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The Change in Culture Brought by The Enlightenment

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After the long-standing power that religion had over people, the Enlightenment brought a stark change in culture. The once superstitious people of the time were now finding explanations for things that religion once explained, losing faith in the monarchy, and could use art not only as a means of showing religious events in the past, but using it as journalism to critique their modern society.

The Enlightenment focused on understanding nature, contrary to the beliefs of the past. Going against “God’s will” by trying to find meaning was looked down upon, but this transitioned into the opposite during the Enlightenment. Education was a major focus in society, and being well educated about the world around them was considered a must for everyone. This idea of learning was instilled in children early on, so they could become a contributor to society. Many paintings in the Neoclassicism style demonstrate these ideas. Jean Simeon Chardin’s The Governess, created in 1739, displays this idea. In this image, a governess is depicted telling a young boy it is time to study. Toys are seen on the floor, showing the transition from play to work/education. This example of a moralizing image shows the European’s focus on responsibility and education that were needed in adulthood. This painting served as a reminder to parents (and governesses) of how to raise children to be contributors to society. Experiment with the Air Pump, created in 1768 by English painter Joseph Wright, shows an informal way of learning. This piece depicts the Lunar Society, a group of scientists that performed experiments that were outside of formal education. The experiments this society participated in were illegal, so they had to hide their activities. In the painting, the Lunar Society “performs” their experiment with an air pump to a wealthy family after dinner. Although this was not a formal education, these people still wanted to learn, and were sharing their knowledge with other groups of people. Even entertainment had the benefit of becoming better educated. Lastly, education changed society’s hierarchy. Women’s roles were changing, and the desire for a better educated community spread to groups that normally did not become educated. They were exposed to the same education men had. In Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, created by Adelaide Labille-Guiard in 1739, Labille-Guiard can be seen painting with two pupils. Women were becoming more educated, and even learning about how to paint from life was considered more educated than a woman who just produced children and stayed at home. This shows how women could attend an academy and become educated in a profession, an option that was once only allowed for men.

The spread of knowledge to the people, via teaching children, informing citizens without scientific education through entertainment, or changing social roles to accommodate learning to everyone, was vital to an educated community. The effects it had on society’s culture also allowed the advancement of social values and a new way of thinking. People were no longer relying on the monarchy to instill knowledge and power upon them.

Political propaganda was still prevalent during this time, and was used in accordance with the changing society. Because royalty was losing its impact on society with art, artists had to depict them in different lights to encourage the shifting society to view them differently.

Marie Antoinette with her Children, created by Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun in 1787, is an example of this in the French Neoclassical style. As mentioned earlier, society was changing rapidly, along with their values. This painting depicts Marie Antoinette as a loving mother with all her children, although she probably rarely saw them. This was an attempt at self-propaganda to appeal to society and their changing outlook on values. However, it did not work, and she was assassinated by guillotine in 1792 during the Reign of Terror. The Oath of the Horatii, created in 1784 by Jacques Louis David, is another attempt at changing society’s outlook of the monarchy. This painting is set during the Roman Republican Era, and depicts the King, Horace, sending his three sons to fight for the city. They are depicted doing the Roman salute to Horace, and this political loyalty was supposed to be interpreted the same way for France, to stay loyal to the king. However, it was interpreted as a reminder of family values and preserving one’s way of life. This interpretation reflects society’s changing views about life and values. Another painting by Jacques Louis David, called The Death of Marat, was later created in 1793, when David no longer supported the king. He joined the Jacobin Party, an extremist group of Revolutionaries who were responsible for the Reign of Terror. This painting depicts the martyr of the Jacobin’s leader, Marat. He lies dead in a medicinal bath, murdered by Charlotte Corday, a Royalist. The painting is a reminder of the feud between Royalists and Revolutionaries, and the problems that arose because of a society that lost faith in the monarchy.

With a rapidly changing society who was becoming better educated, people in power had to change the way they were viewed. Political propaganda art was created in hopes of instilling loyalty to the monarchy. However, in a society who was becoming better educated and more open minded, the monarchy started to lose power.

The education of society, as well as political propaganda present during the Enlightenment, allowed for retaliation in the form of art. This shift in values was the beginning of social commentary in art. Towards the end of the enlightenment, the ancien regime (Ancient Regime) of the monarchy was ending. As people became more confident in expressing their anger with the government and social issues, modern events gave artists a venue to use art as journalism. Artists were more assertive in their beliefs, could freely critique society, and could have their own opinions.

Raft of Medusa, created in 1818 by Theodore Gericault, is a painting created during the French Romanticism era. This dramatic painting depicts the contemporary shipwreck of the colonial Medusa, who sailed off the coast of Africa and sank. The captain, crew, and first class passengers took the lifeboat, leaving the third-class passengers and servants to fend for themselves on a make-shift raft of scraps. It was later discovered that the captain was untrained and had bought the position from his wealthy father. This tragedy outraged the public, and Gericault was not afraid to show the horror and level of French corruption that was present. Another painting that depicts a tragedy was Third of May 1808, created in 1814 by Francisco Goya. This painting illustrates the murder of Spanish peasants by a French firing squad. This happened because of a rebellion against the royal family. The gritty technique Goya used helped to communicate the message of an equally gritty atrocity. The Massacre at Chios, created by Eugene Delacroix in 1822, is another Romantic painting that shows the murder of citizens. This painting is from the Greek Wars of Independence from Turkey (1821-30). The Greeks had become subjects of Turkish rule, and although they fought for independence, millions were slaughtered by the Turkish. This scene shows the Greeks waiting to be sent to the slave markets, and in the lower right, an infant tries to nurse from its dead mother. As Delacroix had experienced the carnage and atrocities while traveling with the French armies, he was impacted and wanted the rest of the world, specifically the French audience, to understand the negative aspects of war.

Because artists were more educated and were becoming more progressive, they were no longer afraid to show the truth behind contemporary events. The use of art as journalism allowed the public to become more educated about the world around them.

The Enlightenment was filled with knowledge and reasoning. The effects of a better educated society led to a revolution in art. The art during the Enlightenment reflected the standards of education and progress the people valued.

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The Change in Culture Brought by the Enlightenment. (2018, July 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 27, 2021, from
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