Past Events

French Art and Scotch Ideas: The Scottish Enlightenment and The Dawn of Modernity in French Art

Lecture – Duncan Macmillan

  • 10 February 2021
  • 2:00 – 3:30 pm
  • Online Event

This event is part of a collaboration between the Paul Mellon Centre and the Fleming Collection that will focus on aspects of Scottish art, both current and neglected. As a charity, the Fleming Collection promotes Scottish art and creativity through exhibitions, loans, and education, inspired by its own collection, deemed the finest outside institutions. Recently, the Fleming Collection gifted its specialist library to PMC as a contribution to building an unrivalled resource for British art studies open to all.

The Scottish philosophy of moral sense established the supremacy of the imagination which became one of the a priori of art. So too did its corollary, the idea that the imagination flourished more freely in the primitive condition of humanity, either in the remote past or among unsophisticated people in the present. In Rome, Gavin Hamilton pioneered these ideas in the visual arts and an international community of younger artists, including Canova and David, followed his lead. James Macpherson’s Ossian drew on the same ideas.

Later in the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, Thomas Reid’s philosophy of common sense enjoyed international currency. It also had particular appeal to artists as Reid argued that only they are aware of the raw sensations from which intuitively our perceptions are formed and that they must record these signs, not what they signify. This radical idea echoed through the nineteenth century. Reid also presented the same argument for expression and again gave artists privileged vision. His principal interpreter, Dugald Stewart, was a close friend of Henry Raeburn who was clearly influenced by Reid’s ideas. David Wilkie also followed Reid to make expression the basis of his art. His contemporary, the surgeon Charles Bell, made it the centre of his medical studies and his eventual identification of the function of the nervous system. Bell influenced Géricault.

Wilkie also responded to Reid’s ideas on perception, however, and also to how his arguments replaced imagined objectivity with actual subjectivity: art is personal and particular, not general. From this Archibald Alison developed an aesthetic theory of association. Drawing on these ideas, in Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo Dispatch Wilkie quite consciously knocked history painting off its perch atop the hierarchy of painting. Wilkie also followed Burns and certainly influenced Constable. Along with Walter Scott, he was greatly admired in France where concurrently Reid’s philosophy became a fashionable topic amongst the artists in Delacroix’s circle. In Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu, Balzac parodied its consequences for painting. Delacroix, Bonington and others were also deeply influenced by Wilkie and followed his example to explore a more personal and subjective kind of painting. Courbet also followed Wilkie, particularly in the idea reiterated by Reid that art is expressive, but to recover the simplicity of response, for both Wilkie and Courbet epitomised by folk music, artists must unlearn what they have learnt. Reid’s Works became a school text book for the Impressionist generation and his ideas on perception still find echoes in their work and that of Cézanne.

Image: Gavin Hamilton, Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, 1760-63. Photo © Antonia Reeve. Image courtesy of National Galleries of Scotland

In collaboration with:

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About the speaker

  • Duncan Macmillan headshot

    Duncan Macmillan is Emeritus Professor in the History of Scottish Art in the University of Edinburgh where he pioneered the teaching Scottish art as a university subject. He is art critic of The Scotsman and a fellow of both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Arts and also an Honorary Royal Scottish Academician. His book, Scottish Art 1460-2000, won the Saltire Prize for Scottish Book of the Year when it was first published and has been called the standard work on the subject. He has also won a number of other prizes and holds an honorary degree from the University of Dundee. As well as Scottish Art 1460-2000, numerous articles, exhibition catalogues etc. his publications include Painting in Scotland the Golden Age, Scottish Art in the Twentieth Century, Scotland’s Shrine: the Scottish National War Memorial and several monographs on contemporary artists including Elizabeth Blackadder and Victoria Crowe. He is currently preparing for publication a book on the place of the Scottish Enlightenment in the early history of modern art.