Ronit Milano – Abstract

Communicating (with) the Self in the French Enlightenment: Intellectualism, Naturalism and Embodiment in the Bare-Chested Portrait Bust

Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / June 2014 1(1)

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This study centres on classicizing portrait busts of French philosophers created during the second half of the eighteenth century. Drawing on Diderot’s claim that a sculpture, unlike a painting, requires the viewer to communicate with it, I suggest that the portrait bust of that period should be redefined as a conceptual platform of human interaction. The main observation in this study is that portrait busts of French contemporary philosophers constituted a unique case in art because they epitomized main discourses pertaining both to the French society (as a collective idea) and to the individual. I show that such duality, wherein a collective and patriotic identity is expressed synchronically with the rise of the individual, is most acute in representations of philosophers, who sought to be perceived both as ideal figures and as enlightened individuals. In an era characterized by the flourishing of concepts such as unique self, one and only truth, and authenticity, the use of a classicizing style engendered what seems to be, at first sight, a significant conflict between opposing values. The portraits examined in this essay not only surface this idea but also offer an opportunity to reflect upon the performative role of the busts, considering the communication of the viewer with the works. Prompting a conceptual conversation, portrait busts of philosophers made during the second half of the eighteenth century are thus scrutinized here to delineate the intricate interrelations between the self and the society, between simplicity and virtue, and between the concept of ‘here and now’ versus eternality.

Portrait bust, eighteenth-century sculpture, classicizing, France, philosophers, reproduction, selfhood