Jean Eldred

Publication Date


Advisor(s) - Committee Chair

Robert Johnston


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Original department Humanities

Degree Type

Master of Arts


Denis Diderot, well-known as a philosopher and Encyclopedist, has also been recognized as one of the first modern art critics. He wrote extensively about the works of art he saw exhibited in Paris in the biennial Salons sponsored by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. His nine pieces of art criticism, entitled Salons, were written in the years from 1759 to 1781. During this time, Boucher, Fragonard, Chardin, Greuze and David, as well as the many other members of the Academy, exhibited works in the Salons. In commenting on these paintings, Diderot has left a vivid record of the diverse styles in art, the tastes, and the esthetics of this period in French art.

Since very little of Diderot's criticism has beer. translated from French, English-speaking students of art history have found it difficult to take advantage of the wealth of information in the Salons. his paper presents English translations of selected articles from the Salons, giving Diderot’s views on the works of individual artists. The writings were chosen to show the range of styles and subjects in eighteenth -century French art and the reactions of a viewer who was sensitive to the changing tastes and philosophies of the era. Background information on the reigning principles of Academic art, the pertinent facts of the artists’ lives, and Diderot’s role as art critic has been supplied in introductory material.

From a study of Diderot’s critical comments on art, the trends in eighteenth-century thinking can be ascertained. The years from 1759 to 1781, when the Salons were written, were pivotal years in both art and politics in France. Tastes in art were turning from the Rococo style endorsed by the aristocrats of Louis XV’s court toward styles of art with a more ethical or sentimental orientation, reflecting the influence of bourgeois preferences. In Diderot’s Salons, one can trace these currents of taste and the growing movements toward both Neo-Classicism and Romanticism.

Diderot’s animated criticism offers the modern reader a means of re-creating the eighteenth-century viewer’s impressions of contemporary art and an understanding of the artists’ goals in producing their works.


Art and Design | Arts and Humanities | History | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology | Intellectual History | Painting