18th-century art has until recently occupied a curiously neglected position in art history. Sandwiched between the Renaissance and modernism, Enlightenment Europe has often been viewed as little more than a steppingstone between them, or worse, an artistic wasteland. Barbara Maria Stafford lamented the century’s disregard in 1988 by dubbing it “an invisible specialization in a maligned speciality” and “the Belgium of art history.” This status is reflected in the period’s historiography. It was largely ignored as a subject for English-language study during and after World War II. Fiske Kimball’s The Creation of the Rococo Decorative Style (cited under the Rococo) stands out like a lone tree on a plain, as do later volumes like Robert Rosenblum’s Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art (Rosenblum 1967, cited under General Overviews), and Robert Wark’s Ten British Pictures, 1740–1840 (Wark 1971 cited under Broad Studies of English Painting). Interest began to grow in the late 1970s and 1980s, spurred by books such as Ronald Paulson’s Emblem and Expression (Paulson 1975, cited under Broad Studies of English Painting); Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality and Norman Bryson’s Word and Image (Fried 1980 and Bryson 1981, both cited under Broad Studies of French Painting); John Barrell’s The Dark Side of the Landscape (Barrell 1983, cited under Landscape Painting); Barbara Maria Stafford’s Voyage into Substance (Stafford 1984, cited under Science and Empiricism); Thomas Crow’s Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Crow 1987, cited under Broad Studies of French Painting), and Mary Sheriff’s Fragonard: Art and Eroticism (Sheriff 1990, cited under Jean-Honoré Fragonard). These brought great critical sophistication to the period, but also exposed its difficulties. 18th-century art resists formulation into a neat stylistic progression. Survey books typically attempt this by positioning rococo art as a version of the late baroque (or barochetto), followed by neoclassicism. This schema is impossible to sustain, especially in the century’s middle decades, when one finds baroque revival, archaeological classicism, rococo, and fantasy Gothic in jumbled coexistence. Another challenge is pinning the era’s great intellectual project, the Enlightenment, onto any particular kind of art. It does not correlate with a single style and every scholarly redefinition of the Enlightenment alters the thinking about art that emerges from it. Further challenges are a lack of clear geographical centralization, the period’s many traveling artists, and its diversity of media. These structural characteristics have made for an unusual historiography, much more heavily weighted toward post-1980 publications than other areas of art history. There is little integrative or comparative work and many gaps remain. Yet despite its late start, a rich literature on this period has emerged. Writings on 18th-century art have embraced interdisciplinary perspectives more eagerly than other art history subfields, and the recent interest in global artistic exchange has likewise made a major impact.
Due to the reasons outlined in the Introduction, summary overviews of 18th-century art are uncommon. The diversity of the century’s artistic achievements make a linear narrative challenging to write. The following texts take up that challenge in diverse ways. Levey 1966 is an easily available, but now a rather dated attempt. Boime 1987 is a more detailed historical survey, while Craske 1997 and Barker 2012 provide sociohistorical and case-study approaches. Rosenblum 1967, although not a true survey, offers a panoramic reading of late 18th-century art that unpacks much of its substance and significance. Art History Resources culls an enormous number of online resources and serves as a de facto pictorial survey for the century.
Compiled by Christopher Witcombe, and drawing from numerous museum websites, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, and other resources, this database functions as a pictorial overview of 18th-century visual culture.
Barker, Emma. Art & Visual Culture, 1600–1850: Academy to Avant-Garde. London: Tate, 2012.
A survey organized around case studies of important artistic and architectural developments, including the urban development of metropolitan London, English gardens, art and the salons, and neoclassical Sculpture. More thematic and focused than a traditional survey, but broad in implications.
Bauer, Hermann, and Hans Sedlmayr. Rokoko: Struktur und Wesen einer europäischen Epoche. Cologne: DuMont, 1991.
An attempt to understand 18th-century art in Hegelian terms as a unified period style expressing the underlying spirit of its historical moment. Pan-European in scope, it treats a greater array of media than other available surveys.
Boime, Albert. Art in an Age of Revolution, 1750–1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Sets later 18th-century art in a broad context of historical, technical, and philosophical developments.
Craske, Matthew. Art in Europe, 1700–1830: A History of the Visual Arts in an Era of Unprecedented Urban Economic Growth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
A provocative rewriting of the period’s art history that shifts parameters from style to social change. Pins major artistic developments to the growth of an urban middle class and its influence on taste, iconography, and modes of display. Arguably more successful for Britain than other nations.
Levey, Michael. Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth-Century Painting. New York: Praeger, 1966.
Long the only readily available summary of the period, Levey concentrates on well-known figures and privileges painting over other arts. His reading of Watteau’s subersiveness has been particularly influential.
Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967.
Proposes the important argument that the stylistic choices of later 18th-century artists laid the groundwork for a Romantic conception of art and ultimately the birth of modernism. Despite its age, still a foundational text that should be widely read.
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