publisher colophon

This article makes a case for the amateur being a key figure in the eighteenth-century Parisian artistic space, between the patron, characteristic of court society in early modern times, and the collector, who emerged later in the nineteenth century. Described in the language of taste, amateurs were not only engaged in aesthetic judgments: removed from this Kantian conception of taste, the article explores the role of amateurs in the production of knowledge and the cognitive dimension of taste in eighteenth-century Paris. In the culture of amateurs, knowledge was a praxis, not a theory, grounded in concrete relations to natural objects or artifacts and associated with amateur art. This cognitive conception of taste was embedded in a social system that was supported by the academic institution and embodied in the figure of the amateur, before becoming irreconcilable with the social and political mutations of the Parisian art world at the end of the century.

In 1765, the famous painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze displayed his portrait of Claude-Henri Watelet in a prominent position in the Salon carré of the Louvre where, ever since the phenomenal success of L'Accordée de village, every work by the painter had caused a sensation. Diderot, however, was very disparaging about it: "Il est terne; il a l'air d'être embu, il est maussade. C'est l'homme; retournez la toile" [It is dull; there is something cloudy and overcast about it. And that is just the man himself: turn the painting over].1 This uncompromising judgment, delivered to the readers of the Correspondance littéraire, applied both to the portrait itself and to its sitter: Claude-Henri Watelet, General Treasurer of France and member of the Académie Française. Watelet was the author of L'Art de peindre; he had been received as an honorary associate of the Académie royale de peinture in 1747, and as an honorary amateur in 1766, one year after the portrait was painted [fig. 1]. The portrait shows Watelet deeply absorbed in the contemplation of a reduced-scale bronze reproduction of the Venus de'Medici. But he is portrayed as displaying not only aesthetic admiration for the sculpture, but expertise as well. He is shown checking the proportions of the statue with a pair of calipers in his right hand, while his left rests on a copy of his Art de Peindre, open at the page presenting Watelet's own engraving of the Venus [fig. 2], thus showing his personal production of art. The statue is both a reminder of the Enlightenment taste for classical art and an affirmation of its aesthetic canon.2 The painting, depicting Watelet in rapt admiration of the statue, therefore portrays him as both a talented amateur [End Page 519] engraver and an admirer of classical art. The statue serves as an evocation of Rome, where Watelet spent a few months in 1764. Slightly different from the demonstrative portraits of Englishmen on their Grand Tour of Europe painted by Pompeo Batoni, this painting is more intimate, displaying both study and admiration of art. Together with the portfolio under the table, the statue reminds the viewer of Watelet's own collection. He is shown here dressed for study in an expensive silk dressing-gown, a sign that he was not only a scholar, but also a man of distinction. Wealth is represented as being in the service of art and knowledge.

Figure 1. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Claude-Henri Watelet, 1765, oil on canvas, 115 x 88 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Claude-Henri Watelet, 1765, oil on canvas, 115 x 88 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre.

This portrait is in fact a representation of the amateur, a new figure in the Parisian artistic circles of the Enlightenment, and established as its typical audience by the Académie royale de peinture in the mid-eighteenth century.3 This central figure of the Enlightenment period has, however, never really been an object of study for art historians. In art history, the term "amateur" has always been used in a wide and unhistorical way, either to refer to the adepts of a particular painter or type of painting ("les amateurs de Greuze"), or as a synonym for "collector" or for "public" ("les amateurs au Salon"). I wish to present a different hypothesis [End Page 520] here: the amateur was a very specific type of figure, who became predominant in eighteenth-century France, as is confirmed by the history of the term. Appearing for the first time as an adjective in the dictionary of the Académie française in 1694, the term was transformed into a noun during the first half of the eighteenth century and was specifically applied to lovers of paintings in Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, published in 1751. The amateur constituted an intermediate figure between the patron, characteristic of court society in early modern times,4 and the collector, who emerged as the art market developed.5 Focusing on the figure of the amateur will allow us to bring together two fields that are often artificially separated: on the one hand, the social history of the art market and art collecting; and on the other, the history of the emergence of a public sphere of art and of aesthetics.6

Figure 2. Claude-Henri Watelet, Vénus de Médicis, after Jean-Baptiste- Marie Pierre (1759 and 1760). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 2.

Claude-Henri Watelet, Vénus de Médicis, after Jean-Baptiste- Marie Pierre (1759 and 1760). Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.

In the eighteenth-century context, the amateur is defined by the notion of taste, which includes a whole series of social and cultural practices in the artistic sphere which go far beyond the simple collection of art works, a function to which the amateur is all too often reduced: attendance in academic institutions, [End Page 521] commissioning works of art, socializing with artists, writing scholarly texts on art, and finally, nonprofessional production of works of art. The French amateur therefore combined, in a very specific way, the figures of the patron and of the amateur in the English sense. These different practices would diverge in the course of the nineteenth century, and give rise to a variety of figures: the collector, the art historian, the art critic, the amateur artist. At that time, the figure of the amateur would lose the central position that it had occupied during the Enlightenment and would come to acquire negative connotations, due to increasing criticism of "amateurism."7 Greuze's painting is emblematic because it illustrates the different practices with which the amateur was associated during the Enlightenment; as a member of the Académie royale, Watelet published scholarly works on painting, went to Rome, was known as an amateur engraver, and commissioned works of art from contemporary artists. Therefore, through his criticism of this portrait, Diderot was not only attacking the sitter, but also what he was later to call in his Salon of 1767 "Cette race maudite . . . des amateurs" [That accursed race . . . of amateurs] (Œuvres, 4: 520).

So, what exactly was an amateur in the eighteenth century? How are we to understand the polemics that this figure generated? And finally, how are we to interpret the language of taste, which is constantly associated with this figure? Far from being somewhat vague and generic, the amateur was theorized as a social and political figure within the art world, legitimated by new forms of artistic patronage and sociability. First directed by the monarchy against the rise of the artistic public sphere, amateurs shaped communities in which the language of taste functioned as a social bond, creating new "societies" around objects and nurturing the production of knowledge in all fields, from art to science. Passionately turned toward objects and their materiality, as epitomized by the practice of collecting, amateurs participated in the production of knowledge in eighteenth-century Paris. In this conception, taste not only functioned as an aesthetic device, but also framed a specific relationship between society and knowledge, mediated by objects, embedded in the social organization of the art worlds.

The Amateur in the Parisian Art World: A Sociopolitical Figure

An Academic Model of the Public

At the end of the 1740s, the Académie royale de peinture underwent a major period of institutional reform in order to restore it to the glory it had enjoyed during Colbert's time and under the direction of the painter Charles Lebrun.8 The most important measure taken was the organizing of the Salon de peinture, an exhibition which was to be held in the Louvre every two years beginning in 1751. This measure was a success: the Salons, which were open to the general public, free of charge, became a major event in the Parisian cultural agenda; in 1787 there were about sixty thousand visitors to the exhibition of works by artists from the Academy.9 The Salons thus encouraged the emergence of a new public space devoted to art, and gave birth to Salon criticism, a new literary genre that brought together art criticism and political radicalism.10 Paradoxically, although the Salons were a success and enabled the Académie royale to regain its former place in the Parisian artistic sphere, they also constituted a threat to its legitimacy by exposing [End Page 522] it to severe criticism from both art critics and pamphleteers. However, another element of this institutional reform was introduced to accompany the opening of the Academy to the public, and this was the class of honorary amateurs.

Created in 1663, the status of honorary amateur was extensively reorganized in 1747. This position, usually attributed to high members of the Administration des Bâtiments du Roi, was now open to larger Parisian elites, above all men well known for their taste and knowledge of the fine arts.11 The status also was reorganized to gain more visibility as the figure of amateur rose in the Parisian artistic space; it was given a wholly new theoretical base in 1748 by the Comte de Caylus (1692-1765), in his lecture "De l'Amateur."12 With this lecture, the title of amateur was established as the exclusive prerogative of the Académie royale, which fought to resist the spread of the term in the brochures of Salon criticism, in which the figure of the amateur was used to legitimate artistic judgments.13 The definitions given in this lecture are therefore very important if one is to understand how the public space given over to painting was ordered in the eighteenth century. The Comte de Caylus, himself an honorary amateur of the Académie royale, pointed out that the title of "amateur" was not to be taken lightly; only the honorary amateurs of the Académie royale could lay claim to it.14 The others were dismissed as simple "curieux" or spectators: "n'étant point engagés, [ils] sont maîtres de leurs occupations ou de leurs amusements" [as they have no official status, [they] may spend their time and amuse themselves as they wish]. Caylus associated the curieux with entertainment and fashion, whereas taste was the essential attribute of the honorary amateur: it was "la base, le fonds et la seule ressource du véritable amateur" [the basis, the foundation and the only resource of the true amateur].15

The importance that Caylus attached to taste (and I will return to this point later) is symptomatic of the debates on taste during the Enlightenment. In 1719, the Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture by the Abbé Du Bos marked the abandoning of universal principles of classical reasoning, and the "trend toward subjectivism."16 From that date onward, philosophical reflections on taste would increase in number.17 Caylus, in his demonstration, draws on some of these reflections; taste is presented as the essential attribute of the amateur, and it involves a whole range of artistic practices. The amateur indulges himself in artistic creation, which is considered a central element in the construction of his artistic judgment: "la nécessité, que je crois presque indispensable à l'amateur, de copier en tout genre, de dessiner et de peindre même d'après la nature, enfin de pratiquer toutes les opérations de ce bel art" [The necessity, which I believe to be almost indispensable to an amateur, to copy all kinds of works, to draw and to paint, even after nature, and to practice all the operations of fine art].18 Here, Caylus theorizes the role of artistic practice in the formation of artistic judgment. Moreover, the academic model of the amateur underlines the importance of socializing with artists. The amateur is presented as an advisor to artists: he does not formulate a critical judgment, but advises the artist in his artistic choices "avec la modestie d'un homme qui doute [et] ne doit jamais s'en souvenir" [but with the modesty of a man who doubts [and] must never remember [his remarks]].19 Therefore, his relationship with the artist is described in the language of friendship—a vocabulary which reveals both the evolution of the artist's social status and the reconfiguration of the Parisian elites, removed from the court model of the age of classicism.20 [End Page 523]

Public Space versus Taste Communities

As we have seen, the amateur is not defined by his relation to the public, in the Habermassian sense of the term as "critical public space."21 In fact, Caylus is following in the steps of the Abbé Du Bos, another theorist of the monarchical system of arts and a royal censor, who had written: "Le mot de public ne renferme ici que les personnes qui ont acquis des lumières, soit par la lecture, soit par le commerce du monde. . . . Le public dont il s'agit ici est donc borné aux personnes qui lisent, qui connaissent les spectacles, qui voient et qui entendent parler de tableaux" [The term "public" here only refers to persons who have been enlightened, either by reading, or by frequenting society. . . . The public referred to here is therefore restricted to those who read, who go to exhibitions, who look at and hear about pictures].22 Caylus shares Du Bos's conception of the public as being made up of men of the world or of cultivated men: i.e., a public of amateurs, or rather a community of amateurs, defined by their taste, their social relations with artists, and their artistic practice, amounting to knowledge of art. His more restrictive conception of coteries of amateurs is grounded on Du Bos's elitist vision of amateurs remaining associated with the official arts policy of the monarchy, as Thomas Kaiser has shown. Therefore, they share this idea that the academic model of amateurs is not a critical one.23

The Académie royale's policy of opening its Salons free of charge to a public of all-comers, and at the same time denying it any right to formulate a critical judgment is, however, not at all paradoxical. The public of the Salons, as it was conceived of in the monarchical artistic system, is still a public of representation in the Habermassian meaning, to whom the royal authority shows itself and over whom it exercises its power, and who in return gives this power its legitimacy: much in the way of the public that attended the ceremonial entries into cities. Here is the function of such a public, as described in the Lettres écrites de Paris à Bruxelles sur le Sallon de 1748: "l'Académie, dont le but n'est pas de s'instruire par le jugement du public, elle se tient tout instruite, mais de recevoir ses applaudissements et ses louanges et de l'exciter à profiter des talents dont elle lui présente de si brillantes preuves" [. . . the Academy's aim is not to take any lessons from the judgment of the public, as it does not need any such lessons. Its aim is to receive the praise of the public, and to encourage it to appreciate the brilliant talents which are exposed there].24 In the monarchical artistic system, the public does not exist as a critical body.

On the contrary, criticism had to be kept within the institution, in the well-disciplined space reserved for academic and worldly socializing. As we have seen, the honorary amateurs, presented as paragons of taste and as "true connoisseurs," did not publicly express any judgments on the works of art displayed, and did nothing more than give private advice to the painters; their role was that of a friendly advisor, not a critic. The director of the Académie royale, the painter Charles-Antoine Coypel, had thus defined the limits of the legitimate exercise of the judgment of taste: "Les vrais connoisseurs ne hasardent pas volontiers des décisions. Ils proposent leurs avis aux gens du métier" [True connoisseurs are not accustomed to giving decisive views. They give their opinion to those whose profession it is to paint].25 In a reaction to Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne's Réflexions sur quelques causes de l'état présent de la peinture, published in 1747,26 [End Page 524] Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774) shared this viewpoint. An influential honorary amateur of the Académie royale and a recognized connoisseur, owner of a major collection of drawings and engravings, Mariette opposed the public space of print to the private space of social exchanges and friendly advice: "Mais autre chose est de dire confidemment ce que dicte l'amitié, autre chose est de laisser écrire imprudemment à sa plume, & de faire imprimer des absurdités" [It is one thing to say in confidence things that are dictated by friendship; it is quite another to give a free rein imprudently to one's pen, and to allow ill-considered opinions to appear in print].27 In the model promoted by the Academy, amateurs did not publicly criticize; they advised artists and supported artistic production thanks to their social, intellectual, and financial resources. In other words, they were not connected with the Habermassian public sphere.

It was on this precise point that the positions of the Encyclopédistes, defended by Diderot, and those of the amateurs, theorized by the Comte de Caylus, fundamentally diverged. Since the time of the Abbé Du Bos, the amateurs had been defined within a worldly, sociable sphere, and not in a relationship with the public space of print. As Caylus pointed out in his lecture, the responsibility of the amateurs was toward the artists of the Académie royale, and not toward the public. On the contrary, the Encyclopédistes strove to establish a role of political responsibility toward their audience. Here is what Diderot wrote of the philosophers: "[ils] sont ce petit troupeau . . . cette église invisible qui écoute, qui regarde, qui médite, qui parle bas, et dont la voix prédomine à la longue et forme l'opinion générale" [[They] are that little flock . . . that invisible congregation which listens, watches, and meditates, which speaks in a low voice, and whose voice eventually predominates and forms the general opinion] (my emphasis). 28 In opposition to the exercise of taste limited to a restricted social circle, the Encyclopédistes defended their role in the formation of public opinion. In his Observations sur la sculpture et sur Bouchardon, Diderot wrote in 1763: "Qu'est-ce donc qu'un amateur, si les autres n'en savent pas plus que le comte de Caylus? Y aurait-il, comme ils le prétendent, un tact donné par la nature et perfectionné par l'expérience qui leur fait prononcer d'un ton aussi sûr que despotique, Cela est bien, voilà qui est mal, sans qu'ils soient en état de rendre compte de leurs jugements?" [What, then, is an amateur, if the others have no more knowledge than the Comte de Caylus? Does there exist, then, as they claim, such a thing as taste, given by nature and perfected by experience, which allows them to say, in such a peremptory way, "This is good and that is not good," without them having to justify their opinions in any way?] (Œuvres, 13: 324). These debates on the status of the amateur reveal radically opposing conceptions of what was meant by the public and of the different foundations of criticism (communities vs. general public opinion; taste vs. judgment), and were to become an increasingly important political issue in the life of Salon art criticism. We may now better understand Diderot's famous diatribe in the Salon of 1767, against the "accursed race of amateurs":

Ah! mon ami, la maudite race que celle des amateurs! . . . Elle commence à s'éteindre ici, où elle n'a que trop duré et fait trop de mal. Ce sont ces gens-là qui décident à tort et à travers des réputations; qui ont pensé faire mourir Greuze de douleur et de faim; . . . qui s'interposent entre l'homme opulent et l'artiste indigent; qui font payer au talent la protection qu'ils [End Page 525] lui accordent; qui lui ouvrent ou ferment les portes; . . . qui lui arrachent à vil prix ses meilleures productions; qui sont à l'affût, embusqués derrière son chevalet; . . . qui le gênent, le troublent dans son atelier par l'importunité de leur présence et l'ineptie de leurs conseils; qui le découragent, qui l'éteignent, et qui le tiennent, tant qu'ils peuvent dans la cruelle alternative de sacrifier ou son génie, ou son élévation, ou sa fortune.

[Ah! my friend, what an accursed race are the amateurs! . . . They are starting to die out here, where they have lived for too long, and have done too much damage. These are the people who can make or break a reputation for you; who would have liked Greuze to die of grief and starvation; who interpose themselves between the affluent man and the penniless artist; who make the talented artist pay for the protection they give to him; who can open or close doors; . . . who buy up his best works at a ridiculously low price; who are there, lying in wait behind his easel; . . . who importune and disturb him while he is at work in his studio, pestering him with their presence and their inept advice; who discourage him, dull his brilliance, and who hold him for as long as they can in the cruel alternative to sacrifice either his genius, or his position, or his fortune.]

(Œuvres, 4: 520)

Diderot refutes the idea, which had been defended and theorized by Caylus, of the amateur as a mediator, criticizing his intrusion into the artist's working space under the pretence of giving friendly advice. He denounces a new form of socioeconomic dependency, masquerading as a form of sociability between equals, between artists and amateurs, and criticizes the system of patronage and commissioning of works of art, which in his opinion is nothing more than a disguised enslavement of the "artist's genius."29 As Diderot's frustration makes clear, the creation of an enlarged amateurs' network sponsored by the Académie royale helped French artists to gain more visibility, but the paintings they effectively commissioned were designed to please, not to instruct. In that sense, amateurs did not support the production of the moralizing art that Diderot and the Salon critics called for. On the contrary, they failed to make art more morally uplifting in function; fashionable painters first and foremost specialized in genre painting, as the painter Julien de Parme (1736-1799) disappointedly noted after visiting Watelet's private collection in 1774: "Qui l'aurait cru! Un homme qui est de l'académie des Belles-Lettres, et qui en a obtenu l'entrée par un Poème sur la Peinture; un homme qui passe pour l'amateur le plus éclairé de nos jours . . . N'ayant pu m'empêcher de dire que le corps d'un certain Vulcain, peint par Boucher n'avait rien du tout des belles formes antiques, il me répondit qu'il y avait beaucoup de vérités de nature et un pinceau moelleux. Mais la vérité est qu'il n'y avait autre chose que la manière française la plus outrée" [Who would have thought! A man from the Académie des Belles-Lettres, who was elected thanks to a Poem on Painting; a man who is considered as the most enlightened amateur . . . Having objected to him that the body of a certain Vulcan, painted by Boucher, had nothing of the beauty of Antiquity, he answered that there was a lot of truthfulness in nature and a soft brush in this painting. But the truth is that there was nothing other than the most excessive French manner].30 As Diderot complained, while amateurs gave French painters more visibility, until Jacques-Louis David they supported painting that entertained and pleased their eyes, remaining indifferent to the critics who called for a revival of patriotic and virtuous painting. [End Page 526]

The Amateurs and the Birth of the French School of Painting

A large market for commissioned works, structured by social relations and protection, began to take shape in the second half of the eighteenth century, thanks to the monarchical patriotism set up by the Académie royale through its honorary amateurs, whose artistic practices served as a model for the wealthy elites of good Parisian society. As we shall see, this market for commissioned works would favor the emergence of a number of fashionable painters and, eventually, a whole new national school of painting, thanks to such artists as Joseph Vernet, Hubert Robert, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, and Jacques-Louis David. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the increasing visibility of contemporary French paintings in Parisian collections may be explained by the development of new forms of sociability between artists and amateurs in the circles that revolved around the Académie royale: the Parisian salons, the Académie de France à Rome, and Masonic lodges.31

A case in point is that of the painter Joseph Vernet, who presents an extreme example of what could happen in a commission-based market structured by social relations. Vernet was remarkably well integrated into the Parisian painting market, and Mariette wrote of him that: "Vernet est peut-être le seul d'entre les peintres qui ait vu vendre ses tableaux au poids de l'or" [Vernet is perhaps the only painter who has seen his paintings sold for prices in gold].32 The accounts he kept daily in his Livre de raison allow us to understand how marine paintings became fashionable among the members of high society, and how Vernet carefully cultivated the social relations that fuelled his steady stream of commissions. He was particularly well received by the Marquis de Marigny, whose château in Ménars he was invited to visit several times.33 This meticulous record of his day-to-day social relations in his accounting books became an indispensable tool for organizing Vernet's network of commissions. In 1779, in a section entitled "Visites faites en 1779 pour le Nouvel An," no fewer than 111 visits are thus consigned, bearing witness to the particularly extensive network Vernet had established for himself. We find in it numerous artists and honorary members of the Académie royale, and especially the many patrons who ordered paintings from the artist. While there are relatively few nobles on the list, eminent members of the legal and financial professions are particularly well represented: Jacques Necker, Robert Tronchin, Radix de Sainte-Foix, Jean-Joseph de La Borde, the Présidente de Bandeville, etc. This self-conscious and strategic cultivation of his social network is again confirmed in Vernet's account books, where each year in January he lists all the money spent for New Year's gifts, especially for the servants (doormen, valets) of the most wealthy and powerful amateurs and artists in Paris: M. Bertin, M. Tronchin, M. de Villetaneuse, M. Vanloo, de la Ferté Imbault, Roslin, Soufflot, etc. [fig. 3].

Similarly, the collection of the financier Pierre-Jacques-Onésyme Bergeret (1715-1785), which was auctioned in 1786, featured seventy-five lots by French painters, including thirty-three lots of paintings attributed to Boucher.34 This taste for French painting is a reflection of Bergeret's social network; he had received drawing lessons at Boucher's workshop,35 he frequented the painter at the Académie royale, and he commissioned paintings from him. Although we do find, among his collection, a work by Fragonard entitled Première pensée du sacrifice de Callirhoé, a sketch made by the painter for his reception piece, there are only three other lots [End Page 527]

Figure 3. Joseph Vernet, Livre de raison, January 1778. Bibliothèque municipale d'Avignon, Manuscript 2323, fol. 59.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 3.

Joseph Vernet, Livre de raison, January 1778. Bibliothèque municipale d'Avignon, Manuscript 2323, fol. 59.

of paintings by Fragonard, with whom Bergeret had traveled in Italy in 1773-74, but with whom he had subsequently fallen out in a revealing incident over the payment for a number of drawings Fragonard had made during their stay in Italy. Bergeret considered the drawings rightfully his in repayment for the sums of money he had spent on the painter during the trip; Fragonard, however, firmly intended [End Page 528] to sell them on the Parisian art market. The dispute was taken to the courts, and finally settled in the painter's favor, thereby showing that the imperatives of a free market outweighed the system of patronage and artistic protection.36

The collection of the diplomat Ange-Laurent La Live de Jully (1725-1779) also reveals close links between social life and the commissioning of paintings; the diplomat owned ten paintings by Greuze (one a self-portrait, another of La Live de Jully himself), distributed throughout the different rooms that made up his collection, so that he always had one of Greuze's paintings in front of his eyes.37 La Live de Jully's relation to Greuze's work was therefore mediated by the social connections, expressed in terms of friendship, that the diplomat had established with the artist. Very early in Greuze's career, La Live de Jully had acted in favor of his work; he helped the painter to become a member of the Académie royale, and commissioned from him his first masterpiece: Le Père de famille expliquant la Bible à ses enfants, which was presented at the Salon of 1755. The painting was bought for twice its asking price,38 a reflection not only of its intrinsic value but also of the special relationship between artist and buyer. La Live's collection therefore bears witness to a new type of attitude toward artworks, exemplified by the figure of the amateur, and proposed as a model by the Académie royale.

Although Colin Bailey has shown that these collections reflect the ever increasing number of works commissioned from modern French painters, these works cannot really be said to correspond to the "patriotic taste" defended by the Salon critics, and especially by Diderot. Indeed, this patriotic taste, as defined by the pamphleteers of the time and by the Académie royale during its reform, was not only a taste for national and modern paintings, but was also based on the defense of a moral type of painting, amounting to a preference for historical painting. In that sense, the academic and patriotic model of the amateur spread only superficially to the wealthy elites of Parisian good society, even though they presented themselves—and were presented—as amateurs. As sale catalogs prove, the works found in the collections of those who described themselves as amateurs were much more typical of the category of genre painting than of historical, edifying, and moralistic painting, much to the distaste of the Salon critics. La Toilette de Vénus by François Boucher [fig. 4], which figures among the works belonging to the financier Jean-Nicolas de Boullongne (1726-1787) sold in 1787, is typical of the mythological scenes produced as genre paintings.39 All these paintings of mythological scenes, treated in a sensual manner, did not belong to the great tradition of historical painting, a fact deplored by many Salon critics.40 We may therefore understand the annoyance of Diderot and his fellows when they violently criticized the amateurs' failure to bring about an aesthetic and political renewal of "good" taste.

This social and political criticism of the amateur came to a head at the time of the Revolution when, fuelled by anti-Academic attitudes, it finally marked the end of a particular model of the amateur. During the Revolution, the Société républicaine des arts was to cover with the same opprobrium the academic institution, its honorary members, and, more generally, the system of artistic protection, denounced as despotic: "Sous le régime du Tyran, les Institutions académiques, troupes de Savants, où le mérite flattait bassement des Gentilshommes ignorants, et les décorait du vain titre d'Académiciens honoraires, les productions se ressentaient [End Page 529] de cette intrigue, et le génie esclave animait rarement le marbre, ou la toile, de sujets vertueux" [The works produced under the regime of the Tyrant with its academic institutions made up of flocks of savants (being a member of which was flattering for ignorant noblemen, and which decorated them with the vain title of Honorary Academicians), bear the mark of intrigue, and enslaved genius rarely found a virtuous expression in marble or on canvas].41 Only Jacques-Louis David managed the feat of reconciling the Salon critics and the iconographical program of the Académie royale while retaining his links with the ancien régime networks of sociability, his clients being mainly future emigrants.42

Figure 4. François Boucher, La Toilette de Vénus, 1751, oil on canvas, 108.3 x 85.1 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 4.

François Boucher, La Toilette de Vénus, 1751, oil on canvas, 108.3 x 85.1 cm, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[End Page 530]

Taste Communities

The Borders of a Notion: Between Social Art History and Aesthetics

With its criticism of "modern taste" and defense of "patriotic taste," the debate inflaming the artistic community concerning the figure of the amateur is therefore revelatory of both political and artistic issues. However, the language of taste as developed in these exchanges is very far from being reduced to this single dimension, and relates to other spheres linked to the formation of knowledge during the Enlightenment. The amateur, indeed, was associated with a whole range of practices involving fine art objects: their collection, their manipulation, and their visual reproduction in scientific publications. All of these practices were described in the language of taste, and they reveal its cognitive dimension in the eighteenth century. In the rest of this article, we will examine the new relations that arose between knowledge and the social spheres, through practices linked to the notion of taste. To do so, we must first put aside the aesthetic perspective, as well as the sociological perspective that considers taste as an element of social differentiation. The question therefore is, what exactly was "taste" in eighteenth-century France, and what role did it play in the organization of knowledge?43

This is no easy question to answer, as Madame de Lambert pointed out in her Réflexions sur le goût, published in 1748: "Tout le monde parle du goût: on sait que l'esprit de goût est au-dessus des autres: on sent donc tout le besoin qu'on a d'en avoir; cependant rien de moins connu que le goût" [Everyone talks about taste; we know that the sense of taste is superior to all others; and yet there is nothing that is less well known].44 Madame de Lambert's words are still valid today, if we look at how the notion of taste has been treated by both historians and art historians. Rarely defined in a precise manner, taste appears as a true "black box"45 in the social history of art in France, used to describe the relationship between an individual or a social group with an object or a category of objects, in the context of the history of collecting or cultural consumptions: for example, the "taste" of Regency financial elites for Rococo objects. In the history of taste, the word even designates a historical dynamic, as in the case of so-called revolutions in taste.

However, in my opinion, taste cannot be an operative category in the history of art; the term is too bound up in conflicts of definition and representation, which it also serves to hide or to reproduce. Indeed, it is originally a term used for evaluation, which has to do with judgment, with assessment, and not a tangible descriptive category in terms of social practices. In fact, the new importance that taste took on in eighteenth-century France is linked to the new theoretical foundations of empirical and subjective aesthetics of the Age of Enlightenment,46 which raised the question of the legitimate criteria upon which artistic judgment could be based following the failure of the universal principles of classical reason: How is it possible to reconcile the subjective nature of representation and the universal notion of Beauty? All of the debates as to the foundations of taste—which went on throughout the century, and were particularly well represented in Salon art criticism) 47—hinge on this basic question. It was not until 1790, with the publication of his Critique of the Power of Judgment, that Immanuel Kant managed to overcome the apparent contradiction between the empirical form of aesthetic judgment and its universal dimension.48 Taste was defined as the power to judge in itself; it was universal not because of its real effectuation, but because of its potentiality, its [End Page 531] "communicability."49 This conception of taste, strongly marked by Kant's ideas, was associated in philosophy with operations of aesthetic judgment: "The judgement of taste is therefore not a cognitive judgement, hence not a logical one, but is rather aesthetic, by which is understood one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective."50 In opposition to Kant's view of the power of taste as being disinterested,51 the uses of taste in eighteenth-century France were based on operations of knowledge and on forms of sociability mediated through collections and learned publications.

Taste Communities: Integrating Art into Society

I now propose to examine the notion of taste not from a philosophical or intellectual standpoint, but from the perspective of cultural history. In eighteenth-century France, taste was prescriptive, since its function was to create sociability and a sense of community, and it was often opposed to "caprice," the product of arbitrary individual judgment. Taste was the language framing social relationships between some individuals, represented or self-presented as amateurs, gathered around objects of collection. In short, taste functioned as a social bound for "societies" in the sense that one spoke in the eighteenth century of "théâtre de société," "talents de société," or "littérature de société," all forms of social aggregation outside of institutions.52 Taste, as opposed to caprice, was praised when it could be socialized; for example, it was mentioned frequently in the eulogies that introduced art sale catalogs, such as one of a M. Potier in 1757: "son goût pour la curiosité . . . le mit en relation avec les plus célèbres Amateurs de ce temps, tels que M. de Beringhen, M. de Torcy, M. de Clairembault, & autres personnes aussi distinguées" [his taste for curiosities . . . put him in relationships with the most famous Amateurs of that time—M. de Beringhen, M. de Torcy, M. de Clairembault & other distinguished persons]. This is how the numerous and often very conventional texts on collecting should be interpreted: "La Collection qui forme l'objet de ce Catalogue, est moins un amas confus & nombreux fait par le désir seul d'avoir beaucoup d'objets, qu'un choix agréable & d'un goût sûr, puisqu'il plaît à tout le monde" [The Collection described in this Catalog, far from being a jumbled mass brought together simply for the sake of owning an abundance of objects, is the result of careful choice and reliable taste, since it pleases everyone].53 The language of taste relied on an ideal of communication and socialization of one's likings: "Everyone" does not refer here to the general public, but to small societies, structured by interpersonal relationships, civility, and forms of sociability, within which artistic and erudite judgments could be exchanged and discussed.

Obviously, in these taste communities, the hierarchies of the ancien régime had not been abolished; they had merely been temporarily suspended to favor the creation of social connections based on a shared admiration and passion for objects, either of the artistic or the scientific sort. This is how the remark made by Edme-François Gersaint (1694-1750), a merchant who specialized in fine art objects, should be understood: "Quels avantages un curieux ne tire-t-il pas des suites ordinaires de sa curiosité? . . . en qualité de curieux, il devient égal à ceux-mêmes, qui livrés à cette noble passion, se trouvent au-dessus de son état par leur rang ou par leur condition: comme tel, il est appelé et reçu avec plaisir dans leurs assemblées" [What advantages can a curieux not gain from the usual consequences [End Page 532] of his collecting? . . . As a curieux, he becomes the equal of those who, sharing this noble passion, are above him by their rank or condition; but as such he may be invited and received with pleasure in their midst].54 Erudite practices—including collecting objects, experimenting with them, exhibiting them, and writing learned treatises (on the arts, the experimental sciences, or natural history)—allowed the emergence of taste communities that disregarded the social hierarchies of the ancien régime but remained very elitist. The discourse on taste brought together social and erudite practices, thereby revealing a type of organization of knowledge within society, characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment.

This brings me to call into question the connection, made in 1987 by historian Krzysztof Pomian, between the consumption of objects and eighteenth-century French society.55 According to Pomian, the study of shells developed especially within an erudite context at first, while the financial elites were more interested in medals, and court circles were taken up with aesthetic considerations. However, it would be advisable to revise this view of social categories, and to escape from this fixed vision of a compartmented society: "les hommes ne sont pas dans les catégories sociales comme des billes dans des boîtes . . . les identités sociales ou les liens sociaux n'ont pas de nature, mais seulement des usages" [People are not to be put into social categories, like marbles in boxes . . . social identities and social connections do not depend on nature, but on practices].56 The category of amateurs—in which we find financiers, booksellers, members of parliament, and aristocrats—is a good example of the value of taste as an artistic operator into the social sphere, but always linked to elitist and exclusive conceptions of taste and knowledge. In particular, the much disparaged milieu of financiers was precisely the environment in which most of the major scientific figures of the century were recruited. It is therefore crucial not to oppose these different spheres, as Pomian does. The financier Joseph Bonnier de la Mosson in the field of natural history, Claude-Henri Watelet in artistic circles, and Antoine Lavoisier in the field of experimental chemistry are only a few examples of men who defined themselves by their taste and as amateurs. They produced genuine knowledge in their different fields, while admittedly at the same time developing their social and symbolic prestige.

If Pierre Bourdieu's definition of taste as distinction is completely accurate,57 taste and amateurs must, however, be taken seriously to understand the new regime of knowledge they contributed to building in the mid-eighteenth century. In 1740, the Comte de Caylus engraved the trade card of Gersaint after a drawing by François Boucher [fig. 5]. How could one explain in terms of social distinction why a genuine aristocrat of well-established lineage would condescend to engrave a trade card for a merchant—even though he was an art dealer, and the friend of Watteau, the most famous painter of the Regency?58 Indeed, the existence of this trade card is proof of the permeability of social spheres linked to the new importance of art dealership and scholarship in the eighteenth century, and to the amateur practice of art. Since he contributed to shaping and theorizing the taste communities emerging in the art worlds, Gersaint was fully entitled to participate in the latter, even though he was a mere dealer. The Comte de Caylus, who was closely connected to Gersaint because of his friendship with Watteau as well as his engagement in auctions and sale catalogs, wanted simultaneously to thank his merchant friend, cement his social connection with him, and show off his own artistic talents by [End Page 533] engraving Gersaint's trade card. The trade card had an ambiguous status; it was not primarily intended for Gersaint's clientele. It was first produced as a "gravure de société," in the sense in which the eighteenth century understood the term: i.e., an engraving intended not for sale, but for giving to friends—amateurs, merchants, and artists—to cement social connections based on a shared and elitist passion for art objects.59 As a tangible and durable sign of this social alliance, Caylus inscribed his own name and signature on Gersaint's trade card.

Figure 5. Trade card of Edme-François Gersaint, À La Pagode, engraved and signed by the Comte de Caylus, 1740. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 5.

Trade card of Edme-François Gersaint, À La Pagode, engraved and signed by the Comte de Caylus, 1740. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.

Taste as Knowledge

In the remainder of this article, I will show that the Kantian notion of taste, combined with the emergence of the notions of subjectivity and personal judgment in the Romantic period, has obscured the strong cognitive dimension of taste in eighteenth-century France. By this I mean that taste—both in practice and in representation— participated in the production of empirical knowledge and also framed [End Page 534] the social and scientific context in which objects of collection were appropriated, manipulated, and finally, classified. This practical knowledge, embedded in empiricism and described in the language of taste, participated in the development of art history, natural history, and even the experimental sciences in eighteenth-century France. It may be understood similarly to the "cognitive operation" theorized by Michel de Certeau: "detached from its procedures, this knowledge may pass for a kind of "taste," "tact" or even "genius." It is accorded the characteristics of an intuition that is alternately artistic and automatic. It is supposed to be a knowledge that is unaware of itself."60 It is fundamental to recognize this cognitive dimension of taste, linked as it was to specific practices involving artistic objects and the sciences, if we are to understand how knowledge was organized in France during the Enlightenment. When associated with the figure of the amateur, the language of taste is used to describe an erudite type of relationship with objects; one could speak equally well of a "goût pour les Arts" [taste for the Arts],61 a "goût pour l'histoire naturelle" [taste for natural history],62 or a "goût pour la chimie" [taste for chemistry].63

The term referred, then, not simply to a personal or collective liking for certain things, but rather to an attitude toward knowledge, mediated through concrete practices involving objects. It was used, notably, to describe collections of paintings or of shells, and the way in which they were selected and arranged.64 When organized by taste, a collection became something more than just an arbitrary set of objects brought together by a "curieux," and was exemplified by the amateur who created it. In the eulogy of the Duc de Tallard's collection published in his sale catalog in 1756, the sight of the objects is ordered only by the eye of the amateur: "l'ordre admirable, dirigé par lui-même, offroit aux yeux des spectateurs le coup d'œil le plus satisfaisant . . . on n'y voit point cette confusion de petits morceaux entassés, qui donnent à certains Cabinets un air de Magasin, où l'œil égaré a peine à trouver de quoi se fixer": "admirably arranged," his collection brings "satisfaction to the eye," as opposed to other cabinets "looking like a shop," in which the eye is "lost." 65 Taste follows certain rules: the principles of symmetry, diversity, and contrast. These rules, governing the way in which objects are displayed, not only have a decorative purpose, but also participate in the construction of knowledge.

Thus the vocabulary of taste and of the amateur refers to practices of collecting and of using objects from all fields of knowledge: from natural history to art, via the experimental sciences and classical antiquity. In publications on antiquity, the use of the vocabulary of taste confers an erudite, scholarly dimension on the collection: "C'est dans le choix des ouvrages qu'un Amateur fait connaître son discernement, & qu'il montre s'il a du goût ou s'il en est dépourvu. Son Cabinet est, pour ainsi dire, un tribunal, où on le juge sans miséricorde: les choses qu'il y a admises sont comme autant de témoins qui déposent pour ou contre lui" [It is through his choice of works that an Amateur reveals his discrimination, and proves whether he has taste or has none. His Cabinet is, as it were, a courtroom, in which things are judged with no indulgence: the things that are brought into it are like so many witnesses, that testify for or against him].66 Pierre-Jean Mariette, who was not only the owner of a substantial collection of drawings, but also passionately interested in classical antiquity, wrote a Traité des pierres gravées that was published in 1750. Here he describes himself as an amateur, torn between the [End Page 535] need to produce a learned discourse on the subject and the pleasure he took in these objects (his "taste" for, "pleasure" in, and "love" of engraved gemstones). Indeed, in his opinion, the ideal basis for a learned publication was an alliance between "these two kinds of taste [i.e., erudition and pleasure], one of which should always be accompanied by the other"67: "outre la certitude de l'Antiquité, je demande que la chose à laquelle je dois donner mon estime, soit réellement belle; . . . la connoissance du Dessein, jointe à celle des Manières & du Travail, est le moyen le plus efficace, & sans doute le seul, pour se former le goût, & devenir un bon juge" [As well as being assured of its Antiquity, I would ask that the object that is the subject of my esteem be truly beautiful; . . . and the knowledge of Drawing, together with a knowledge of Styles and of Workmanship, is the surest way (and indeed, no doubt the only way) to form one's taste and to become a good judge].68

In the field of natural history, shells were the subject of similar erudite and aesthetic preoccupations. The naturalist Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville (1680-1765) wrote in his Histoire naturelle that shells belonged to both "naturalists" and "curieux": "L'arrangement de ces coquilles demande ici quelque détail. Les Naturalistes les disposent par classes & par familles; c'est sans contredit la meilleure manière & la plus méthodique. . . . Les curieux, au contraire, donnant tout aux plaisirs des yeux, sacrifient l'ordre méthodique, pour former des com-partimens variés, tant dans la forme des Coquilles, que dans les couleurs; l'émail en est charmant, & c'est le plus beau coup d'œil qu'on puisse imaginer" [A few remarks should be made about the arrangement of shells. The Naturalists arrange them according to their classes and families, and this is undoubtedly the best and most methodical way in which to arrange them. . . . The curieux, on the other hand, seeking by all means to please the eye, neglect this methodical order and put them in compartments according to their shape or their color. The enamel gives a charming effect, and a finer sight one cannot imagine].69

Thus collections of shells were subjected to different types of organization— on aesthetic lines or on learned ones—and it was felt that the two should be complementary rather than opposed. In conchology treatises and in shell collections, the shells were arranged in large drawers called parterres, as we can see from the illustrations accompanying treatises on natural history. Such a term might seem surprising, but in fact it comes from the theory and practice of gardening, in which Dezallier d'Argenville was also a specialist; in 1709 he published a Théorie et pratique du jardinage that sold many copies, was translated into several languages, and went through several editions. The parterres themselves were divided up into compartments, which were used for learned classification as well as their decorative effect.70 They were always organized according to the Rococo principles of symmetry, variety, and surprise, and they also reflected a wish to order the natural world [see figs. 6 and 7]. The aesthetics of surprise was here the product of knowledge and of visual expertise: "Rien n'est plus séduisant que la vue d'un tiroir de coquilles bien émaillées; le parterre le mieux fleuri n'est pas plus agréable, & l'œil est frappé si merveilleusement que l'on a peine à pouvoir le fixer. L'embarras est de savoir ce que l'on doit admirer le plus, ou de la perfection du travail de celle-ci, ou de la vivacité des couleurs de celle-là; de la symétrie merveilleuse de cette autre, ou de l'irrégularité harmonieuse de cette dernière. Enfin tout étonne, jusqu'à la plus petite de laquelle vous ne pouvez quelquefois découvrir la perfection que par le secours [End Page 536] d'un Microscope" [Nothing is more enchanting than the sight of a drawer full of finely enameled shells. It can rival in beauty even the richest flower bed, and the eye is caught in such a wonderful way that it scarcely knows where to settle. It is difficult to decide what one should admire the most: the fine shape of this one, or the bright colors of another; the perfect symmetry of this one, or the harmonious irregularity of another. All of it astonishes and delights the viewer, right down to the very smallest specimen, whose perfection you sometimes cannot behold without the help of a Microscope].71 As Emma Spary has pointed out in coining the useful term "Rococo works of natural history," the beauty of the illustrations in treatises on natural history were what brought science to the forefront at the time: taste was at the very heart of knowledge in the natural sciences; it did not exist prior to knowledge, nor did it constitute merely a "prescientific" phase.72 We must therefore take into account this cognitive dimension of taste, and accept that taste involved more than aesthetic criteria. If we are to consider taste other than from an abstract and philosophical viewpoint, I believe we must approach it in a pragmatic way: as a praxis involving fine objects and their material display, associating scientific knowledge and the social spheres, of which the collection was the epitome.

Amateur Art: The Thinking Hand

This cognitive dimension of taste is striking in the significant production of amateur drawings and engravings which took place within art and science collections. For a long time, these have been considered inferior artworks by art historians, and consequently have received little scholarly attention.73 However, not all of these images were produced simply for the author's amusement: some of them had an erudite value. Dezallier d'Argenville, himself an amateur engraver, defended the idea that mastery of the art of drawing was necessary for anyone who wanted to establish a true and accurate scientific classification of the different shells that existed. He aimed the following criticism at his naturalist predecessors: "Il a peut-être manqué à ces Physiciens quoique d'ailleurs très-sçavans, un talent familier à l'Auteur de cet Ouvrage; c'est la pratique du dessein. Qui peut mieux faire connoître toutes les différences des Coquilles, que de les dessiner d'après nature ? Le moindre repli, les finesses de la forme, du contour, de la bouche, rien n'échappe, & rien ne développe mieux leur vrai caractère" [These Physicians, although they were very erudite, no doubt lacked a quality that the Author of the present Work possesses: an ability to draw. What better way is there to understand the differences between shells than by drawing them from nature? The slightest fold, the fine details of their shape, their outline, their mouth: nothing escapes the draftsman, and nothing can better reveal their true nature].74 This specific skill of amateur draftsmanship—both social and erudite—is highlighted once again by the author himself when he praises the anonymous illustrator of his own Histoire naturelle: "Qu'on ne s'imagine pas que ce coup de pinceau trace l'homme du métier; sa naissance & son caractère le mettent au-dessus de cette sphère: c'est un ami tendre & fidèle, chéri des Muses, familiarisé avec le beau en tout genre; & dont les talents dans la partie du dessein & des arts égalent l'élévation dans les Sciences. Il est fâcheux que sa modestie ne permette pas que son nom achève cet éloge" [Let us not imagine that the brushwork presented here is that of a man of the trade: by his birth and character, he belongs to a higher rank. He is a dear and faithful friend, beloved of the Muses, [End Page 537] and well-acquainted with Beauty in all its forms, and his talents in the field of art and drawing are equal only to his expertise in the field of the Sciences. It is truly a pity that his modesty will not allow me to reveal his name at the end of this commendation].75 Amateur drawings in such a scientific publication were therefore a double proof of the social validation of knowledge, since they attested to the high birth of the author as well as to his artistic and scholarly abilities.76

Figure 6. Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, L'Histoire naturelle éclaircie dans deux de ses parties principales. La lithologie et la conchyliologie (Paris: De Bure l'aîné, 1742), plate 21, "Porcelaines," 16 x 23 cm.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 6.

Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, L'Histoire naturelle éclaircie dans deux de ses parties principales. La lithologie et la conchyliologie (Paris: De Bure l'aîné, 1742), plate 21, "Porcelaines," 16 x 23 cm.

The Comte de Caylus was also a prolific amateur engraver, producing many erudite works. In his Recueil d'Antiquités, published from 1752 to 1767, he insists that an antiquarian must also be a good draftsman: "On ne peut exiger d'un Antiquaire, de manier le crayon avec élégance, ni de composer comme un Artiste; ces talents lui seraient inutiles: je demande seulement qu'il ait assez travaillé dans ce genre, pour avoir acquis la justesse de l'œil" [One cannot ask an Antiquarian to be able to draw with elegance or to compose as an artist does. These talents [End Page 538] would be superfluous to him. I would only ask that he have had sufficient experience in this field to have acquired a reliable and accurate eye].77 The pleasure of nonprofessional artistic production confers a particular expertise: that of "a reliable and accurate eye." And, although he did not engrave the plates in his Recueil d'Antiquités himself, he did produce a large number of plates representing paintings in a catalog of prints which he published in 1729: the Recueil d'estampes d'après les plus beaux tableaux et d'après les plus beaux desseins qui sont en France dans le Cabinet du Roy. Copying a work by engraving was proof of one's knowledge, and went far beyond the aesthetic pleasure involved in the reproduction. It also involved manipulating the object; it was a tactile, not merely visual, form of appropriation. In the culture of amateurs, knowledge was a praxis, not a theory.

Figure 7. Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, La théorie et la pratique du jardinage; Avec les pratiques nécessaires pour tracer sur le terrein toutes sortes de figures; Et un Traité d'hydraulique convenable aux jardins (4th ed. rev. and corrected) (Paris: Pierre-Jean Mariette, 1747), plate 3B "Grand Parterre de Compartiment."
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 7.

Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, La théorie et la pratique du jardinage; Avec les pratiques nécessaires pour tracer sur le terrein toutes sortes de figures; Et un Traité d'hydraulique convenable aux jardins (4th ed. rev. and corrected) (Paris: Pierre-Jean Mariette, 1747), plate 3B "Grand Parterre de Compartiment."

[End Page 539]

Figure 8. Claude-Henri Watelet, Rymbranesques ou Essais de Gravure (Paris: Prault, 1785). Frontispiece. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 8.

Claude-Henri Watelet, Rymbranesques ou Essais de Gravure (Paris: Prault, 1785). Frontispiece. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.

In this context, amateur art had a cognitive dimension. Thus Claude-Henri Watelet, mentioned at the outset of this article, produced a significant number of engraved pastiches of Rembrandt's work. Published in 1785, his Rymbranesques contributed to the reassessment of Rembrandt in the artistic canon of the eighteenth century [see figs. 8 and 9]. Indeed, at that time Rembrandt's work did not correspond to the Italian-classical model of intellectual painting and was too far removed from the academic canons then prevailing in France, as exemplified by Poussin.78 The visibility of his brushwork, which had been much censured by art critics, conversely became one of the main reasons for the Dutch master's popularity among amateurs. The reception of Rembrandt's work was thus shaped by a concrete reappropriation of the master's gestures: much more so than by the writings of the critics and biographers, who were very ambivalent toward his work.79 When Claude-Henri Watelet died in 1786, his collection included 674 prints and 260 drawings by Rembrandt and his school. Watelet also owned 81 copper plates executed by the artist, some of which he had retouched himself. Moreover, he proudly displayed in his library thirty-three glass-covered prints he himself had engraved in the style of Rembrandt.80 In this case, the amateur was not content with merely cataloging and documenting the work of the artist; through his numerous copies and pastiches, he proved his expertise, and attempted to describe and to understand Rembrandt's artistic gestures.

It may seem surprising to attach importance to examples of amateur engraving in the fields of classical antiquity, natural history, and art history. However, these engravings reveal concrete scholarly practices involving objects in the eighteenth century; they are linked to the practice of collecting, described in the language of taste, and bear witness to appropriations and manipulations of artworks as objects [End Page 540] of knowledge. Works of art, as well as shells and scientific instruments, transformed and apprehended in this way, produced taste communities that were also communities of knowledge. Thanks to their ability to arouse admiration, to create multiple supports allowing for mediation and display—articles of furniture, showplaces in which to house collections, illustrated publications—these fine objects helped to build up taste communities and produce knowledge.

Figure 9. Claude-Henri Watelet, after Rembrandt, Jan Cornelisz Sylvius, etching. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 9.

Claude-Henri Watelet, after Rembrandt, Jan Cornelisz Sylvius, etching. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes.


The amateur was indeed a central figure that characterized the organization of the Parisian art worlds in the eighteenth century, before it was challenged by new conceptions of taste and of the public sphere. Promoted as a model audience by the monarchical system of arts and by its theoreticians—most notably Félibien, Du Bos, and Caylus—the amateur engaged with a series of practices relating to objects, and which were not limited to collecting; we find also artistic patronage, social relationships with painters, and amateur practice in the fields of art and the sciences. First theorized in the field of painting because of the norms regarding the public and taste that had been defined by the Académie royale de peinture, this figure can also be found in a variety of cultural fields, from natural history to antiquity, and sheds a new light on the conception of taste and knowledge in the eighteenth century.

By distancing ourselves on the one hand from the aesthetic perspective, which naturalizes taste, and on the other hand from the sociological perspective, which reduces taste to a means of social distinction, we have tried to understand how the amateur imposed himself as a central figure in the artistic sphere—as [End Page 541] well as more generally in cultural spheres—at a time when taste became a social marker and an erudite skill. In the eighteenth century, taste designated a series of practices turned toward objects, their materiality, their display, and their understanding. Knowledge developed according to local and material processes, based on the existence of collections. New taxonomies arose under the regime of admiration and of taste, before frontiers were established between different intellectual domains. From this perspective, far from being only a distinctive leisure activity for wealthy Parisian elites, amateur art contributed to the inventory, description, and classification of the natural objects and artifacts gathered in collections. Far from being a dilettante, the amateur created new taxonomies in the fields of both art and science, grounded on tactile and visual familiarization with objects and artifacts. This practice of the object—especially through amateur art—served as the basis for the larger enterprises of illustrated scientific publications. Like Watelet, Caylus, or Dezallier d'Argenville, amateurs selected, manipulated, and reproduced the objects they possessed in their collections.

This cognitive conception of taste was embedded in a social system, supported by an institutional framework and embodied in the figure of the amateur. This pre-Kantian conception of taste was historically linked to a social organization of the art worlds that was successfully promoted in the middle of the eighteenth century. The notion of taste at that time, very far removed from our present-day Kantian conception of taste as being something disinterested and universal, was taken up in forms of sociability, and even more, it contributed to defining them. Therefore, amateurs played a central role in the way knowledge was organized in the Enlightenment, from art to science. This conception of taste and of the amateur became obsolete with the mutations of the art worlds. Accused of being "antipatriotic," as exemplified by Diderot, amateurs became the symbol of a hated monarchical system aligned with coteries and closed communities. At that point, the amateur did not disappear but he ceased to be a regulatory model in the social organization of the art worlds. Taste communities were henceforth too tightly linked to the academic system of arts and to an aristocratic conception of patronage and sociability to be congruent with the mutations of the art worlds and the new conceptions of the public sphere that appeared at the eve of the Revolution.

Charlotte Guichard

Charlotte Guichard is Research Scholar at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. She is the author of Les amateurs d'art à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2008) and she has edited Les Formes de l'expertise artistique en Europe, XIVe-XVIIIe siècle, Revue de synthèse, 2011.


. Preliminary versions of this essay were delivered to audiences at Cornell University (Blumenthal Lectures, 2010) and at the Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art in Paris (2010). The author is especially grateful for helpful comments from Steven L. Kaplan, Anne Lafont, Katie Scott, and the anonymous reviewers of Eighteenth-Century Studies. An earlier version of this paper was translated by Susan Baddeley.

1. Denis Diderot, Œuvres, ed. Laurent Versini, 5 vols. (Paris: Robert Laffont 1996), 4: 386. (Hereafter Œuvres.) All translations are my own.

2. See Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1981). Housed in the famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Venus de'Medici was one of the most widely admired and commented upon of all antique statues, together with the Apollo Belvedere and Laocoon.

3. See Charlotte Guichard, Les amateurs d'art à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2008). In the present article, I sum up the argument of my book and present the development of a theme adumbrated within it, relating to the cognitive dimension of taste and the relationships between art and science through amateurs. For a fine study of the term, see Louis Olivier, "Curieux, Amateurs, [End Page 542] and Connoisseurs: Laymen in the Fine Arts in the Ancien Régime" (PhD diss., The Johns Hopkins University, 1976).

4. See Martin Warnke, Court Artist: On the Ancestry of the Modern Artist, trans. David McLintock (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993); and Francis Haskell, Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque (New York: Knopf, 1963).

5. See Harrison C. White and Cynthia A. White, Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World (New York: Wiley, 1965).

6. See Thomas Crow, Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1985); and Colin B. Bailey, Patriotic Taste: Collecting Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Paris (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2002).

7. On the critique of dilettantism by Johann Wolfgang Goethe at the end of the eighteenth century, see Hans Rudolf Vaget, Dilettantismus und Meisterschaft. Zum Problem des Dilettantismus bei Goethe:Praxis, Theorie, Zeitkritik (Munich: Wincker-Verlag, 1971).

8. See Jean Locquin, La Peinture d'histoire en France de 1747 à 1785 (1912; repr., Paris: Arthéna, 1978); Paul Duro, The Academy and the Limits of Painting in Seventeenth-Century France (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997); and Katie Scott, The Rococo Interior: Decoration and Social Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1995).

9. Udolpho Van de Sandt, "La fréquentation des Salons sous l'Ancien Régime, la Révolution et l'Empire," Revue de l'art 73 (1986): 43-48.

10. On Salon criticism, see Bernadette Fort, "Voice of the Public: Carnivalization of Salon Art in Prerevolutionary France," Eighteenth-Century Studies 22-23 (1989): 368-94; and Richard Wrigley, The Origins of Art Criticism: From the Ancien Régime to the Restoration (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993).

11. Guichard, Les amateurs d'art, ch. 1.

12. All quotations from the lecture are taken from André Fontaine, Comte de Caylus. Vies d'artistes du XVIIIe siècle. Discours sur la peinture et la sculpture. Salons de 1751 et de 1753. Lettre à Lagrenée (Paris: Renouard, 1910), 120-29. For a recent bibliography on Caylus, see Nicholas Cronk and Kris Peeters, eds., Le Comte de Caylus: les arts et les lettres (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004); and Joachim Rees, Die Kultur des Amateurs: Studien zu Leben und Werk von Anne Claude Philippe de Thubières, Comte de Caylus, 1692-1765 (Weimar: Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaft, 2006).

13. See Fort, "Voice of the Public," 376; and Bernadette Fort, "An Academician in the Underground: Charles-Nicolas Cochin and Art Criticism in Eighteenth-Century France," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 23 (1994): 3-27.

14. This underscores the political aspect of the amateur in eighteenth-century Paris, whose model is associated with the Académie royale. This distinguishes him also from the Dilettanti in London, who never gained this political credibility within the Royal Academy: see Guichard, Les amateurs d'art, 328-29; and Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2010).

15. Comte de Caylus, Vies d'artistes du XVIIIe siècle, 120, 121.

16. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1951), 297.

17. See Baldine Saint-Girons, Esthétiques du XVIIIe siècle. Le modèle français (Paris: Philippe Sers Éditeur, 1990), 1-95; and Annie Becq, Genèse de l'esthétique française moderne. De la Raison classique à l'Imagination créatrice, 1680-1814 (Paris: A. Michel, 1994), 231-352. See also Remy Saisselin, Taste in Eighteenth-Century France: Critical Reflections on the Origins of Aesthetics; Or, An Apology for Amateurs (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1965); and Elena Russo, Styles of Enlightenment:Taste, Politics, and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2007).

18. Comte de Caylus, Vies d'artistes du XVIIIe siècle, 122.

19. Ibid., 127. [End Page 543]

20. Nathalie Heinich, Du peintre à l'artiste. Artisans et académiciens à l'âge classique (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1993).

21. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989).

22. Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture, préface de Dominique Désirat (Paris: École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 1993), 279; Thomas E. Kaiser, "The Abbé Dubos and the Historical Defense of Monarchy in Early Eighteenth-Century France," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 26 (1989): 77-102.

23. Hélène Merlin, Public et littérature en France au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Les Belles-Lettres, 1994), 154-55.

24. "Lettres écrites de Paris à Bruxelles sur le Sallon de peinture de l'année 1748," Revue Universelle des arts 10 (1859): 431-62, quotation on 435.

25. Charles-Antoine Coypel, Dialogue de M. Coypel, Premier Peintre du Roi, sur l'exposition des Tableaux dans le Sallon du Louvre, en 1747, Mercure de France (Nov. 1751): 59-73, in Collection Deloynes, vol. 2, no. 28: 5, Cabinet des Estampes, Bibliothèque nationale de France. (Hereafter Deloynes.)

26. Ellen Munro, "La Font de Saint-Yenne: A Reassessment," Gazette des Beaux Arts 76 (1995): 65-78.

27. Deloynes, vol. 1, no. 23, handwritten note on the brochure of Étienne La Font de Saint-Yenne. On Mariette, see Le Cabinet d'un grand amateur Pierre-Jean Mariette, 1694-1774: dessins du XVe au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Musée du Louvre, 1967); and Kristel Smentek, "Entrepreneurial Art History: Pierre-Jean Mariette and the Recueil d'Estampes in Eighteenth-Century Europe," in À l'origine du livre d'art—Les recueils d'estampes comme entreprise éditoriale en Europe (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles), ed. Cordélia Hattori, Estelle Leutrat, and Véronique Meyer (Milan: Silvana, 2010), 131-39.

28. Denis Diderot, Œuvres complètes, ed. Herbert Dieckmann, Jean Fabre, and Jacques Proust (Paris: Hermann, 1975-2004), 5: 679. Hereafter cited as Œuvres.

29. As, for example, when he inveighs against those "works that make you want to beat your head against a wall, and those damned amateurs who put the artist's genius in a straitjacket" (Œuvres, 4: 551).

30. Pierre Rosenberg, "Une correspondance de Julien de Parme (1736-1799)," Nouvelles archives de l'art français 26 (1984): 197-245, letter 24.

31. For Mme Geoffrin's salon as a space of artistic patronage, see Paula Radisich, Hubert Robert: Painted Spaces of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998).

32. Pierre-Jean Mariette, Abecedario de P.-J. Mariette et autres notes inédites de cet amateur sur les arts et les artistes, ed. Philippe de Chennevières and Anatole de Montaiglon, 6 vols. (Paris: Dumoulin, 1850-60), 6: 51.

33. >Léon Lagrange, Les Vernet: Joseph Vernet et la peinture au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Didier, 1864), 396; Guichard, Les amateurs d'art, 227-33.

34. Catalogue des tableaux . . . qui composoient le Cabinet de feu M. Bergeret, Commandeur, Trésorier-Honoraire de l'Ordre Royal & Militaire de Saint-Louis, Receveur-Général des Finances . . .dont la vente se fera le lundi 24 du mois d'Avril 1786 (Paris: Folliot, Delalande et Julliot Fils, 1786).

35. Fragonard et le voyage en Italie 1773-1774: Les Bergeret, une famille de mécènes (L'Isle-Adam: Musée d'Art et d'Histoire Louis-Senlecq, 2000), 18.

36. The records of the court proceedings have been lost, but it seems likely that Bergeret had to pay at least 3,000 livres to the artist in order to get his drawings back: see Rosenberg, "Les Bergeret en Italie, 1773-1774"; and Fragonard et le voyage en Italie, 51.

37. Catalogue Historique du cabinet de Peinture et sculpture françoise de M. de La Live (Paris: Le Prieur, 1764). [End Page 544]

38. Bailey, Patriotic Taste, 46.

39. Catalogue de tableaux, pastels, dessins encadrés & en feuilles . . . après le décès de M. de Boul-longne, Conseiller d'Etat &c, dont la vente se fera le 19 novembre 1787 (Paris: Folliot, 1787).

40. See Martin Schieder, "'Sorti de son genre': Genre Painting and Boundary Crossing at the End of the Ancien Régime," in The Age of Watteau, Chardin, and Fragonard: Masterpieces of French Genre Painting, ed. Colin B. Bailey (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press; Ottawa: National Gallery of Ottawa, 2003); and Colin B. Bailey, ed., The Loves of the Gods: Mythological Paintings from Watteau to David (Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum; New York: Rizzoli, 1991).

41. Athanase Détournelle, Aux armes et aux arts! Peinture, sculpture, architecture, gravure. Journal de la Société républicaine des arts, 1er vendémiaire au 1er prairial (Paris: Détournelle, 1794), 2.

42. Colin B. Bailey, "Les grands, les cordons bleus: Les clients de David avant la Révolution," in David contre David, ed. Régis Michel, 2 vols. (Paris: La Documentation Française, 1993), 1: 141-64.

43. The context of my discussion of taste is exclusively French, since the concept carries quite different meanings and connotations in England: see John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: "The Body of the Public" (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1986); and Iain Pears, The Discovery of Painting: The Growth of Interest in the Arts in England 1680-1768 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1988).

44. Anne-Thérèse de Marguenat de Courcelles, marquise de Lambert, Œuvres, ed. Robert Granderoute (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1990), 239-41.

45. The term is taken from Bruno Latour's study of scientific facts and theories. He defines a "black box" as a theory taken for granted in the scientific community, but which needs to be questioned and which reveals how scientific consensus is built. Therefore, opening a black box is like "opening Pandora's box": Bruno Latour, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999).

46. See notes 11 and 12.

47. William Ray, "Talking About Art: The French Royal Academy Salons and the Formation of the Discursive Citizen," Eighteenth-Century Studies 37, no. 4 (2004): 527-52.

48. Louis Guillermit, L'Élucidation critique du jugement de goût selon Kant (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1986), 16.

49. Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgement [Kritik der Urteilskraft] (Berlin et Libau, 1790), trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), 173: "§40. On Taste as a kind of sensus communis."

50. Ibid., 89.

51. Ibid., 96: "Taste is the faculty for judging an object or a kind of representation through a satisfaction or dissatisfaction without any interest."

52. See Antoine Lilti, Le Monde des salons: Sociabilité et mondanité à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 2005).

53. Catalogue raisonné des tableaux . . . qui composent le cabinet de feu Monsieur Potier, avocat au Parlement (Paris: Didot, 1757), iii.

54. Edme-François Gersaint, Catalogue raisonné des diverses curiosités du cabinet de feu M. Lo-rangère (Paris: J. Barrois, 1744), 2-3. On Gersaint, see Andrew McClellan, "Watteau's Dealer: Gersaint and the Marketing of Art in Eighteenth-Century Paris," Art Bulletin 58 (1996): 439-52; Guillaume Glorieux, À l'enseigne de Gersaint: Edme-François Gersaint, Marchand d'art sur le pont Notre-Dame (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2002); and Neil De Marchi and Hans Van Miegroet, "Transforming the Paris Art Market, 1718-1750," in Mapping Markets of Paintings in Europe, 1450-1750, ed. De Marchi and Van Miegroet (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2006): 383-404.

55. Krzysztof Pomian, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice 1500-1800, trans. Elizabeth Wiles-Portier (Cambridge: Polity Press; Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990). [End Page 545]

56. Bernard Lepetit, "Histoire des pratiques, pratique de l'histoire," in Les Formes de l'expérience:une autre histoire sociale, ed. Lepetit (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995), 13.

57. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984).

58. Christian Michel, Le "célèbre Watteau" (Geneva: Droz, 2008), 149.

59. Guichard, Les amateurs d'art, ch. 6.

60. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: Univ. of California Press, 1984), 70.

61. Catalogue des tableaux, pastels, gouaches, dessins, estampes en feuille . . . du cabinet de feu M.Grimod de La Reynière (Paris: Paillet et Baudoin, 1797), iii.

62. Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d'Argenville, L'Histoire naturelle éclaircie dans une de ses parties principales: La Conchyliologie, qui traite des coquillages, 2 vols. (Paris: De Bure l'aîné, 1757), 135.

63. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, Elémens de Chimie, 3 vols. (Montpellier: Picot, 1790), 1: xxx.

64. The choice of the term "arrangement" is not neutral. It covers a range of cognitive operations: comparison, selection, visual attention given to objects. Its purpose is not merely decorative: see Colin B. Bailey, "Conventions of the Eighteenth-Century Cabinet de tableaux: Blondel d'Azincourt's La première idée de la curiosité," Art Bulletin 69 (1987): 431-46.

65. Catalogue raisonné des tableaux, sculptures . . . qui composent le Cabinet de feu Monsieur le Duc de Tallard (Paris: Didot, 1756), iv.

66. Pierre-Jean Mariette, Traité des Pierres Gravées, 2 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie de l'auteur, 1750), 1: 54.

67. Ibid., 49-50.

68. Ibid., 104.

69. Dezallier d'Argenville, L'Histoire naturelle, 195.

70. On the use of the compartmented drawer as a specific means of classifying and appropriating knowledge, see Anke te Heesen, The World in a Box: The Story of an Eighteenth-Century Picture Encyclopedia (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press), 2002.

71. Edme-François Gersaint, Catalogue raisonné de coquilles et autres curiosités naturelles (Paris: Flahault et Prault fils, 1736), 7.

72. Emma Spary, "Scientific Symmetries," History of Science 62 (2004): 1-46. See also Bettina Dietz, "Mobile Objects: The Space of Shells in Eighteenth-Century France," The British Journal for the History of Science 39 (2006): 363-82; and Kristel Smentek, Rococo Exotic: French Mounted Porcelains and the Allure of the East (New York: The Frick Collection, 2007).

73. On England, see Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2000). On the role of amateur art in the history of science, see Horst Bredekamp, "La main pensante," in Penser l'image, ed. Emmanuel Alloa (Dijon: Presses du réel, 2010), 177-209.

74. Dezallier d'Argenville, L'Histoire naturelle, 116-17.

75. Ibid., 233.

76. On the social validation of proof in the history of science, see Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985).

77. Anne Claude Philippe de Pestels de Lévis de Tubières-Grimoard, comte de Caylus, Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques et romaines, 7 vols. (Paris: Desaint et Saillant, 1752-67), 3: xix-xx.

78. Alison McQueen, The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt: Reinventing an Old Master in Nineteenth Century France (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2003). [End Page 546]

79. See Seymour Slive, Rembrandt and his Critics 1630-1730 (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1953). On Rembrandt's pastiches in eighteenth-century England, see Ellen G. D'Oench, "'A Madness to Have his Prints': Rembrandt and Georgian Taste, 1720-1780," in Rembrandt in Eighteenth-Century England, ed. Christopher White, David Alexander, and Ellen D'Oench (New Haven, CT: Yale Center for British Art, 1983), 63-81. To my knowledge, Claude-Henri Watelet, Rymbranesques ou Essais de gravures (Paris: Prault, 1785) can only be found at the Cabinet des Estampes in Paris in its Watelet recueil [collection].

80. Watelet's post-mortem inventory, 13 January-9 August 1786, T 978, Archives nationales, Paris. [End Page 547]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.