Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 14, 2011
Tony Halliday The Temperamental Nude: Class, Medicine and Representation in Eighteenth-Century France Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. Ed. Jonathan Mallinson.. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2010. 272 pp.; 47 b/w ills. Paper £55.00 (9780729409940)

In The Temperamental Nude: Class, Medicine and Representation in Eighteenth-Century France, the late Tony Halliday studies a neglected facet of visual representation in Enlightenment culture, namely, the revival and significance of the theory of the temperaments and its impact on the depiction of the human figure, specifically the male figure, in painting, sculpture, and prints. His study focuses principally on mid- to late eighteenth-century France, with particular emphasis on the Revolutionary period. The contested idea of the new citizen (who was male according to French convention and law) and his fluctuating image in the visual arts during the Revolution, Republic, and Directory (1789–99) constitute the principal matter of the book.

In this gender-specific study, Halliday investigates the question of how social identity is imprinted on the male body and uses examples from visual culture and theoretical writings as case studies to demonstrate his points. His book contributes to the domain of art-historical investigations of new modes of representing the male body during the Revolutionary period (one thinks immediately of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation [London: Thames and Hudson, 1997], which investigated mythological subjects in particular). Halliday is interested in the late eighteenth-century use of temperament theory as a mode of discerning and understanding types characteristic of different social classes. Throughout the book he explores the relationship between the body and social identity and the ways in which the definition and understanding of the temperaments were linked to corporal and concomitant moral markers. His investigations lead him to a wide variety of discourses that engaged temperament theory and that were imbued with medical, social, and political prejudices and pronouncements, including those of Albrecht von Haller, Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, Johann Kaspar Lavater, and Pierre Jean George Cabanis, among others.

Halliday brings new insights to the study of corporality in late eighteenth-century French art, a topic that has inspired art-historical investigations for the past three decades. He reinterprets, for example, several works by Jacques-Louis David in light of temperament theory of the period. Since David played such a major role in re-conceptualizing the human body during this era, his imagery is important to the book. David makes prominent appearances in four of the eight chapters. Halliday discusses, for example, The Oath of the Tennis Court (1791), The Triumph of the French People (ca.1794), The Death of Bara (1794), and The Sabine Women (1799). Somewhat unexpectedly, given his theme, The Death of Marat (1793) is not analyzed at length.

The first in the series of eight chapters is the most unanticipated, for Halliday begins the book with an analysis of British printmaker Thomas Bewick’s wood engravings of two types of birds—the woodpecker and the stock dove—that illustrated the History of British Birds (1797). These vignettes accompanied texts written by Bewick that describe the relationship of the birds’ physical and corresponding moral characteristics in an anthropomorphic manner (Bewick was directly inspired by the eighteenth-century naturalist, George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon). Thus, the woodpecker is a laborer with a body suited to the hard work he is compelled to do in the quest for food, while the dove is a bird of leisure living off the bounty of man and the land. The manual worker is contrasted to the gentry in terms of appearance, mores, lifestyle, and temperament.

This discussion leads in a curious fashion to the second chapter, in which Halliday takes up Diderot’s concerns about Edmé Bouchardon’s well-known statue of Love Making a Bow from the Club of Hercules (1750). A not quite adolescent Amor uses the sword of Mars to carve his bow from Hercules club, an allegory that bespeaks the violence and military might of love. Diderot wrote about the work in the following terms: “It takes a long time for a child to turn a massive beam which armed the hand of Hercules into a bow. This idea shocks my imagination. I do not like Love employed so long at this manual labor” (quoted in Halliday, 20). Diderot was concerned that manual labor eventually deforms the body and spirit, for “habitual experience shapes identity.” Halliday discusses this idea at length since it is a theme with which he engages in subsequent chapters.

The third chapter explores a wide variety of eighteenth-century theoretical writings on temperament. Halliday presents a brief history of the humours, which constitute temperament when mixed together. He begins with the medical writings of Galen in the second century C.E. and concludes with eighteenth-century discourse on the subject. The ideas of Haller, Diderot, Kant, Lavater, and Jean-Claude Delaméthrie are treated at length. Very few examples from the visual domain are brought into the discussion, which essentially sets the stage for subsequent chapters.

Halliday addresses in chapter 4 the eighteenth-century understanding of the antique canon of ideal proportions as it relates to the revival of temperament theory. He focuses on works that embodied the antique ideal and that were highly esteemed during the French Enlightenment, including Polyclitus’ Doryphoros as well as the Apollo Belevedere, and the Belvedere Torso. These considerations lead to his analysis of the Citizen, an innovative male nude figure, from Jean-Baptiste Pigalle’s famous Monument to Louis XV of 1765. Halliday aptly characterizes the citizen as a “naked workman” and elaborates upon earlier interpretations of the citizen’s role as part of a political allegory of the manual labor that supports the realm.

The new iconography of the citizen announced in Pigalle’s royal commission and the many permutations it will undergo in the late eighteenth century inform chapters 5–8 which engage the new notions of the body of the male citizen, member of the Third Estate, that emerged during the Revolution and its aftermath in the 1790s and its representation in French art and medical theory. David’s Oath of the Tennis Court and certain figures of the Grands Hommes series (statues commissioned by the government to celebrate and commemorate the heroes of French history and culture), particularly those begun under the ancien régime and completed after its fall, are analyzed in light of the new citizen body in chapter 5.

Chapter 6 examines the Jacobin ideas about the new citizen and the contradictions between the Jacobin rhetoric that exalted work and labor and the actual lack of initiatives to help the working class. David’s allegorical opera curtain designs for The Triumph of the French People (in which Hercules embodies the people) are a principal focus as well as The Death of Bara. In his lengthy discussion of The Triumph of the French People Halliday refers to the iconographical history of the Gallic Hercules that was associated with the Bourbon dynasty beginning with its founder, Henry IV, and how this evolves into the colossus of the People as Hercules for the festival of 10 August 1793, to commemorate the overthrow of the monarchy. One of the most thought-provoking discussions in the book concerns Swiss poet Salomon Gessner’s poem, The Death of Abel, which served as the source for Jean-Baptiste Stouf’s beautiful statue of the dying adolescent Abel of 1785, itself an important source for David’s The Death of Bara (178–80). Gessner characterizes the conflict between the brothers Cain and Abel as one of class and temperament—Cain is the brutish agricultural laborer, Abel the gentle shepherd with leisure time to sing and dream. Although Halliday acknowledges Stouf’s The Death of Abel as an important source for David’s The Death of Bara, he sees in the latter the classical ideal of nudity and a “timeless perfection” (180; an idea discussed by numerous scholars, including Thomas Crow, Alex Potts, and Richard Wrigley, among others). While it is possible to discern the classical ideal in the face of the dying youth, the pathos of the thin, broken, not-yet-developed body with legs akimbo echoes Stouf’s statue and is really quite far from the classical ideal discussed by Halliday.

The extremely influential médecin-philosophe, Pierre Jean George Cabanis, takes center stage in chapter 7. Halliday discusses Cabanis’s major role in the Institut National and his “rapports” given at the institute from 1796–1800 (published in 1802 as Rapports du physique et du moral de l’homme), which renewed certain ideas of temperament theory vis-à-vis exterior signs of the body as well as its interior functions. Cabanis grouped humanity into two broad temperament categories: the muscular, characterized by physical labor and a weak mind; and the cerebral, those engaged in mental labor who tend to have weaker bodies. This division of society into the intelligent people and the ignorant workers led Cabanis to suggest selective breeding with eugenics in mind. Cabanis also promulgated the necessity of the subservience of women to men and their exclusion from public life, thereby undermining significant Revolutionary ideals that promoted the important role of women in society.

In the concluding chapter Halliday relates Cabanis’s two temperament categories to the male protagonists, Tatius and Romulus, of David’s The Sabine Women. Halliday presents convincing arguments that David was influenced by the ideas of Cabanis and decided to make the male protagonists nude, in part, in order to contrast Tatius, embodiment of the muscular temperament, with Romulus, an idealized youth who embodies the cerebral temperament. But while the male protagonists can be understood to conform to Cabanis’s temperament ideas, the female figures, given only cursory notice by Halliday, are in a different category altogether and contradict Cabanis’s ideas. They are not excluded from public life or subservient to the men in the way that Cabanis describes their social position and identity, but are active participants in the fray, rushing onto the battlefield to stop the war, bringing their babies with them.

Halliday’s book, based on specific case studies, tends to be somewhat episodic in nature. Inscription of temperament theory on the female body in the context of the varied roles assumed by women during this period would be a fascinating complement to this study and necessary for a comprehensive understanding of the social dynamics of the period. The Temperamental Nude, however, proffers new scholarship, important insights, and original perspectives on works of art and critical writings about them in the context of the revival of temperament theory during this period. It also provides some fascinating tangents and forays but at times unexpected omissions of works that could have further strengthened its thesis. This may be due to the fact that the book was published posthumously and that Halliday’s untimely death prevented him from editing it (a debt is owed to Richard Wrigley for seeing it through to publication). This study will be of import and use to scholars and students from many fields who are interested in the new ways of studying, understanding, and representing the male body during the late Enlightenment and Revolutionary periods.

Dorothy Johnson
Roy J. Carver Professor of Art History, School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa