The 18th Century in Art. Freedom undercover

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The 18th century is marked by an extreme liberation of arts. This was due to the weakness of Royal power at that time. Painters, sculptors and even architects wave on a new flow of freedom, sometimes covered by the usage of classic codes revamped.

Philosophers like Diderot, protector of Arts, helped to establish the “free thinking” in Europe and a new way for Men to reconsider what surround them as well as their own existence. Welcome to a new era that was considered as one of the most progressivist decade of the classic period. It was also called the Era of Enlightenment.

18th century: Royal power is no more

In France, Louis XIV dies in 1715. As the young new King, Louis XV is only 5 years old (5 years and 9 month exactly), a period called Regency starts. During the mandate of Duke of Orleans, the royal power in France gets weaker and let the room to talented philosophers that liberate society from darkness. By enlightening people’s minds with true free thinking, they bring a strong wind of social progress in the Western known world. People like Diderot or Rousseau, completely reshaped the face of politics at that time.


Denis Diderot by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1767

In the United Kingdom, the Royal family is not in a better condition than in France. With the death of Queen Ann, the last of the Stuarts, her son King George I let quite fast the throne to his son King George II. This one was not at all interested by the internal affairs of the country. Motivated by industrial revolution, the British society started moving forward towards a new era of progress. And we can witness this new spirit in Arts, especially in Painting.

Away from Classicism, painting gets a new layer

With less control and more freedom, artists of that time find themselves in a new creative process. The 17th century stretched Art towards a strict classical approach. Louis XIV was definitely the gatekeeper of this. After his death, the world of arts got a new dynamics. Painters would learn a lot from philosophers and the cultural landscape of Europe got reshaped by an almost subversive thinking. Painters like Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jean Simeon Chardin, Antoine Watteau or François Boucher developed a new Genre. The appearance of “Fêtes Galantes” as a topic, let the painter’s imagination flows to unexpected lands. There was an interest for historical painting, and artists like Antoine Watteau developed a series of paintings under this theme. One specific example is “The bal of Pleasures” in 1717.

Le bal des plaisirs
The influence of Rococo and neoclassicism is primal. Facing the freedom that philosophers like Diderot, Voltaire or Rousseau spread, the classicism is less and less followed. The Artist has feelings and he wishes to express them through his painting. Everything becomes more sensitive. Landscapes are seen not as they are but as the painter wished to express himself. Like in this example painted by Simon Mantara “Coucher de Soleil”.

Coucher de Soleil
Of course there were certain topics that painters could not work on because of social moral. The power of Academic painting is still there and often, the artist needs to blur his messages. So painters will put on stage mythology scenes, not for a glorification purpose but for making fun of institutions or even public people. It was also a way to deal with nudity and even more tricky scenes. Jacques-Louis David painted several scenes like this one called Diana and Appolo piercing Niobe’s Children with their arrows. Portrait and Nature
Morte were also reviewed with a new eye, always trying to express something that the painter captured.

Diana and Appolo

What is our legacy?

The 18th century was a true revolution in arts and especially in the role of the artist. In deed, the painter discovered a new role that he could fulfil, the one of a sensitive person, capturing the essence of his time. All of it through the filters of his eyes and his heart. As the philosopher would translate ideas into words, the artist was translating a thought into colors, textures and impressions. These tributes to free thinking would cross eras and be the witness of a passionate time.
The 18th century brought the understanding of the classical codes and the classification of these as an alternative, not an obligation. The Artist went away from the traditional patterns and in a certain way built the foundations of a modern vision of Art.

José Amorim

Info sourced at Fondation de l’Hermitage website, Washington Post archives, Wikipedia, New York Times and Beaux-Arts magazine. All content is copyrighted with no reproduction rights available

José Amorim

José Amorim has been working in the luxury industry for more than 15 years. In the past 8 years, he joined his personal passion for digital culture and his luxury background to develop digital strategies for premium brands. He is the founder of and is happy to share his passion here.