Theatricality and Pity – The Origins of Bourgeois Realism

Posted: March 7, 2018 in Uncategorized

Like Leo Steinberg, Michael Fried did not write exclusively on modern art, but also produced numerous meticulous studies of art in 18th and 19th century France – The Age of Diderot.
Linked here below is Denis Diderot’s “Letter on The Blind.” It’s an analysis of how our conventional system of beliefs and morality is entirely determined by the priority which our culture affords sight, and how a completely different sensibility, which is to say a different moral system, would become the norm in a culture based on touch rather than vision, blindness rather than sightedness. As the painter Greuze depicts it below, as well as in so many of his other paintings, our own “melodramatic” bourgeois world would seem to be highly based on blindness, a lack which is forcefully contained, excluded and controlled precisely by making blindness a “touching” spectacle at our culture’s very center.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze
The Betrothal in The Village, 1776

Denis Diderot
“Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See”

Jean-Baptiste Greuze
(1725 – 1805)
The Father’s Curse, 1777

Diderot, in “Le Fils naturel” and “Père de famille, tried to turn the vein of domestic drama to account on the stage; that which he tried and failed to do, Greuze, in painting, achieved with extraordinary success, although his works, like the plays of Diderot, were affected by that very artificiality against which they protested. The touch of melodramatic exaggeration, however, which runs through them finds an apology in the firm and brilliant play of line, in the freshness and vigour of the flesh tints, in the enticing softness of expression, by the alluring air of health and youth, by the sensuous attractions, in short, with which Greuze invests his lessons of bourgeois morality. As Diderot said of “La Bonne mère,” il a prêché à la population; and a certain piquancy of contrast is the result which never fails to obtain admirers.


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