Baroque and Enlightenment

Art and Enlightenment

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the writings of influential philosophers and scientists formed the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement centered on rationalism, tolerance and liberty. Its influence was strongly felt in the art of the period, in work such as British artist Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, 1764-66. Its dramatic use of light was intended to show how inquiry and learning are profound and deeply solemn.

The identity of the couple in Swedish artist Alexander Roslin’s Double Portrait, 1754, is uncertain but may be the French civil engineer Jean-Rodolphe Perronet (1708–1794) and his wife.

Roslin worked for aristocratic patrons in Italy, Russia, Sweden, Germany and France, where he spent most of his career. Roslin’s elegant portraits manoeuvred skilfully between Rococo and Neoclassical styles and he was renowned for his skilful rendering of fabrics and jewels in oil paint. Explore more of Alexander Roslin’s work on Europeana here.

In late 18th century England, the mystical visions of William Blake were a powerful counterpoint to Enlightenment rationalism. Blake sought to regenerate mankind spiritually and his artistic style is unique. The Ancient of Days is the frontispiece to Blake’s mythological narrative book Europe: A Prophecy, 1794.

A bearded male figure (probably Urizen, Blake’s embodiment of reason and law) crouches in a heavenly sphere, its light partially covered by clouds. His left arm holds a pair of compasses and reaching down with them, he measures the surrounding darkness. Europe: A Prophecy reflects Blake’s concerns about the turbulent politics of the Europe in which he lived, a theme we will explore in the next installment of Faces of Europe.