Photography, Painting, and Science in Victorian Britain
Photography, Painting, and Science in Victorian Britain
“Anne Helmreich’s Nature’s Truth is consistently illuminating, informed, and accessible; it is the best guide I know to the nineteenth-century passion for ‘truth to nature’ among artists and scientists alike. It is a pleasure to learn how artists from Talbot and Millais to the New English Art Club and the Camden Town circle strove to find ‘a solid basis for art in science.’”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Drawing on sources ranging from artists’ letters to scientific treatises, Nature’s Truth illuminates the dynamic relationship between art and science throughout the nineteenth century. Anne Helmreich reveals how these practices became closely aligned as artists sought to maintain art’s relevance in a world increasingly defined by scientific innovation, technological advances, and a rapidly industrializing society. Eventually, despite consensus between artists and critics about the need for “truth to nature,” the British arts community sharply contested what constituted truth and how truth to nature as an ideal could be visually represented. By the early twentieth century, the rallying cry could no longer hold the reform movement together. Helmreich’s fascinating study shows, however, that this relatively short-lived movement had a profound effect on modern British art.
An insightful examination of changing conceptions of truth and the role of art in modern society, Nature’s Truth reframes and recontextualizes our notions of British art.
“Anne Helmreich’s Nature’s Truth is consistently illuminating, informed, and accessible; it is the best guide I know to the nineteenth-century passion for ‘truth to nature’ among artists and scientists alike. It is a pleasure to learn how artists from Talbot and Millais to the New English Art Club and the Camden Town circle strove to find ‘a solid basis for art in science.’”
“In her fascinating and important book Nature’s Truth, Anne Helmreich discusses the group of artists, photographers, and scientists who believed that they could unite to explore the truth of nature. Even though this dynamic—and complicated—relationship between John Millais, John Brett, P. H. Emerson, and George Clausen and scientific figures such as T. H. Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and G. H. Lewis did not survive past the early twentieth century, Helmreich reveals its lasting effect on modern art.”
“A must-read for those interested in nineteenth-century British landscape painting and photography! Anne Helmreich brilliantly argues that, much like science, landscape painting and photography in Britain from the 1830s until 1914 were driven by a belief in the importance of perception and the notion of ‘truth to nature.’ But as the meaning of that phrase changed, so did the art, until by 1914 the phrase itself had lost all meaning for artists.”
“Anne Helmreich’s brilliant new book makes us rethink Victorian art, the development of British artistic modernism, and the history of visual perception. Returning us to a time when art and science worked closely in dialogue, Helmreich eloquently traces the changing meanings of ‘truth to nature’—objective, factual recording of detail, or subjective, imaginative response. Astute, detailed analysis of paintings and photographs combines with extensive reading in primary works, rendering this an original and illuminating study.”
“The triad of painting, science, and photography has long been recognized as a major preoccupation in British culture of the Victorian period. The fact that it has taken so long for this to be adequately explained and elucidated speaks to the narrow preoccupations of art historians and the silo mentality of academic disciplines unwilling to embrace the fluidity among fields once mutually supportive of one another. Helmreich addresses the interrelationships of these activities with considerable sensitivity.”
“Helmreich's call for interdisciplinary studies may not be new, but her statement recognizes the significance and the challenge of interdisciplinary scholarship. Nature’s Truth clearly demonstrates the value of such work.”
Anne Helmreich is Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. Her most recent book is The Rise of the Modern Art Market in London, 1850–1939 (2011), coedited with Pamela Fletcher.
List of Illustrations
1 Truth to Nature and the “Innocent Eye”
2 John Everett Millais and John Brett: The Rise of Imagination and the Crisis of Pre-Raphaelitism
3 P. H. Emerson and George Clausen: Renouncing the Quest
4 Neorealism: Truth to Nature in Modernist Critical Debate
Three telling voices from the nineteenth century offer enticing evidence that modern forms of image making were inseparable from modern science. In 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot published his invention of photogenic drawing, the precursor to modern photography, declaring that, “of whatever value it may turn out in its application to the arts, it will at least be accepted as a new proof of the inductive methods of modern science.” In 1850, the art critic F. G. Stephens, writing in the Pre-Raphaelite journal the Germ, called for a new form of art making commensurate with recent scientific developments.
The sciences have become almost exact within the present century. Geology and chemistry are almost re-instituted. The first has been nearly created; the second expanded so widely that it now searches and measures the creation. And how has this been done but by bringing greater knowledge to bear upon a wider range of experiment; by being precise in the search after truth? If this adherence to fact, to experiment and not theory,—to begin at the beginning and not fly to the end,—has added so much to the knowledge of man in science; why may it not greatly assist the moral purposes of the Arts?
At the end of the century, the art critic James Stanley Little pointed even more emphatically to science as the decisive influence on preceding decades.
The nineteenth century has made its mark in history, chiefly by reason of its achievements in Science; and it is not surprising that men should look to Science with a kind of reverential awe, as the last pronouncement of the Deity, as the Do-all of the future. Science is based upon facts, its proudest boast is that it takes nothing on trust. . . . The careful and laborious method of the scientist in arriving at the truth, in the influence which the process has had on the people at large, has been in the main beneficial. . . . It has made us all searchers after the truth, made us as a nation of investigators and pioneers, each desirous to find his own answer to the terribly perplexing question propounded by Pilate, each glad if he can add something to the sum of ascertained facts.
Why was science accorded such significance within British artistic circles over the course of the long nineteenth century? Why and how did artists and art critics turn to science for inspiration and even methodology? What was the impact of science upon art making in Britain in the period we have come to associate with the formation of modernism?
Partial answers to these questions can be found in studies devoted to specific individuals, such as the pioneering photographer Talbot, or decisive art movements, such as Pre-Raphaelitism. But these have been treated as isolated episodes. My aim is to take a longer and fuller historical view. My hypothesis is that art was profoundly shaped by radical changes in science and its discourses over the course of the long nineteenth century. As demonstrated by the writings of Talbot, Stephens, and Little, artists and critics turned to science to inform and to justify their practice.
In turn, leading scientists drew attention to points of connection between art and science, in rhetoric well suited to their cultural ambitions. The scientist Thomas Huxley told the members of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1871 that “our purpose is the same as yours—namely, to seize the idea which lies hidden under the shifting phenomena of nature, and to bind it in such fetters that it may increase the pleasure and the profit of endless generations of men. We both seek truth and we both seek beauty.” If we fail to understand art’s dynamic relationship to science, we are left with an incomplete picture of British art making and will fail to grasp the particular conditions and expressions of modernism in Britain.
Even intellectuals outside the spheres of art and science recognized the bonds between the two disciplines. In 1863, Cardinal Wiseman, the first cardinal and archbishop of Westminster upon the reestablishment of the Catholic Church in England, chose as his topic “points of contact between science and art” for his address to the Royal Institution, a society founded in 1799 to facilitate sharing scientific and technical information with lay audiences. As befitting a man of the church, Wiseman stayed away from such controversial topics as evolutionary biology and focused upon such seemingly unremarkable themes as mathematical principles of perspective. Yet Wiseman’s definitions of science and art reflected current understandings. Science, according to Wiseman, was “whatever knowledge has come to man as the result of investigation, by thought, calculation, and experiment—whether the word be referred to the more abstruse and abstract, or to the more practical, exercise of the power of observation.” Wiseman touched here upon a potentially controversial subject—the scientific method. At the time of his lecture, the generation of scholars later known as the scientific naturalists was coming to the fore and championing visual observation and experiment in order to ground science in empiricism and challenge natural theology.
The fine arts, according to Wiseman, “approach our intellect and our feelings through the eye.” More specifically, Wiseman pointed to landscape painting as the arena in which British artists had already succeeded in “educating the public eye and the public mind” by encouraging “a perception of the beautiful in nature.” He attributed the contemporary appreciation of depictions of nature to the modern age—the age of railways and seaside tourism—which thrust humanity together in cities and turned nature into rural scenery detached from Britons’ daily lives. In sum, landscape painting was the art form of the modern age. But, for Wiseman, the desire to gaze upon nature—mountains, lakes, and wild coasts—was not just a rejection of industrialization; it was a means by which to admire the “greatness and power of its Author and Creator.” Here again Wiseman touched upon a point of controversy—should the study and representation of nature be informed by natural theology, or was it the perfect subject for a secular modern age searching for utilitarian advances?
Addressing such questions requires taking the long view, investigating change over time. The artistic and scientific developments traced out in this study exceeded a single generation and do not form a straightforward linear narrative of progress. Close analysis of the evidence reveals quandaries, contestations, and reversals of opinion as well as declarations and challenges. I present here a series of case studies, focusing on artists who were understood at the time to be modern, responding to issues of the day and seeking new paths for artistic practice. These individual actors and objects are assembled into a narrative that elucidates how science was seen as the means of reforming art over the course of the long nineteenth century.
Art and science converged in large part because they both engaged directly with visuality. The historian Barbara Gates explains that concern with sight was paramount in the Victorian age. Amateurs and professionals alike were “retraining their eyes to look as never before to witness what was around them in their everyday worlds. . . . Their kind of seeing became a hallmark of Victorian culture, a culture obsessed with sight.” However, this emphasis on visual knowledge came into conflict with developing understandings of the subjectivity of vision. Debates concerning sight, and what the cultural historian Kate Flint has identified as an “increasing awareness of the instability of the visual,” created a natural meeting point for the work of artists and scientists.
The boundaries between art and science in the nineteenth century were porous, although both disciplines were attempting to establish their distinct professional identities. Indeed, their spatially located histories help to establish this sensibility of proximity. For example, the leading societies associated with the two disciplines—the Royal Society, dedicated to science, and the Royal Academy of Arts, devoted to the visual arts—were both located at Somerset House by 1780 and eventually relocated to Burlington House in the mid-nineteenth century. Art and science were also lexically linked. As the opening quotations suggest, key terms—including experiment, fact, observation, and truth—marked nineteenth-century debates about the visual and knowledge and were shared across the disciplines. These terms characterized not only the rise of new art forms, most notably photography, and artistic developments spearheaded by painters affiliated with Pre-Raphaelitism, naturalism, impressionism, and postimpressionism, but also what has been referred to as the “second scientific revolution,” or “modern science.”
The modern, in science, denotes the demise of natural theology, the birth of scientific naturalism, and the rise of the specialized disciplines that gained public visibility beginning in the 1830s. In the fine arts, the notion of the modern first came to be associated with naturalism or realism, terms coined to signify artists’ direct engagement with the world around them and an implicit rejection of idealism. This shift in artistic practice reflected artists’ desires to develop modes of representation in concert with the conditions of modernity. Realism—a concern with capturing external reality in all its rudeness and beauty—crossed borders and embraced such diverse artists as the German painter Adolph Menzel, the French painter Édouard Manet, and the British painter William Holman Hunt.
But modernism took on many local forms in concert with differing conditions, and this has driven me to look anew at the problem of realism and its aftermath as it played out in a particular context—that of nineteenth-century Britain and the metropolis of London, home to many artistic and scientific societies formed to advance and disseminate knowledge. Scholars such as George Levine, Gillian Beer, and Peter Dale have amply described how Victorian novelists like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot participated in scientific naturalism and its debates. Here, I take up similar questions for the visual arts, but I also set my frame beyond the midcentury moment associated with Charles Darwin. In this study, I trace the formation, consolidation, and recalibration of the tightly bound relationship between art and science over the decades of the 1830s to the 1910s, when modernism took shape.
This study contributes to the ongoing revision of the history of modern British art. As the art historian Lisa Tickner has observed, the “received account” of British modernism “is suffering from fatigue,” defined by shop-worn paradigms of an “embattled avant-garde . . . that casts the British permanently into the shade of the French; and . . . the plot of an inexorable progress from Victorian narrative painting to an art of pure abstraction, or, at least, of purely formal values.” My aim is to suggest a plot that was not inexorable but plagued with crisis, a plot, moreover, driven not by the internal exigencies of painting but by changes in science. It is the story of a particularly local form of modernism—one built on the British tradition of landscape painting as well as on British debates about scientific knowledge and practice. But the narrative is also inflected by internationalism, as neither art nor science was contiguous with national borders. In short, this is a story that relocates the study of British modernism within the cultural field of science. Both artists and scientists were active interpreters of the natural world in the nineteenth century, and each turned to the other on occasion to seek verification or to stake opposition, acts that contributed collectively to how art and science were understood to function at the time.
In reconceptualizing the story of British modernism, I join several scholars who have offered new insights into their chosen subjects by investigating hitherto overlooked relationships between art and science. Pamela Smith, in The Body of the Artisan, argues persuasively that the artisan and the body of knowledge and experience associated with artisanal practice contributed significantly to new philosophies of nature that emerged over the course of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries in northern Europe. This was manifested materially, she explains, in the mode of depiction understood as naturalism, which allowed these artisans “to make claims about their status as active knowers, about their knowledge of nature, and about their mode of working.” Craig Hanson, in his English Virtuoso, sets aside the focus on the rise of civic humanism, common in so many studies of early modern British art, in order to investigate the impact of empiricism. The latter was fostered by the Royal Society, home of the English virtuoso, who was “interested in everything from human anatomy, to ancient burial sites, to the technical aspects of glass production,” and who often supported art, casting “pictorial representation as a form of knowledge.” Amy Meyers, in Knowing Nature: Art and Science in Philadelphia, 1740–1840, argues convincingly for reversing the traditional hierarchy that places scientists’ investigations of nature above those of the artist or craftsperson, given the critical role that visual culture played in producing knowledge. Such a hierarchical view, she adds, skews our understanding of how nature was studied and analyzed during a period of momentous change in the emerging metropole.
These accounts establish that what we think of today as art was crucially involved in the development of modern thought and in analyzing and explicating the external universe. The formation and validation of knowledge were highly contested, and no one discipline could claim an exclusive purview. Yet in the collection The Organisation of Knowledge in Victorian Britain, assembled by Martin Daunton, art and visual culture do not appear, inadvertently regarded as outside the pale. Here, I aim to prove that artists and art critics were just as committed as scientists, mathematicians, classicists, and other scholars were to the pursuit of new paths of inquiry and new knowledge.
In organizing my study, I have taken a cue from Cardinal Wiseman and focus largely on landscape representation, which was characterized by intense investigations in paint, photography, and print over the course of the long nineteenth century. The stakes were high for this genre, which had come to be associated with the leading edge of British art, largely through the efforts of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable. While the shadows of these artists loomed over the next generations, their model of individual genius, imaginative flourishes, and dazzling visual productions was increasingly seen as out of step with the drive for an empirically grounded practice in which the artist was humbled before nature and individualism subsumed to the rigorous task of reproducing the details of the scene. “Truth to nature” became the leitmotif of the Victorian age, and the major question facing artists and scientists alike was how to achieve it.
Nineteenth-century artists and scientists were still wrestling with the Cartesian divide of mind and body as they pursued their study of the natural world and sought to understand its internal mechanisms. Was the external world best apprehended with the bodily eye? Could the eye (and hand) faithfully record the world? Could mechanical instruments improve upon human sight? Or was the external world truly apprehended only by the mind, irrespective of the mechanics of vision? Did the mind interfere with purity of vision, or did it aid in apprehension and recognition? What was the role of feeling, memory, or imagination? Related to issues of perception were those of assessment—how would “truth to nature” be characterized, recognized, and judged? Was “truth” measured by faithfulness to detail or by ability to capture significant broad effects? Such questions drove lively debates in the pages of both artistic and scientific journals.
In this study, I have deliberately focused on the artistic side of this dialogue between art and science, asking how artistic practice was shaped by the leading scientific paradigms of the nineteenth century. I do not wish to imply that art did not have an equally compelling influence upon science. But the story of how artists sought to reinvigorate their practice through lessons derived from science is full and complex on its own terms and has yet to be set forth. Returning to James Stanley Little’s essay, science was recognized as a powerful, authoritative voice in nineteenth-century British artistic circles, and understanding how and why drives this study.
Science and Art: Defining Terms in the Public Sphere
This argument rests upon the historical record produced by artists, scientists, critics, and popular writers who made artworks, published notices and articles in the contemporary press, and authored numerous treatises and books, creating a vast archive. My narrative begins in the 1830s, the decade in which modern science began to gain visibility through the efforts of both scientists and popular writers. It is admittedly challenging to pinpoint the historic origins of modern science; indeed, one could cite the formation of the Royal Society in the 1660s as a critical starting point. But at the beginning of the nineteenth century, several key developments mark a distinct shift. The profession and field of practice known as science emerged, as signified by the birth of the term scientist. William Whewell, a professor at Cambridge University, coined the term in 1834 in his review of the popularizing book The Connexion of the Physical Sciences by Mary Somerville. In his essay, Whewell recalled how he and his colleagues at the British Association for the Advancement of Science arrived at the term scientist in order to create an identity for “students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” They had rejected the terms philosophers and savans, as well as English translations of Natur-forscher (nature-poker or nature-peeper), and instead proposed that “by analogy with artist, they might form scientist.” That is, just as the artist was a practitioner of the arts, the scientist was a practitioner of the sciences—a form of logic that implies an intellectual equivalency between the two disciplines.
Whewell elaborated on this logic in his later text, The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840). In the course of his discussion of aphorisms concerning the language of science, he again explained, “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter, or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.” The subcategories of science that Whewell cited are telling; they are those fields that he regarded as holding the most significance and promise.
While the term scientist was adopted only slowly, its etymology nonetheless correlates with an important shift in the conception of science, as the historians Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray explain: “The word ‘science’ took on new and narrower meanings in the 1830s and 1840s. It ceased to be a synonym for all knowledge and became the party label of a particular mode of understanding, possessed—so it was said—of superior power.” This change in understanding was tied closely to the birth of distinctive subdisciplines within the broader field of science, and to a rigorous debate about scientific method. These activities dramatically shaped the contours of modern science in Britain and also permeated the cultural sphere, leading to an unprecedented interest in science and also affecting artistic practice.
In many ways, Whewell’s need to define the intellectual work of science was the logical conclusion to developments that can be traced back to at least the seventeenth century and the debate between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer provide a compelling analysis of this episode in Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life. Using Boyle’s development of his air-pump device and subsequent experiments on the properties of air and vacuums, and Hobbes’s refutation of Boyle’s mode of experimentation as a reliable source of knowledge, the authors shed light on how the concept of experimentation entered into scientific practice and became a convention. As in the later Victorian age, “the experimental production of matters of fact involved an immense amount of labour, . . . rested upon the acceptance of certain social and discursive conventions, and . . . depended upon the production and protection of a special form of social organization” that could participate in the collective confirmation of experimental findings.
Shapin and Schaffer touch upon how experimental philosophers were challenged by the church; Peter Harrison, in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, more fully elucidates the stakes involved in the dynamic interchange between science and religion in the early modern age. Harrison explains that the postlapsarian fall from grace propelled natural philosophers such as Francis Bacon “to determine whether the human mind might by any means be restored to its perfect and original condition.” Critically, Adam’s lost knowledge not only drove the search for knowledge but also informed methodologies by which this knowledge could be obtained. To avoid the sin of error, scholars like Robert Hooke, curator of experiments for the Royal Society, argued in favor of “mechanical and experimental philosophy.” Proponents of this view, among them Bacon and Boyle, advocated intensive labor, repeated trials, and probable rather than certain conclusions.
Natural philosophy went on to flourish in the Enlightenment, particularly through the efforts of scholars who upheld empiricism as Bacon described it in his Novum Organum (1620), in which he argued on behalf of observation and experimentation as well as the inductive method. As Roy Porter explains in his overview of medical and human science in the eighteenth century, “observation and experiment became the watchwords of many,” pointing to Giorgio Baglieri and Bernard Mandeville among others. Isaac Newton was an important figure for the eighteenth century as well; scholars were drawn to his certainty in the methods of mathematical reasoning and experimentalism.
But while we can see continuity between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in the concern for scientific method, as well as a shared commitment to natural theology, it is important to recognize sharp differences as well. Whereas John Locke, in his Thoughts Concerning Education (1692), argued that “Works of Nature are contrived by a Wisdom, and operate by ways too far surpassing our Faculties to discover, or Capacities to conceive, for us ever to be able to reduce them into a Science,” Whewell, upholding the utopian belief in progress characteristic of his age, argued that understanding the infinity of the universe and its Creator simply required improving man’s faculties: “Difficulties arising from space, number, gradation, are such as we can conceive ourselves capable of overcoming, merely by an extension of our present faculties. Is it not then easy to imagine that such difficulties must vanish before him who made us and our faculties?”
Whewell’s comments build upon an Enlightenment belief in the capacities of human reason to harness observations and experiments into a larger body of knowledge, organized by laws. Ephraim Chambers, in his Cyclopaedia (1728), described science thus:
To SCIENCE, then, belong such Things as Men may discover by the use of Reasoning, and Sense: Whatever the Mind decries in virtue of that Faculty whereby we perceive Things, and their Relations, is matter of Science: Such as the Laws of Nature, the Affections of Bodies, the Rules and Canons of Right and Wrong, Truth and Error, the Properties of Lines and Numbers &c. Science, in effect, is the Result of mere Reason and Sense in their general or natural State, as imparted to all Men.
One critical way in which Whewell and his colleagues believed that they could generate “a more attentive examination” was through collaborative enterprise and rigorous debate. This belief fueled the birth of new scientific societies, including the Geological Society (founded in 1807 and awarded a royal charter in 1825), the Astronomical Society (founded in 1820 and awarded a royal charter in 1831), the Zoological Society (founded in 1826 and awarded a royal charter in 1829), the Geographical Society (founded in 1830 and awarded a royal charter in 1859), the Statistical Society (founded in 1834 and awarded a royal charter in 1887), the Meteorological Society of London (founded in 1823, renewed in 1836, reconfigured in 1848, and merged with the newly formed British Meteorological Society in 1850), the Microscopical Society (founded in 1839 and awarded a royal charter in 1866), and the Chemical Society (founded in 1841 and awarded a royal charter in 1848). Both social and scholarly, such organizations held periodic meetings that were increasingly reported on in the press, organized public events, and issued their own publications, contributing to the growth of print culture.
The Geological Society and the Astronomical Society emerged as key players in the Victorian age, largely because they attracted members who were major contributors to scientific activities. William Buckland, the theologian and geologist who undertook pioneering work concerning fossils; Adam Sedgwick, who challenged Buckland’s theories regarding Noah’s flood and also helped to map out geological change over time; and Whewell, master of Trinity College, theologian, and major advocate for rigorous scientific method, were all members of the Geological Society’s council in its early decades. Associated with leading roles in the Astronomical Society were Francis Baily, who contributed to both the reform of nautical measurements and astronomical observations; mathematician Charles Babbage, who helped to found modern computing; and John Herschel, who undertook inventive experiments in the study of light and optics, contributing to the birth of photography, and whose study of the natural world led him, as it did Whewell, to address the scientific method.
The formation of these specialized societies reflected dissatisfaction with the Royal Society and a desire for more focused discussion of topics among colleagues. Early nineteenth-century reformers of the Royal Society argued that the learned body’s range of interests was too diffuse and not sufficiently focused upon science. This critique was complicated by competing concepts of what constituted science: Was it a philosophy that embraced abstract or ideal concepts such as mathematics and geometry? Or was it dedicated to chronicling the contents of the natural world and speculating about how they came to be? How could this body of knowledge best be configured? For example, should the natural or physical sciences be distinguished from the human sciences as well as from the social sciences? Was science a method of investigation, and, if so, what was the approved method—strict observation, as the term natural history often implied, or experimentation? Critics were also dissatisfied with the Royal Society’s standard of scholarship, as measured by papers delivered before the society and published in its journal, Philosophical Transactions, and with its poor care of expensive scientific instruments, the acquisition of which had been a major impetus for the formation of the society. The new specialized societies also argued that they could better serve the needs of British government and society. The Astronomical Society, for example, began to offer the British Admiralty and Parliament advice on astronomical matters, to the dismay of Royal Society fellows such as the astronomer Thomas Young.
Criticism of the Royal Society, leveled in particular by investigators associated with the physical sciences, commingled with concerns that Great Britain was falling behind in what Herschel referred to as the “race” for scientific achievements. Fear of decline and questions of how science should best be configured and supported in Britain motivated Babbage to write Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes (1830), an endeavor in which he was supported publicly by such reformers as Herschel and David Brewster, who shared Herschel’s interest in optics and astronomy. Babbage argued that contemporary scientific debate was anemic, in part because the government refused to encourage it and the Royal Society’s leadership was weak and poorly qualified.
In 1831, a group of scientists and their supporters, including Brewster and Reverend William Harcourt, formed the British Association for the Advancement of Science, explicitly focused upon science and dedicated to creating a public platform for disseminating the results and benefits of the discipline. As Morrell and Thackray explain, the group linked its identity to “an appeal to nature.” Often known as the “Gentlemen of Science” because of their generally shared Anglican background, close affiliation with the liberal Broad Church wing, centrist political attitudes, and close ties to university life, particularly Trinity College, Cambridge, they “articulated a particular ideology of science,” Morrell and Thackray argue, that had “an important formative influence on the modern world.” These gentlemen of science aimed to demarcate science as a distinct domain of knowledge, separate from religious or political knowledge; to privilege the physical sciences over the social or biological sciences; and to promote a rhetoric of progress linked to discovery. They also claimed a position of seeming disinterest, not relying on scientific activity for income (having personal means to support themselves) but pursuing it out of dedication to the search for truth.
These scientists were aided in their ambitions by the rise of print culture. As the historian of science Richard Yeo argues, Whewell, Herschel, Brewster, and their colleagues took advantage of the establishment of such journals as the Quarterly Review (founded in 1809), Blackwood’s Magazine (1817), Literary Gazette (1817), and the Athenaeum (1828) to air their debates. Brewster even helped to found two journals, the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, in 1819, and the Edinburgh Journal of Science, in 1824, in addition to contributing many papers. Members of this generation voiced their opinions with certitude, as Yeo explains, believing in “the existence of ultimate truths and the ability of the mind to find them.” Journals were also critically important for disseminating information about scientific activities, including meetings of scientific societies. Science also entered the public sphere through conversazione, public lectures, and museum and exhibition displays, which were becoming increasingly spectacular and were eagerly reported on in the press (fig. 1). The editor of the Athenaeum, William Cooke Taylor, for example, was so interested in the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting in Dublin in 1835 that he reported on it in five issues, totaling “twenty-seven triple-column pages.” At midcentury, T. H. Huxley persuaded the editors of the Saturday Review (founded in 1855) to publish a column on science every two weeks and to include scientific topics in their reviews.
Book publishers eventually followed the lead of periodical publishers, even launching series by authors who became household names, such as John George Wood, who wrote The Common Objects of the Sea-Shore (1857) (fig. 15) and The Common Objects of the Country (1858). Indeed, by the 1840s and 1850s, as the historian Bernard Lightman observes, “there were four times the number of titles on the sciences published annually than at the start of the century.”
Art publishing likewise expanded greatly over the course of the nineteenth century, as measured by the growth in specialist periodicals. The Art Journal, for example, was founded in 1839, the Portfolio in 1870, and the Magazine of Art in 1878. High-quality illustrations distinguished these journals from their peers; the Art Journal for example, included a full-page reproductive art print in each issue. These journals also offered fulsome accounts of historical and contemporary art, as well as tidbits of news and gossip. In an age in which criticism had not yet been professionalized to the degree that it would by the close of the century, writers on art came from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Some, like William Hazlitt and F. G. Stephens, were working artists or had originally trained as artists, while others, such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Tom Taylor, were also literary or theater writers. Many critics traveled in the same social circles as artists (indeed, were often close friends), and these close-knit networks stimulated the rapid exchange of information and opinion, while also fueling spirited antagonism and debate.
But readers could stay abreast of developments in the art world without recourse to these specialized journals, as most daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals reported on major events in the art world such as the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. Art, displayed in public venues and reproduced via circulating prints, became a topic of intense interest and was even regarded as an index of community values and concerns. As scholar Helene Roberts summarized the situation, “the attention that Victorian periodicals paid to art was formidable.”
These journals and books were part of the rapid expansion of the public sphere in the nineteenth century. The growing middle classes and even the upper tier of the working classes (the respectable or skilled working class), with both literary skills and leisure time, galvanized the proliferation of periodical literature and the publishing industry. Publishers took advantage of new technologies in paper production and printing, which brought down the cost of newspapers, journals, and books. Libraries and subscription reading rooms helped to circulate these materials beyond the small circles who could afford to buy them on a regular basis. By the middle of the century, circulation numbers had reached new heights. As Richard Altick has documented, “at least a half-dozen weekly newspapers and cheap miscellanies had attained a circulation of more than 100,000” by 1855. With the repeal of the duty on paper in 1861, these numbers quickly rose; in 1864, the publisher of the Athenaeum reported that in London at least nineteen monthly periodicals on “useful, entertaining, educational” topics printed 350,000 copies per month, fifty-four monthly “magazines and series of a higher class” produced 250,000 copies per month, and “serials issued by the great publishing firms, embellished and illustrated,” contributed another 350,000 copies per month.
The growing public interest in art and literature also fueled the rise of exhibition culture. By the early nineteenth century, the practice of annual exhibitions organized by artists’ societies had become highly regularized. In addition to the exhibition of the Royal Academy, displays were organized by the British Institution (founded in 1805) and the Society of British Artists (founded in 1823, charter granted in 1846, royal prefix given in 1887). Specialist bodies also arose, including those defined by medium, among them the Old Watercolour Society (founded in 1804 and awarded a royal charter in 1881, thereafter known as the Royal Watercolour Society), the Institute for Painters in Watercolour (founded in 1832 and awarded a royal charter in 1885), the Society of Engravers (founded in 1802), the Etching Club of London (founded in 1838), and the Photographic Society of London (founded in 1853, renamed the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1874, and awarded a royal charter in 1894). Commercial dealers also played an increasingly prominent role in exhibitions, particularly over the second half of the nineteenth century, when they facilitated the rise of rotating exhibitions throughout the calendar year.
Much of the press dedicated to art was concerned with the role of the arts in civic life—what would they contribute to British society? As Craig Hanson reminds us, epistemology was a critical strand in these discussions, and it provided the genealogical framework for the “truth-to-nature” discourse of the Victorian age.
Hanson argues convincingly that the Royal Society “provided the first ‘public’ institutional basis for the arts in England.” Home of the polymath virtuoso, the Royal Society catalyzed the formation of intellectual networks concerned with questions of methodology in the age of empiricism. In particular, Hanson explains, dilettanti in medicine and art debated similar issues regarding how to root their practices in reason and observation and how to establish authority and rational argument. This virtuosic tradition of intellectual exchange persisted well into the eighteenth century, as exemplified by the artists George Stubbs and Joseph Wright and the physician William Hunter, who became the first professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.
Hunter exemplifies Hanson’s concept of the virtuoso, committed to investigating the natural world and advancing scientific enterprise as well as supporting the arts. Hunter, over his lifetime, formed an important collection that reflected his myriad interests in such fields as art, entomology, geology, medicine, numismatics, and zoology. Trained in anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, Hunter was responsible for the production of The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus, published in 1774; its accuracy and evident close observation attracted leading artists who were seeking greater proficiency in human anatomy. Hunter lectured at St. Martin’s Lane Academy, as well as at the Royal Academy, using plaster casts of flayed figures that displayed considerable anatomical detail, and he also participated in the Society for the Encouragement of Arts (founded in 1754). His growing ambition as a collector and his intent to establish a museum gained him the attention of the Royal Society, who elected him a fellow in 1767; membership in the Society of Antiquaries followed in 1768.
As part of his collecting activities, Hunter commissioned the painter George Stubbs to paint an Asian antelope in 1769 and a North American bull moose in 1770; the latter was intended as visual evidence for Hunter’s developing argument about the extinction of species. Stubbs was a likely artist to take up such a task, as he had supplied engravings for Dr. John Burton’s Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery Theoretical and Practical (1751), a project analogous to Hunter’s 1774 anatomy, and later dedicated himself to representing the anatomy of the horse thoroughly and accurately in his published treatise of 1766. Working closely from dissected specimens and attentive to detail, Stubbs was nonetheless keen to preserve the sense of the whole, as well as to express the vitality of the species, and he consistently represented the whole animal, often in implied motion. His animal studies demonstrate not only the close visual observation of nature—as Oliver Kase points out, Stubbs emphasized that the figures were “drawn from nature”—but also experience, of knowledge gained over time and through labor.
In most narratives of artistic contributions to British Enlightenment scientific thought, Stubbs is linked closely to Joseph Wright of Derby, whose representations of scientific experiments and participation in the Lunar Society can be considered important precursors to the work of William Henry Fox Talbot. Born in Derby, Wright returned there to train with the painter Thomas Hudson in London, joining a lively intellectual community located in and around Birmingham composed of industrialists, philosophers, and medical practitioners. Later dubbed the Lunar Society because they met each month on the Monday closest to the full moon, they exchanged ideas and conducted experiments. The group included Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, as well as Josiah Wedgwood, who would make important contributions to the origins of photography. Their gatherings are believed to have inspired Wright’s canvases A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (1766) and An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). An orrery is a device for demonstrating planetary motion, and the painting depicts a rapt audience that includes mesmerized children as well as a note-taking colleague who stands to the left of the red-jacketed philosopher. The scene is dramatic and striking, largely owing to Wright’s handling of tenebrism. David Fraser has argued that the illuminated faces gathered around the device echo the mental enlightenment that science has provided them. But Elizabeth Barker has suggested that audience’s reactions to the display would have been more complicated than what Wright depicts. Drawing on contemporaneous historical evidence, she establishes that Wright has omitted a notable component of the orrery, which, as both she and Fraser note, was not a tool of scientific investigation but a device intended for popular demonstrations. Thus, while Wright’s painting professes verisimilitude in its attention to physical detail and materiality, it actually deploys a dissembling facture, cunningly depicting “truths and fictions” to create an intriguing puzzle for viewers knowledgeable about the increasingly popular field of astronomy. Likewise, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump represents a plausible event, the demonstration of a scientific experiment, akin to those that Wright himself may have witnessed. It also inspires the viewer to ponder larger themes of life and death, as the bird flutters to the bottom of the glass globe to which the red-coated philosopher controls the airflow. The complex iconography of Wright’s paintings and the diverse strands of artistic and scientific representation from which he drew his references emphasize that art did not merely illustrate science but offered a powerful social commentary on science.
Indeed, Wright’s painting A Philosopher by Lamp Light (1769) complicates the social value of natural philosophy. In the left foreground sits a hermit wrapped in a voluminous brown robe, one hand supporting his head, the other grasping the end of a bone as he tests the resilience of the string to which it is attached in order to understand physical movement. At right, two young pilgrims peer through the darkness, aided by the moon breaking through the clouds, to seek him out in his cave. Judy Egerton notes that Wright often referred to this hermit as Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher regarded as the father of modern science. Democritus was skeptical about whether true knowledge could be gained through the senses, and he exalted intellectual knowledge. By recognizing at least two different means by which knowledge could be gained, Democritus inferred that “when an object appears one way to one, and another to another, neither is nearer to the truth.” This acknowledgment of human fallibility and doubt concerning the scientific enterprise is a far cry from the resolute belief in the truth value of scientific knowledge trumpeted by James Stanley Little at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a reminder that science was an unstable field a century earlier, its cultural value not yet secured. Moreover, Wright represents the philosopher as a solitary figure, isolated in his own thoughts. This was precisely the image of the scientist that the generation of reformers in the 1830s sought to counter, insisting instead upon rigorous method checked through collective enterprise.
As noted earlier, my study begins in the 1830s, when efforts to define the field of science and to assert its cultural value began to gain considerable momentum. In chapter 1, I consider the origins of photography as manifested in the work of William Henry Fox Talbot. A polymath, Talbot was closely involved with leading scientists of the day, including Herschel and Brewster, and was a member of the Astronomical Society and the Royal Society. Keenly aware of debates then brewing about scientific method, he proudly announced his photographic process as proof of the inductive process, thus proclaiming his allegiance with the “Gentlemen of Science” of the 1830s. Concomitantly, Talbot inserted his photographs into artistic discourses through his exhibiting practice and rhetoric. This chapter considers these dual and overlapping contexts both synchronically and diachronically. While Talbot’s pursuit of truth to nature in his photographs aligns him with developments in landscape representation associated with his predecessors and contemporaries Thomas Girtin, J. M. W. Turner, John Constable, and Cornelius Varley, Talbot also marks a distinct break from their efforts in his abnegation of self in the act of representation, deferring to the sun as the creator of the image.
Talbot’s claim that his photograms and calotypes were nature’s pencil, that is, that they were unmediated representations of nature on paper, is analogous to the advice of the writer and art critic John Ruskin, a leading voice in Victorian culture. Ruskin recommended that young artists, early in their studies, “go to Nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing; believing all things to be right and good, and rejoicing always in the truth.” Furthermore, Ruskin counseled, these young students should adopt an “innocent eye,” perceiving shapes and colors without attaching a priori knowledge or significance to them. Ruskin avidly engaged with contemporaneous developments in science, particularly those relating to geology (he joined the Geological Society in 1840), and he evinced great sympathy with natural theology.
The art critic F. G. Stephens, writing in 1850, reinforced the moral imperative of pursuing truth in art, turning to the physical sciences as a model. The new form of painting that Ruskin and Stephens envisioned is most closely associated with the Pre-Raphaelites. Chapter 1 analyzes artworks by painters associated with the movement: scenes of nature that bear the traces of strict mental discipline and intense physical labor in meticulously rendered details.
The methodology of direct, unmediated observation promoted by Talbot and Ruskin provoked resistance and carried its own contradictions. In concluding chapter 1, I examine a series of episodes—nature printing, Talbot’s adoption of the picturesque, and several Pre-Raphaelite painters’ struggles to follow Ruskin’s dictates rigorously—that reveal the resilience of the “practiced eye,” that is, visual perception trained to recognize significant patterns in nature.
The challenges posed by the pursuit of truth to nature are taken up in chapter 2, which focuses on two of the Pre-Raphaelite artists—John Brett and John Everett Millais—and traces their careers as landscape painters after the dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In the 1850s and 1860s, a new generation of reforming scientists came to the fore in Victorian culture. Historians of science, particularly Frank Miller Turner, dubbed this community the scientific naturalists, who, as T. H. Huxley stated, argued for a “new Nature begotten by science upon fact.”
As Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman have recently observed, while the term scientific naturalism is often attributed to Huxley, who explored the concept in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), it has a longer etymology that speaks to the complex landscape of science and religion in the nineteenth century and to changing understandings of professionalism. The term first emerged in the 1840s, in the United States, as a negative commentary on texts, such as Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), that attempted to provide rational explanations for physical phenomena. By the 1860s, the term had been taken up by the British religious press, and eventually it took on the more positive connotation “for the scientific region of nonmaterial phenomena.” When Huxley adopted the term, he needed to cleanse it of “all the deleterious ethical and political connotations it had accrued since first coming into usage in the 1840s.” He emphasized its associations with authority and trustworthiness and also deployed it to refer to a “specialized practitioner” possessing “intellectual independence.” While recognizing the dynamic history of the concept of scientific naturalism and the problematic nature of labels, I nonetheless adopt the term scientific naturalism here “as a shorthand for a particular outlook among men of science and associated intellectuals in Victorian Britain,” and in response to the considerable scholarly literature that has studied this phenomenon.
The historical actors associated with scientific naturalism include John Tyndall, Joseph Dalton Hooker, George Henry Lewes, and Herbert Spencer. (Charles Darwin is often connected only loosely to this circle because his adherence to the inductive method was often disputed.) This new generation of scientists laid claim to the public discourse of science, wresting it away from their gentlemanly predecessors, who had insisted that a divine presence guided nature. By contrast, the scientific naturalists eschewed religious explanations for natural phenomena and sought to both professionalize and popularize their discipline. In doing so, they argued not only that “they provided the best intellectual leadership of a modernized and industrialized Britain” but also that science was the best means of achieving knowledge and truth. Most critically for this study, they did not concern themselves solely with scientific practice, but also believed that the scientific knowledge they promoted should be extended to culture and society.
In this context, the scientific naturalists frequently proposed a union between art and science, one that initially seemed well suited to the practices of Millais and Brett but became increasingly less so as their careers advanced. At first, it appeared that the painters’ gradual disaffection with scientific naturalism could be accommodated within John Tyndall’s new paradigm of the scientific use of the imagination. But eventually the rise of psychology, which questioned many of the principles of scientific naturalism, suggested new directions for landscape painting, provoking divergent responses from Millais and Brett. New investigations into mental perception led by the philosopher George Henry Lewes, the psychologist James Sully, and the physicians William Carpenter and Hermann von Helmholtz, among others, drove a wedge into scientific naturalism and also changed the criteria by which paintings should be judged. By the 1880s, a number of important intellectuals deeply familiar with scientific naturalism began to challenge its claims to cultural authority. Frederic W. H. Myers, a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research, asserted that
the emotional creed of educated men is becoming divorced from their scientific creed; that just as the old orthodoxy of religion was too narrow to contain men’s knowledge, so now the new orthodoxy of materialistic science is too narrow to contain their feelings and aspirations; and consequently that just as the fabric of religious orthodoxy used to be strained in order to admit the discoveries of geology or astronomy, so now also the obvious deductions of materialistic science are strained or overpassed in order to give sanction to feelings and aspirations which it is found impossible to ignore.
In this configuration of knowledge, science became associated with the intellect and art with feeling.
The conviction that art and science could productively be joined had begun to waver by the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Photography again became a lightning rod for these debates, particularly as represented by the photographer and writer P. H. Emerson, the subject of chapter 3. When Emerson began his career as a photographer in the 1880s, he was in many ways picking up the thread of photographic discourses established by Talbot. Emerson positioned photography as an unmediated, truthful expression of nature—what he called naturalism—and insisted that he had at last established a scientific basis for art. Within a decade, however, he had refuted his own tenet, denying the possibility that photography could be truthful to nature because of new scientific findings about perception that undermined the assumption that the eye, or the camera, could act as an impartial recorder. He now understood that the mind played a critical role in perceiving and interpreting the scene, no matter how unbiased the observer strove to be. Whereas, at midcentury, artists and scientists reveled in the possibility that the two disciplines could come together in the shared pursuit of truth through the close observation of nature, Emerson now declared that such a union was impossible.
Emerson confided many of his doubts about naturalism to the painter George Clausen, who likewise struggled with the paradigms of realism and naturalism that he had inherited. Chapter 3 considers how the changing nature of scientific naturalism and the rise of psychology affected the circle of British painters associated with the New English Art Club and impressionism, including Clausen, Philip Wilson Steer, and Walter Sickert. Rather than represent the visual field in a nonhierarchical manner that denies the role of the perceiving self, as had been attempted by the Pre-Raphaelites, Clausen and his colleagues strove for a new form of naturalism that required the artist to select what is most essential from the scene, an act of discernment that aligned with new understandings of human perception proposed by psychologists and physiologists.
Chapter 4 takes up the next generation of British modernists, particularly the painters associated with the Camden Town Circle, including Augustus John, J. D. Innes, Charles Ginner, and Harold Gilman, who likewise struggled to redefine realism and the task of representing nature for the modern age. Ginner and Gilman even coined the term “NeoRealism” to describe their painting practice and to underscore their difference from naturalism. Rather than draw from scientific naturalism—Innes dismissed geology and astronomy as fossilized dreamlands—they turned to philosophy, and in particular the writings of Henri Bergson. Informed by Bergson’s concepts of intuition and instinct, they rejected the notion that the perceiving self should be suppressed in painted representations of natural scenes. Innes and John aimed to merge the creating subject (and implicitly the perceiving subject) with the landscape, and Ginner and Gilman devised means by which to assert visual mastery over external nature. Ironically, like the Pre-Raphaelites before them, they faced fierce criticism, though in this instance from within their own modernist camp, in the figure of the prominent critic T. E. Hulme.
While each successive generation, from Talbot in the 1830s to Ginner and Gilman in the 1910s, claimed to be pursuing truth to nature, their concept of truth was in fact historically contingent and inherently instable. Moreover, these debates were not the exclusive purview of artists but were part of a broader cultural conversation that involved scientists, critics, and philosophers.
Central to my argument is the claim that artworks can be persuasively associated with changes in nineteenth-century scientific paradigms. While artworks necessarily occupy the foreground of this study, historical change is more than mere backdrop. If knowledge is always in formation and history constantly unfolding, then the art object and its social and historical context are always symbiotically interlocked. The task of my narrative, then, is not to extract or isolate the object from the dense network of relationships in which it was originally embedded, but to find the patterns of significance within that web of connections. I must therefore address questions of methodology and the archive.
Communities of both practice and reception were critical for nineteenth-century cultural production. As the discussion above suggests, both artists and scientists organized themselves into societies and other groups, and such “clubbiness” was shared across Victorian culture. Therefore, in many cases, links can be established between art and science through personal networks. This is most strongly evident in the case of William Henry Fox Talbot. Talbot’s extensive correspondence network establishes his close ties to the other leading scientists of his day. Fragments of correspondence and diaries preserved for John Brett, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, P. H. Emerson, George Clausen, Augustus John, and J. D. Innes occasionally reveal personal ties between artists and scientists—such as John Tyndall’s invitation to Millais to attend his lecture on rainbows—but more often reveal an exchange of ideas about scientific knowledge, particularly as it related to artistic practice. These dialogues were often mediated by texts, as when Brett recorded his enthusiastic reaction to Ruskin’s Modern Painters and “Pre-Raphaelitism,” or when Augustus John and his patron John Quinn recommended Bergson’s books to each other.
Print culture fostered even broader communities of affiliation and interest, and the analysis of discourse is at the heart of this study. Discourses are critical means by which knowledge and power take shape and are situated within, and constitutive of, disciplines and institutions. Daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers, journals, and books were public spaces in which ideas about art and science were debated. They were points from which new ideas were launched into the public sphere, where they were received and reviewed; the conversations that emerged from these pages sometimes reached consensus but more frequently were conflicting, even paradoxical, as positions were staked out, withdrawn, and reestablished. Heated rhetoric suited the economics of Victorian periodical publication. As Laurel Brake observes, these texts cannot be separated from publishers’ need to generate revenue through the consumption of print, which fueled strategies to attract and retain the reader’s attention and pocketbook.
Print culture produced a circulatory network, with branches reaching far beyond the nodes of production and reception in metropolitan centers. It also helped to form what Pierre Bourdieu has described as a field of cultural production, “the space of positions and the space of position-takings” created by both “the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in the field—literary and artistic works . . . [and] also political acts or pronouncements, manifestations, or polemics, etc.” Critically, Bourdieu observes that the “literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces.”
One way to approach this “field of struggles” is to consider how neither producers nor receivers are universal or ideal but are historically constituted and locally situated. The task of the historian, then, is to find patterns of significance within the welter of positions and acts of interpretation. The historians of science Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman, drawing on reception theory, offer a useful model, one well suited to their project of investigating how science was popularized in nineteenth-century British consumer culture. They describe how their “efforts to place some order onto histories of those interpretations have led to the ideas of horizons of expectation (the idea that readers’ education, experiences, etc. will help determine how they react to particular texts) and of interpretative communities (groups of readers who see things in broadly the same way).” Furthermore, they argue that we should “extrapolate from texts to include images, exhibits, and lectures and expand the notion of readers to include viewers and listeners.”
While the model that Fyfe and Lightman offer aligns art with other forms of cultural production and discourse, I also want to attend to the particular materiality of art. This includes the physicality of the artifact itself, such as patterns of oxidized silver on paper, or glazes of paint on prepared canvas, as well as the ways in which the material object was made visible in the public sphere. I deliberately begin each chapter with a close description of an artwork in order to ground my questions and subsequent analysis in relation to a work of art.
In giving this close description, I am conscious of the work of Michael Baxandall, who wisely advised that “the description is less a representation of the picture, or even a representation of seeing the picture, than a representation of thinking about having seen the picture. To put it another way, we address a relationship between picture and concepts.” Thus I acknowledge that my descriptions are forms of argument, ways in which I can begin to weave together the connections between image and contemporaneous ideas about science. In building my case about the relationship between artworks and their context, I am also mindful of Baxandall’s point about “intention,” which he uses in reference “to pictures rather more than to painters. In particular cases it will be a construct descriptive of a relationship between a picture and its circumstances.” To elucidate this point, Baxandall explains that “the painter’s role has been to make marks on a plane surface in such a way that their visual interest is directed to an end.” In analyzing J. S. Chardin’s A Lady Taking Tea (1735), a painting acquired by the physician William Hunter and now in the collections of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, Baxandall employs a set of constraints or guidelines that I adopt here.
I shall make two limiting demands of the connection between ideas and painting I want to pursue. First, the science or philosophy invoked must be made to entail fairly directly a particular thing about visual experience and so about possible pictorial character. I shall hope for a pictorial corollary, as it were, such that the scientific thought could enter the painter’s self-Briefing. Secondly, I shall demand some indication that it was conceivable, in the period, for the two universes to be brought into this sort of relation. In effect this means I need to produce men capable of reflecting on the relation of painting and science that I claim existed.
In sum, the archive from which I derive my arguments is composed of the artworks themselves, the surviving personal correspondence of the makers, and the larger print culture in which the production and reception of these works of art was situated and through which contemporaneous debates about the nature of both art and science were waged. I begin my pursuit of the pictorial brief that conjoined art and science in the 1830s, when new models of scientific thought emerged and scientific method was rigorously debated. At the same moment, a new mode of art making—the photograph—emerged, and painters and critics began to rethink both theories of representation and the physical craft of painting. I then map out how artistic debates concerning truth to nature changed in dynamic relationship to scientific paradigms through the ensuing decades until the birth of a new century.
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