Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot 
by Michael Fried.
California, 249 pp., £16.50, February 1981, 0 520 03758 8
Show More
Show More

A family listening as their father reads them the Bible; a philosopher poring over a book; an artist, who turns his back on us as he draws; a secretary absorbed in taking dictation, and another absorbed instead in listening to the figure who dictates; a sleeping hermit. These figures, all of them represented in paintings exhibited in the Paris Salons of the 1750s, all share the same oubli de soi, are all engaged in ‘absorptive’ states which create the fiction that we, the spectators, are not there: in forgetting themselves, they forget us too. In proportion as the picture thus excludes the fictive spectator, it gives the actual spectator a greater access to the world of the painting, which becomes the more real precisely because it has apparently not been painted to be observed, but simply is, independent of the observer. The art of the Salons of the 1750s, argues Michael Fried, is much preoccupied by such images of absorption, a preoccupation which was registered and admired by contemporary critics: but the very fact that it was thus registered made the problem of establishing the reality of the image, by the illusion of negating the spectator’s presence, increasingly difficult, and so increasingly urgent to solve. Accordingly, in the 1760s and after, painters in France became less concerned to depict states of concentration, often in private and intimate contexts, and turned instead to the representation of ‘grandly pathetic action and expression’. But the basic, ‘ontological’, nature of their concern, with the relation of object and beholder, did not change, as the character of their paintings became increasingly dramatic, yet anti-theatrical in the sense defined by Diderot in his criticism of French theatre and his suggestion that it should learn – from painting – that as soon as an actor turns to address the audience, we can no longer believe in the reality of what we are witnessing.

In the 1760s, a renewed importance was ascribed, by Diderot in particular, to the doctrines of the hierarchy of genres and the supremacy of history-painting: these doctrines were not advanced, Fried argues, in a new spirit of conservatism which would have denied the achievements of Chardin and Greuze in the previous decade, but because Diderot saw that the representation of heroic action, in a history painting whose compositional unity established the causal necessity of every expression, gesture and attitude within a group of figures, was the most likely form of painting to preserve the illusion that the beholder was not there; and thus, paradoxically, to secure his emotional involvement in the action he beheld.

Even an account as bare as this of Fried’s argument will indicate the remarkable originality of the reinterpretation he offers of the history of French painting and of the criticism of art in the second half of the 18th century: a reinterpretation supported by immense learning and by a series of brilliantly perceptive readings of paintings and of criticism alike. This is an exhilarating book, and it will be intriguing to see how the exponents of the approaches it criticises will absorb, or recover from, the insights it offers. For my part, I will be intrigued to see whether Fried will feel he needs to modify his argument to take account of the kind of criticisms I am about to make.

Where I find Fried less than convincing is where he insists on seeing as separate moral and ontological concerns of French painting that seem to me largely inseparable. The problem is made clear by the blurb: ‘whereas previous accounts have suggested that French painters of the 1750s and 1760s wished primarily to appeal to the inartistic tastes of an emerging middle class, the author discloses an altogether different preoccupation: the need to negate or neutralise the presence of the beholder.’ Now, it is not perhaps a very fair account, or condemnation, of the ways in which the painting of those decades has been understood to say that Greuze, for example, has been regarded as catering to the ‘inartistic’ tastes of the middle class, except insofar as the moral issues his paintings raised have been seen by some critics as inappropriately raised in works of art. The formalism that has insisted on regarding the literary, the anecdotal, the sentimental-moral-didactic as merely trivial, and which regards taste as ‘artistic’ if it shares that attitude, as ‘inartistic’ if it does not, is, I suppose, well described by that sentence from the blurb: but any critic who has read Diderot’s ‘Salons’ with much care is unlikely to miss the point that for him, at least, a number of the paintings produced in the decades in question were of value precisely because they reintroduced a direct concern with moral questions into the tradition of French painting, questions which had been pushed aside by the aristocratic art of the rococo, but which were now directly engaged by an art which depicted actions and scenes from the life of the less than polite classes. Fried has brilliantly alerted us to a further aspect of the ‘Salons’ and of many of the paintings on which they comment, the ‘need to negate or neutralise the presence of the beholder’: but nothing in his book, or in the ‘Salons’ themselves, convinces me that Diderot regarded that as an ‘altogether different preoccupation’ from the representation of states and activities which seemed to invite a moral evaluation of them. In objecting to the formalist response to the sentimentality of, say, Greuze’s work, Fried comes close to ignoring what it was that formalism was responding to.

For Fried pursues his argument, or so it seems to me, much more single-mindedly than do the painters and critics he writes about. If he establishes, in his discussion of two paintings by Greuze in the 1750s, that to read a textbook as a schoolboy should, and to fall asleep over that book as a schoolboy shouldn’t, are both absorptive states, both recognised as such in the 18th century, and both proposing the same exclusion of the fictive spectator from the subject depicted, he doesn’t thereby also convince that the term ‘absorptive’, attached to both pictures, does much to conceal or make unimportant the opposition between working and not doing so – any more than applying the term umbellifer to parsley and hemlock would render unimportant the differences between those plants which, if we have occasion to use them, we find it helpful to remember. A philosopher reading, and a boy blowing a soap-bubble (to take two of Chardin’s paintings that Fried discusses), both concentrate intently on what they are doing, and yet one may seem to be improving his shining hours, another wasting them.

My point is not, of course, that we are to understand the painting of opposed absorptive states, industrious and idle, in the simple terms that would believe that an 18th-century public would have approved figures who worked, and condemned those who didn’t: it is certainly true that the interest Fried so convincingly demonstrates to have been evoked in the 18th century by an awareness of the apparent similarity between concentration and sleep complicates the issue of praise and blame, in terms suggested by these lines of Cowper describing his own habit of day-dreaming:

’Tis thus the understanding takes repose
In indolent vacuity of thought,
And sleeps and is refresh’d. Meanwhile the face
Conceals the mood lethargic with a mask
Of deep deliberation, as the man
Were task’d to his full strength, absorb’d and lost.

The issue is complicated, it seems to me, by Greuze no less than by Cowper, but not relegated by them, as it is by Fried, to a lower, and largely independent, order of importance.

Take Diderot’s remark on Boucher’s children, in his ‘Salon’ of 1765:

qu’ils restent à folâtrer sur des nuages. Dans toute cette innombrable famille, vous n’en trouverez pas un à employer aux actions réelles de la vie, à étudier sa leçon, à lire, à écrire, à tiller du chanvre.

Of this Fried notes that ‘it hardly needs to be pointed out that Diderot’s examples of the real actions of life are essentially absorptive,’ and of course that’s true. But they are also essentially industrious: the opposition between ‘folâtrer’ and ‘employer’, ‘nuages’ and ‘réelles’ makes that clear, as does the impossibility of adding, to Diderot’s list of ‘real activities’, ‘à dormir’ – an absorptive state, sure enough, but not one which would illuminate Diderot’s objection to Boucher’s children. Or take this remark by Rousseau, in his ‘Lettre sur les Spectacles’, that in Geneva ‘tout s’occupe, tout est en mouvement, tout s’empresse à son travail et à ses affaires.’ This sentence, Fried suggests, solves the problem posed by Rousseau’s reluctance ‘to theatricalise his beloved Genevans by representing the latter as wholly absorbed in activity and thus as oblivious to the existence of the stranger (a figure for the reader)’. True enough, but the point is also, evidently, that they are absorbed in doing something: asleep, they would be equally oblivious to our presence – but try adding, to Rousseau’s sentence, tout dort.

I find much, then, in this book to challenge and to complicate my own irremissively social and political approach to 18th-century painting, but still I finished this book no less persuaded than before of the crucial importance of moral questions to the art of the period Fried discusses, and of the impossibility of separating them from the preoccupations that he has discovered. It is not simply on the issue of working and not working that we seem to disagree, but on the general question of the relation of issues of absorption and theatricality to the question of how a picture was understood to be ‘moral’. In an engraving after Luciano Borzone, ‘Belisarius receiving alms’, a soldier on the left of the composition gazes intently at the seated figure of Belisarius, who has stretched out his hand to receive some money from a group of women who stand between and behind the two principal figures. Diderot notes the criticism that the figure of the soldier is accorded a degree of interest that detracts from the importance of Belisarius: but for Diderot himself it was exactly this feature ‘qui rendoit la peinture morale’: for the absorption of the soldier, so entirely unaware of being in a painting, meant that, for Diderot, ‘il faisoit mon rôle.’ I take it that Fried and I are roughly agreed on the meaning of Diderot’s remark, which indicates that, if we are to sympathise with Belisarius in his tragedy, if we are to be moved by it, it will not be by a distanced contemplation of him, but by the realisation that, had we been present on the occasion depicted, we would have been moved in the same way as the soldier is, and would have given the same appearance of being so moved. An attempt to engage our sympathy for Belisarius more directly, by making him the central figure of the composition, would have had the opposite effect, by obliging us to recognise that we were outside the image, and that Belisarius was, as it were, trying to signal his distress from the picture to the gallery.

But what puzzles me about Fried’s account is that he nevertheless goes on to separate the moral and ontological aspects of the picture in a way that seems to deny his (and Diderot’s) understanding of it, by insisting on the primacy of the ontological over the moral:

the passage states unequivocally that Diderot’s admiration for [the] composition was far more deeply grounded in ontological considerations than in moral or sentimental ones. I do not mean by this to deny that both subject and engraving engaged his interest on moral and sentimental grounds as well [my italics]. But ... Diderot held that it was the figure of the soldier that made the painting moral, a claim that I have read as implying that the moral meaning of the work was dependent on the persuasive representation of absorption.

But why should one not argue the complete contrary of this: that the representation of absorption was demanded by the prior concern to engage our sympathy for Belisarius’s distress? And if, as it seems to me, that reading of Diderot’s remark is quite as plausible as Fried’s, why should one argue that Diderot’s admiration was more ‘deeply grounded’ in one consideration than in another? For the representation of absorption is as evidently grounded in the concern to engage our sympathy as the possibility of doing that is grounded in the representation of absorption.

The answer, I suppose, is simply that Fried believes the ontological is a ‘deeper ground’ than the moral, a belief whose truth may have been more obvious to the metaphysicians than to the painters of the mid-18th century, but which here seems to derive from Fried’s important contention that in the ontological problems raised by French painting in the decades he has studied we can discover the origins of modern art and its continual preoccupation with the issue of the relation of object and beholder. The contention is not argued for in detail, but enough is said to suggest that it will be fruitfully developed in Fried’s subsequent writing. I am entirely persuaded by Fried’s argument that the ontological issues that have been the concern of modern painters were first perceived to be of importance in the 1750s and 1760s: but it is another thing to suggest that in that period the ontological and moral aspects of painting were already as separate or as separable as they were later sometimes believed to be. This extraordinarily intelligent and provocative book has alerted us to what will from now on be recognised as a crucial issue in the history of 18th-century French painting: but its value will be as much to establish how that painting differs from the painting that followed it as to reveal a continuity of concern from the 18th to the 19th century.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences