the whole body and mind it’s attached to.

This is true his reviews of the paintings he likes as well as the ones he dislikes. When writing about “A Spanish Rider Dressed in the Old Style,” for instance, he starts out by saying “Very handsome little picture, I’ve made a mistake, a handsome large picture!” His point here is that the painter does so much with so little that even though the painting is massive it sticks in his memory as something small. His deliberate correction to his own description gives a sense of the proportion of detail to composition in the work.

He reflects on his method of writing. “A very good method for describing pictures, especially those set in the open, is to enter into the site from the right or left and, advancing forward to the lower edge, to describe its elements as they are encountered. I’m very irritated with myself for not having realized this sooner.” But he never just describes—he tells a story. A story about what is happening in the work, and a story of his encounter with it.

Diderot’s intent, as I wrote above, was to channel the voice of the people—the opinions of people who he heard talking about paintings at the salon. The way he does this is not transcription, but finding a way of writing about art that reanimates in language the immediacy of the experience of being there.

“When I censure I knit my brow,” he writes in his account of seeing some bad portraits. Taste isn’t just about a judgment—it’s a gesture. It’s felt in a body.

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