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Art Department


Darrow Presents Paper on Diderot, Chardin

Darrow Presents Paper on Diderot, Chardin

: The open-hearted Diderot and the secretive Chardin. Denis Diderot, left, by Louis-Michel van Loo; right, self portrait by Jean Baptiste Chardin. Wikimedia Commons.

Darrow Presents Paper on Diderot, Chardin

: Jean Baptiste Chardin, "Woman Cleaning Turnips," c. 1738. Wikimedia Commons.

Darrow Presents Paper on Diderot, Chardin

: Jean Baptiste Chardin, "Boy with a Top," c. 1735. Wikimedia Commons.

Darrow Presents Paper on Diderot, Chardin

: Jean Baptiste Chardin, "Still Life with Glass Flask and Fruit," c. 1728. Wikimedia Commons.

Darrow Presents Paper on Diderot, Chardin

: Jean Baptiste Chardin, "The Ray," c. 1728. Wikimedia Commons.

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Lovers of art history currently in Chicago: Cornish’s Elizabeth Darrow will be presenting a paper on Diderot and Chardin.

Jacque Barzun has said that one can be considered well read without having turned to the work of Denis Diderot. This was a tough admission for him to make, given that the late Dr. Barzun, the foremost scholar of cultural history in recent memory, was a great admirer of Diderot. Those who know of Diderot appreciate his importance. He was one of the philosophes group along with Rousseau and d’Alembert, a central figure of the Enlightenment, “The Great Parisian,” a playwright, a novelist, a raconteur,  the man who undertook the sisyphusian task of compiling and largely writing the first comprehensive encyclopedia. The great work, resplendent in its full title, Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, is surely the centerpiece of the 18th century, the greatest collection of knowledge of an age in love with collecting, organizing and nomenclature. But it is another role the polymath played, that of art critic, that interests professor Elizabeth Darrow particularly. On February 12, Dr. Darrow, Cornish Area Head of Art History, will present her paper, Diderot and the Elemental Secret, at The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (or AIC) in Chicago.

The AIC is the most important body for art conservators and art historians both nationally and internationally. Darrow’s paper is presented as part of Secrets Of The Old Masters: Materials, Manuals, And Myths at the conference.

“This paper will consider Denis Diderot’s (1713-1784) critical yet personal response to the work of Jean Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779),” writes Dr. Darrow in her abstract, “as related to the dissemination of ‘craft secrets’ in his Encyclopédie during the Enlightenment in France in the eighteenth century.” Chardin’s paintings were a relief from the sylvan confections of Watteau and other artists of the Rococo. Chardin is known for his muted tones and meticulous depiction of light, especially in his still lifes. His scenes of life in the “lower classes,” such as Woman Cleaning Turnips (above), prefigured the realism of Gustave Courbet, for one, in the following century. Diderot, with a weakness for the virtuous and the sentimental — author, as he was, of such middle-class tearjerkers as The Father of the Family (Le père de famille) — was naturally drawn to Chardin. Diderot had much to say on the painter in his seminal works of art criticism, his salons, but Darrow has focused on the approach he took to the painter in his work on his encyclopedia. In the Encyclopédie, Diderot was interested in the art of painting rather than the painting as art, as much effort in the work was focused on conveying practical knowledge that would be immediately useful.

The drama inherent in Darrow’s subject, as she explains it, lies in Diderot’s open nature versus Chardin’s secretive one. She notes that Diderot “hated irrational systems of belief,” and quotes him as saying that “nothing is more contrary to progress than mystery—if it happens that an invention is favorable to progress of arts & science comes to my knowledge I burn to divulge it. That is my mania—“ The mania for openness is one that anyone who has followed the progress of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden can understand. In opposition to Diderot, Chardin played his professional cards famously close to the vest. His methods and means as a painter were, it seems, trade secrets — the kind of secrets Diderot wished to reveal to the world.

Diderot and the Elemental Secret will be delivered as part of the AIC program at the Chicago Hilton, 8th floor, 720 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, February 12, 2:30-5:00 p.m.

Elizabeth Darrow received a Ph.D in art history from the University of Washington in 2000 and has taught at Trinity University, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Washington and Montana State University. Dr. Darrow studied restoration of painting and art history in Italy and her research & scholarly interests emphasize early modern art history from the Renaissance into the nineteenth century.


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