- On History and Art History (and Women, of course)
I met Mary Sheriff in 1987 at a meeting of the Consortium on Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe, now the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era. We were both finishing our first books, hers on Fragonard and mine on Montesquieu, Rousseau, and especially Diderot. Diderot and Fragonard, of course, had entered into each other's lives and stories two centuries earlier; our paths crossed over theirs. We got to know each other through our different Diderots—her art critic, my political theorist. We soon discovered a more obscure common interest: Pahin de la Blancherie, editor of the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres et des Arts and entrepreneur of the Salon de la Correspondance. I had stumbled across him in the course of my research on a new project on the Republic of Letters, of which Pahin de la Blancherie called himself the Agent-Général. Mary knew him because Fragonard had exhibited his work in Pahin's Salon. For me, Pahin's enterprise represented a challenge to the conversational salons that had given women an important role in the Enlightenment; for Mary its significance lay in its commercialization of art. She offered to share with me the photocopies she had made of one of the rare copies of the Nouvelles at the Bibliothèque nationale. I still have them.
Over the course of the next thirty years we would find many more intersections of history and art history that would define the common ground of our eighteenth century and make me, at least, both a better and a more interdisciplinary historian.
I was on a campaign to convince the world to take the philosophes, and especially Diderot, seriously. The materiality of the rococo seemed to stand against my argument that a philosophe was not simply a light-weight philosopher. From [End Page 155] Mary I learned not only to appreciate the rococo, but to understand why I had not appreciated it before. I had found rococo art sort of embarrassing. How, I asked, could the philosophes, those modern thinkers, have lived and worked in such froufrou spaces? How could I convince historians to take the philosophes seriously as philosophers when they seemed to be at home in the rococo? The serious world I imagined as an extension of their texts looked nothing like the pastel world in which apparently they actually lived. I could not resolve the paradox and was impatient and angry with these objects that caused it.
Mary, it turned out, was on a campaign to convince art historians to take the rococo seriously. That was what her book Fragonard was meant to do.1 As she wrote in its preface: "It is easy to remain on the surface of Fragonard's paintings," but "any thought of moving beyond [it], of resisting the artist's seductive power, is stifled by our image of Fragonard as a lighthearted painter temperamentally suited to love themes." In the book's chapters she would begin by showing how that image had been constructed over time as a function not simply of changing tastes, but of changing politics. "The rococo artists have never recovered from a revolution that left them despised and forgotten," she declared, and then laid out an intellectual history of art criticism that began with Diderot and showed how the rococo came to be devalued through association with the aristocratic world from which republican France had to distance itself.
The conclusion to my Criticism in Action mirrored the preface to Mary's Fragonard: "For if nothing else," I declared, "this study should demonstrate that the Enlightenment, as embodied in three of its most important texts, was an extremely thoughtful and complex enterprise.2 Viewed through these works, the Enlightenment was much more than an age of popularization, slogans, and candy coating on old philosophic pills." By teaching me how to take the rococo seriously, Mary not only resolved my dilemma, but opened up a new visual and representational dimension of the Enlightenment world that had been closed to me. History and art history were complementary rather than contradictory disciplines, and I could now explore the lived experience...