DENIS DIDEROT

Dates: 1713-1784

Nationality: French

French writer, philosopher and critic. He was a man of the most wide-ranging talents: novelist, dramatist, philosopher and writer on science, mathematics and music. In his lifetime he was probably best known as editor of the Encyclopédie (1751–65)—an encyclopedic dictionary of the arts, sciences and trades—and came comparatively late to art criticism. Characteristically determined to express a personal view on art and to attempt to justify his judgements, he had his only noteworthy precursor in Etienne La Font de Saint-Yenne; periodical journalism devoted to the arts in 18th-century France yielded no commentator to match Diderot in vigour and independence of mind. He was early acquainted with the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, Roland Fréart, Jean Cousin (i), Roger de Piles and Charles Le Brun, and the theory of drama he published in 1757, the Entretiens sur ‘Le Fils naturel’, reveals a keen interest in the relations between the visual arts and the theatre. Diderot was convinced that taste is the product of experience and observation, a notion he developed in his Pensées détachées sur la peinture (1776–7); his physiological studies for the Lettre sur les aveugles (1749) and the Eléments de physiologie (1774) persuaded him that the human eye has to be educated to see. He profited from his acquaintance with artists to learn about the technicalities of painting.

The original impetus to Diderot’s writing on art came from his friend Melchior Grimm, who employed him to write on the biennial Salons organized by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris for the Correspondance littéraire, from 1759 to 1781. This was a period of transition for French painting in both style and subject-matter, from the ‘frivolity’ of Rococo to the seriousness of Neo-classicism. The Correspondance littéraire was an informal bi-monthly newsletter, privately circulated to subscribers, who included Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia. Its sale was prohibited within Paris, which meant that the Salons articles were subject neither to royal censorship nor to the jealous attentions of the Académie Royale and those it protected; Diderot could thus speak his mind freely without fear of reprisal.

Goodden, Angelica. “Diderot, Denis.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T022668>

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