Philosophy of Picture

Denis Diderot’s Salons

by Maddalena Mazzocut-Mis (Author)
©2018 Monographs IV, 248 Pages


If it is true that a painting can ‘think visually’, then it is also true that Diderot was the first to say so - and he has spelled out this concept better than anyone else. Diderot’s Salons show that the ‘imaginal’ sense that arises from the engagement with a picture needs to be investigated using the concepts of ékphrasis and theatricality - the capacity to explore the power of pictures in relation to the composition of the scene, to the expressive and pantomimic gestures, and to what can be called a ‘theory of affections’.
The book will focus on an issue that pertains to the theory of pictures, on a question that is ground-breaking in the English-speaking academic context: how can we look at a picture in order to rethink aesthetics as a discipline that allows us to look at pictures from a philosophical point of view?
The Salons demonstrate that the ‘imaginal’ process leading to knowledge always emerges from the picture itself, and that this process always needs to be supported by a method of inquiry that can rightly be called a philosophical method - as Diderot was a philosopher himself. Even when approaching this issue from a contemporary perspective, this method should always be related to the concepts of ékphrasis and theatricality. Fundamental, however, is also the ‘pathetic’, the emotionally stimulating, due to its essential relation to the enjoyment of pictures - something rooted in aesthetic disinterestedness, absorption and, conversely, voyeurism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter I. The Judgement of Taste
  • I.1 Artisticity and Aesthetic Disinterest
  • I.2 Taste between Subject and Object
  • I.3 The Perception of Relationships and Serpentine Lines
  • I.4 Seeing Beauty
  • I.5 The Limit of Representation
  • I.6 The Moral Aspect
  • I.7 From the Ugly to the Ideal
  • I.8 The Role of Technique
  • Chapter II. The Gesture
  • II.1 The Painting of Gesture
  • II.2 Painting and Tableaux vivants
  • II.3 The Theory of Assemblage
  • II.4 A Small Revolution
  • II.5 The Education of the Actor
  • II.6 Pantomime
  • II.7 The Language
  • II.8 The Pathos of the Everyday Gesture
  • Chapter III. The System for the Reading of Pictures
  • III.1 Warm Actor, Cold Actor; Warm Writer, Cold Writer
  • III.2 Ékphrasis and ‘Description’
  • III.3 A Problem of Dramatic Composition
  • III.4 La Promenade
  • III.5 Comparative Description
  • III.6 Absorption
  • III.7 When Painting Mimics Theatre
  • Chapter IV. The Languages of the Painting
  • IV.1 The Pathetic
  • IV.2 The Sterility of Gesture
  • IV.3 The Theatre of “Christian Mythology”
  • IV.4 Disgust and Horror
  • IV.5 Anti-Voyeurism
  • IV.6 Pygmalion
  • IV.7 The Philosopher of Technique
  • IV.8 La Raie
  • IV.9 The Testament
  • Concluding Observations
  • References
  • Index of Names

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J’ai senti, et j’ai dit comme je sentais.1

When pictures meet the gaze of the observer, they are brought to life, moving from a state of latency to a relational dynamic that stimulates the art consumer’s imagination. The imagination wanders in search of an emotion, a narrative and a meaning, which then become the linchpins around which the judgement of taste revolves. Learning how to orientate one’s gaze within a picture, and reconceiving the judgement of taste as a guiding principle of the reading of a painting, are the main concerns of Denis Diderot’s Salons (exhibitions of the French Academy). They demonstrate that each “imaginal” path, originating from an image and, in turn, producing images itself, leads to an understanding arising from a perceptive stimulus, impacting on sensibility, imagination and reason. This experiential path is driven by an investigative method that makes one aware of both the power of the painting and the role of the gaze. The pictures, or at least a number of them, open themselves up to the possibility of metamorphic and potentially inexhaustible interpretations generated by subjects which do not limit themselves to ill-defined forms of contemplation but, interacting with the painting, produce instead actions, reactions and repercussions, while also being subjected to them. Not only must the picture respond to that which it represents, thus situating itself in relation to the real world (the least interesting quality from a philosophical point of view, according to Diderot), but it must also act upon the observers, with or without their consent. It is in this context that the moral dimension of the picture takes shape, a dimension that stands in relation not only to the message that the work of art could, or should, transmit, but also to the “ethical contract”, namely the pact between artist and interlocutor. According to this pact, ← 7 | 8 → it is the artist who is responsible for explaining what the picture “communicates”, or why it is silent. It is in the scope of this stratification of meanings and possibilities that Diderot suggests the theme of artistic attribution in Salons, framing it in a philosophical way.

Diderot is aware that the field of vision can never be thought of as autonomous from connections with the verbal sphere, and vice versa. Although Diderot believes that there are aesthetic and representative limits that no art form can cross, he recognises that all representations are heterogeneous. There is no such thing as a purely visual or purely verbal art form although the impulse to “purify” the medium is essential in philosophical reflection and artistic practice. Therefore, Salons represents the search for an originating principle that is capable of redefining the relationships between thought, language and vision intended as a device that can cross not only subjective experience, but also the historical experience of humankind. This must be rethought within the cultural climate in which it is put into play. If this is the case, then the Salons suggest a redefinition of the boundaries between the verbal and the visual. Indeed, if it is true that a painting “thinks visually”, Diderot said so before and better than anyone else.

Rarely acknowledged as an art critic, Diderot informs us of the existence of a philosophical science of pictures that is as complex as it is fascinating. This theory gains depth in the moment in which it emerges from a mere historiography of pictures, rhetoric and pure descriptiveness, opening itself up to profound aesthetic reflection, even in the nexus of perception. It affirms, once again, that the experiential world is built at the crossroads between that which is given and that which is constructed.

The Salons are an inexhaustible and precious resource, because of their ability to enhance the discussion on the relationships between the arts, and to multiply, through kaleidoscopic exemplifications, the role of ékphrasis. It is precisely from the Salons that a new, refreshing theory of pictures should arise. Gottfried Boehm, elucidating the meaning of the iconic turn, affirms that pictures ‘smooth the way for an authentic cognitive path, whose “raison” is indispensable for those aspiring to an ← 8 | 9 → articulate, that is, adequate, understanding of the world.’2 Diderot is well aware that the imaginal path is authentic, cognitive and complex. As a philosopher, he cannot but recognise the specificity of the iconic, and the forms of experience and knowledge implicit in the reception of pictures: so much so that he invents a language, a methodology and a mode of approaching pictures in order to bring out their communicative features. As a playwright, he is aware of the power of gesture and French Pantomime; the role of facial expression; the mark left by a moving trace; the value of an emotional afflatus. As such, he investigates the possibility of translating a logic of “showing” into a logic of saying and expressing through show. In a painting, he reads the ability to incorporate, within the dimension of the pictorial space, the temporal narrative of theatricality. In this way, ékphrasis becomes a kind of drama­tisation, and the painting becomes a stage in which the arrangement of the levels and of the characters in space, their relationships, the expressivity of their gestures and of their looks, become powerful indicators in the elaboration of a theory of pictures that is, also, a philosophy of pictures.

Diderot is aware that the specificity of the icon should be interpreted according to differential criteria, and he experiments with this through the peculiar method of “entering the painting”, in his descriptive and explorative strolls (Promenade Vernet), and in the redefinition of aesthetic categories – beautiful, ugly, sublime – within a regenerated “symbolic system”. Following this method, he identifies experimental paths for translating into language the imagistic meanings that he decodes and codifies, leaning towards perspectivism. He does not neglect to emphasise that even where the word cannot reach, there hides a meaning, which he evokes through the use of rhetorical figures. He knows how to enter an image by slipping in sideways in order to pick up each interpretative strand, recalling, if necessary, analogous emotional states. Like a great actor who, with a gesture, can conjure up an imaginary universe, Diderot guides the reader to places that are apparently far away, but that are in fact very close, from an emotional point of view, to ← 9 | 10 → the picture described. The peculiarity of this narration is such that it is not simply descriptive, but it is also dramatic or even novelistic, filling the gap between image and language, through a sentimental evocation that is at times strikingly close to those landscape descriptions that go by the name of Romanticism. He works with images knowing how to restore their iconic primordial value, regardless of the imaginative universe that they generate.

To sum up, Diderot uses language to put a more in-depth and precise inspection of perceptual multiplicity. He also uses language to formulate a judgement of taste on the basis of a careful analysis of technique (of the pictorial peculiarities of each individual painter) and of a refined system of comparison between individual painters and individual art forms so as to recreate, in a way that at times might seem excessive, the emotions stimulated by the painting. Diderot hopes that the picture, in its fixity, may evoke the indeterminate and activate the transitory, thus recalling that which is absent. If it fails to do so, it loses its evocative value and becomes a mere collection of forms and colours about which nothing can be said. The search for effect and the search for enjoyment, which together are “immediacy” and “reflection”, are stimulated by the impact on the senses. This soon escapes from its own specificity to become emotion or sentiment or affectivity: this is the essential added “value” that the image is able to activate.

But more than this, Diderot knows that the picture can even completely negate itself as an image in order to present itself. In this way, it would seem that one is in the presence of a magician rather than a painter, such as Chardin, the demiurge or Pygmalion. The breath of life can brush against the representation. The overcoming of the myth of Zeus and Parrhasius can take place in two ways: by recalling hyperrealism, which lays bare its stratagems and does not aim to deceive, and by evoking the Pygmalionesque myth of the genius who creates “nature”. Both methods, however, run the risk of reducing the painter to an iconoclast: something of which Diderot is well aware.

Like any great director, Diderot has always the relationship between the particular and the general in mind; he evaluates the effect that the smallest detail has upon the whole. He does not deny the plea­sure generated by the manière large, the technique, for which the artist and the observer must stand back from the canvas in order to judge the ← 10 | 11 → effect. Sensible perception and the emotion generated by a sensation are closely reconnected to profound and meticulous technical knowledge. While Diderot does not wish for an era dominated by critics and grammarians, he is also aware that the philosopher cannot remain superficial and cannot, in a subject as complex as art and the judgement of taste, avoid ‘getting his hands dirty’ – that is to say, taking part in the games and, by learning the rules, playing the games himself. While keeping the overly sophisticated artifices of reason at arms’ length – ‘tu ne persuaderas jamais à mon cœur qu’il a tort de frémir ; à mes entrailles qu’elles ont tort de s’émouvoir’3 – he also denounces hasty judgements or judgements made on waves of enthusiasm. No one is safe from the critics’ judgement if they exercise with truth, without prejudice, and with awareness, if they aspire to an ideal that is “nature” and abhor pretension.

In the end, Diderot knows that his readers will stand there, in front of the painting, in the same way that he stood before them. Not because they could see it or could have seen it, but because he has managed to create, or recreate it through his words. Outside of any historicised visual culture, the Salons not only highlight and exalt the relationship between text and picture but, through the power of images, they generate meanings and judgements of value. The text functions as a picture if and only if the picture has functioned as a text. Yet, starting from Diderot’s words, an imaginal possibility opens up in our minds, that is new, other, unique and unrepeatable: an aesthetic experience that is no longer Diderot’s text and will never be the painting that we could see. ← 11 | 12 →

1 D. Diderot, ‘Salon de 1763’, in id., Salons I : Essais sur la peinture. Salons de 1759, 1761, 1763, G. May and J. Chouillet (eds), Hermann, Paris 2007, p. 254.

2 G. Boehm, ‘Das Paradigma Bild: die Tragweite der ikonischen Episteme’, in Bilderfragen: Die Bildwissenschaften im Aufbruch, Fink, München 2007, p. 78. This and further embedded quotations have been translated into English from the original text. All block quotations, however, have been left in the original language.

3 D. Diderot, ‘Essais sur la peinture’ [1766], in id., Salons I, op. cit., p. 76.

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IV, 248
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
taste beauty representation painting tableaux vivants gesture pantomime theatricality ekphrasis description absorption pathetic disgust voyeurism
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. IV, 248 pp.

Biographical notes

Maddalena Mazzocut-Mis (Author)

Maddalena Mazzocut-Mis is Professor of Aesthetics at the State University of Milano. A prominent researcher and playwright, she is author, among her most recent publications, of How Far Can We Go? Pain, Excess and the Obscene, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2012. Project leader and Principal Investigator of funded EU projects, she directs the European Seminar of Aesthetics.


Title: Philosophy of Picture
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