Baron de Montesquieu



French Philosopher, Social Commentator, and Political Thinker

Born: January 1689

Related Publications: "An Essay on Taste" in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert

Art and Aesthetic Theory, briefly:

Montesquieu sought to distinguish from empirical observations, the reasons within the mind that make a work of art pleasing.

The first necessary condition he establishes is order.

"One of the highest mental pleasures," he argues in his "Essay on Taste," "is that which we receive from a consciousness of the extent of our views, and the depth of our penetration; but in a production void of order this pleasure is impeded; the mind, desirous to supply from its own ideas this want of regularity, is perplexed in the vain attempt; it's plan mingles itself with that which the author of the work had formed, and this produces a new confusion. It retains nothing, foresees nothing; it is dejected by the confusion that reigns in its ideas, and by the comfortless void that succeeds the abundance and variety of it's vain resources."

The painter then must, according to Montesquieu, paint his figures into groups and put an emphasis on what is central to the narrative so that the composition is legible to the viewer.


The second important element is variety

To be successful, a work of art must illicit a range of sensations, it must awaken the curiosity of the viewer and avoid at all cost to engender boredom and apathy. Yet, the artist must be careful to maintain order within the variety as to avoid chaos and confusion that would "fatigue the eye." Montesquieu admires Classic art and architecture, which, he believes, conform to these principles:

"The Grecian architecture, [as opposed to Gothic architecture] appears uniform; but as the nature, and the number also of it's divisions are precisely such as occupy the mind without fatiguing it, it has consequently that degree of variety, that is pleasing and delightful... The Grecian architecture, whose divisions are few, but brand and noble, seems formed after the model of the great and the sublime. The mind perceives a certain majesty which reigns through all it's productions."

Montesquieu advises the painter to "distribute the figures, that are to compose his work, into various groups; and in this he follows nature and truth, for a crowd is almost always divided into separate companies. in the same manner in every complex piece of painting we see the lights and shades distributed into large masses, which strikes the eye at a distance, before the whole composition is distinclty perceived."


Symmetry is Montesquieu's third condition:

He argues that symmetry helps the mind to perceive objects and process them quickly. This facility and rapidity to comprehend the space around us is, according to him, one of the mind's great pleasures. Symmetry thus allows "upon a view of the one half of an object, to form immediately an idea of the whole."

Montesquieu cautions however that in some instances, when not used properly, symmetry can deprive the object of its variety. Thus symmetry must be used to temper for example an excess in variety.

Symmetry also makes the expereince of looking at a work of art more pleasing in that it contributes to satisfy a natural encline of the mind to look for scientific perfection and equilibrium. 


Finally, contrast is for Montesquieu the last component to a successful and beautiful work of art.

To explain it, he gives an example:

"One foot placed in precisely the same position as the other, or any two of the corresponding parts of the body placed exactly in the same direction, disgust a judicious observer, because this studied symmetry produces a perpetual and insipid sameness of attitude, such as we observe in the Gothic figures, which all resemble each other in this respect."

Contrast, he argues is found in nature and his pleasing aesthetic aspects come from physical pleasing aspects: as "stiffness and affectations" are "insupportable in the human form," they cannot be in the productions of art.