Denis Diderot

Denis Diderot

French Philosopher, art critic, and writer. 

Born: October 1713

Related publications: La Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind), Salon of 1765, Salon of 1767, Notes on Painting. Encyclopédie.

Art and Aesthetic Theory, briefly:

Diderot is considered by many as the fisrt great art critic. Indeed, through a literary newsletter edited by the German Baron, Grimm, (La Correspondence Literaire) Diderot provides records of the Art Salons that took place every two years in Paris as well as thoughtful descriptions of each of the paintings exhibited. The newsletter was read by a very small elite of Europen society such as the Tsar of Russia, the King of Poland and other members of the aristocracy. Because it was so exclusive, Diderot's writings in the Correspondance Litéraire escaped censorship and he was thus able to express himself freely on the works of the artists of his time.

Diderot was interested in the complexity and variety of Nature and its dynamics. He praises the purposeful and adaptive qualities of art as well as its creative powers. Diderot's art theory combines Materialism and Idealism. Materialism in that he believed that to be beautiful, a work of art must produce pleasurable sensations on the viewer. Idealism because he rejected the idea that reason and sensation were two separate entities and thus, that taste was an innate faculty that did not depend in reason.

In an article on Diderot and the Aesthetic Point of View, David Holts notes that:

"An artist, Diderot believed, produced a beautiful work of art through a combination of factors: close observation, hard work, use of the imagination, and the ability to rediscover first thoughts. An implicit or intuitive reasoning guided both the artist and the spectator in both the creative process and the appreciation of art. It was necessary for artists as well as those who wished to experience their work to tap into an objective natural energy and vitality that is internal to nature. He describes this objective vitality by quoting Virgil: 'It is a spirit that resides within, that is diffused throughout the mass, that animates it, and that coalesces into the great whole.'" (21)

Diderot believed that a successful painter could commuicate not just ideas but sensations and appeal to the imagination of the viewer through a careful brushwork and technique and believable representation. The mastering of the technique however must be a mean to achieve such ideals but not an end in itself so that, as he claims in his critic of a painting from Robert, "one doesn't reflect on the magic of the brush but on the ravages of time," or whatever idea the painter has set to convey through his work. As Holt puts it, the role of the artist is to "transport us to an aesthetic experience" (24).