Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 30, 2021
Sarah R. Cohen Enlightened Animals in Eighteenth-Century Art: Sensation, Matter, and Knowledge Material Culture of Art and Design. New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2021. 264 pp.; 10 color ills.; 83 b/w ills. Cloth $115.00 (9781350203587)

In the late 1750s a Parisian publisher brought out a luxury edition of Jean de La Fontaine’s fables, with engravings based on drawings by the great animal painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Oudry’s design for the fable “The Lion Beaten by the Man” shows a lion in conversation with a group of astonished men in turbans in front of an unstretched canvas hung from a tree depicting a human wrestling a lion into submission. In the accompanying text, the “real” lion remarks that the painter has deceived his human patrons: “We would have in truth prevailed / if my colleagues knew how to paint” (Fables choisies, 4 vols., Paris: 1755–59, 1:108).

The questions raised by Oudry and La Fontaine—about the interdependence between art’s ideological motivations, its materials, and the natural world, and about the anthropocentrism of artists and viewers—are at the heart of Sarah R. Cohen’s analysis of the visual representation of animals in eighteenth-century France. In Enlightened Animals, Cohen argues that artists were key interlocutors in the Enlightenment’s radical redefinition of knowledge as the product of the senses, and of the self as constituted by its materiality and lived experience. That definition of self, she argues, was extended by artists and writers to nonhuman as well as human animals. Drawing on paintings by François Desportes, Oudry, and Jean-Siméon Chardin as well as on silver, porcelain, tapestry, and other decorative objects, Cohen makes a passionate case for the moral value, then and now, of the animal and its visual representation.

Cohen’s book is the much-anticipated culmination of her extensive research on animals and art in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. Enlightened Animals engages with eighteenth-century art history’s traditional interests, such as the hierarchy of genres, the birth of professional art criticism, and the formal dynamics of the Rococo. Cohen’s argument is also steeped in Enlightenment philosophy, drawing heavily on writings from René Descartes to Julien Offray de La Mettrie. But her study, which considers the inherent vitality and agency of both art objects and animal bodies, brings art and intellectual history into dialogue with new work on material culture and human-animal studies. As Cohen writes, she is concerned with the animal “as artistic protagonist, as conscious subject, and above all as a primary exponent of sensory life in the material world” (11).

Enlightened Animals is an episodic history of the depiction of animals in the luxury arts in the first half of the eighteenth century, divided into five chapters corresponding to different aspects of human thinking about animals and to different bodies of visual evidence. There is considerable conceptual overlap between the chapters, however; for instance, chapters 2 and 5 both give pride of place to the work of Chardin and the philosophical valorization of the senses. Chardin, in fact, together with Oudry, emerges as Cohen’s most important protagonist.

Chapter 1, “The Social Animal,” explores the visual construction of social relationships between humans and animals, but also of “sociality” (a term Cohen takes from the field of ethology, the study of animal behavior) among animals. In particular, Cohen makes here a provocative and illuminating connection between Desportes’s multianimal compositions and Antoine Watteau’s fête galante paintings, long associated with key Enlightenment values of conversation and sociability. By moving from sociability to sociality, Cohen decenters human communication in favor of an art production that values animal life and interspecies relationships. She also introduces another important thread of her argument: the ways in which artists like Desportes used the depiction of animals to work out the complex relationship between art production, materiality, and the natural world. Chapter 2, “The Sensitive Animal,” focuses on Chardin’s early still-life paintings of live and dead animals. Cohen, drawing parallels to the ideas of the materialist philosopher La Mettrie, argues that Chardin’s paintings erode human-animal hierarchies by inviting viewers to contemplate the senses of touch and sight they share with the animal. Cohen also points to Chardin’s famously rough brushwork and his equally famous depiction of the painter as simian, The Monkey Artist (1740), as evidence of the artist’s commitment to the material and animal qualities of his own artistic production.

The third chapter, “The Language of Brutes,” uses Oudry’s work to argue that artists actively promoted the idea of a nonverbal animal language. Animals’ apparent lack of language was used by defenders of human exceptionalism as evidence of their lack of reason, and thus of a soul; Oudry’s work, Cohen argues, countered that argument by creating an animal language of feelings that recalled both the Royal Academy’s emphasis on human expression and the sociability of Enlightenment salon culture. Chapter 4, “Animating Porcelain,” turns to the production of porcelain animals at Meissen and of animal-shaped ceramic tureens by various European manufacturers. This chapter brings together philosophical and alchemical writings with sustained analysis of Augustus the Strong’s menagerie of porcelain animals (largely designed by Johann Joachim Kändler) and other decorative objects that by their very technique and form, Cohen argues, demonstrate how “sentient life can spring from mere silt” (140).

Chapter 5, “Sentient Matter,” returns to many of the questions posed by chapters 2 and 4, and to the paintings of Chardin and Oudry. Through analyses of Chardin’s late still lifes of dead game and Oudry’s 1753 painting of a hunting hound and her puppies, juxtaposed with readings of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac; Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach; Denis Diderot; and other proponents of sensibility and materialism, Cohen expands her argument that artists were crucial proponents of the primacy of the senses and the materiality of living beings (and of art). “For what are we, too, in the end but feeling creatures?” Cohen asks her own readers, bringing these eighteenth-century debates into our present (208).

Cohen concludes her study by reminding us of the harm done to animals in our own historical moment. She calls on her readers to follow the lead of eighteenth-century artists and thinkers by decentering the human and thinking seriously about other “vital agents” in the “ecologies of artmaking” (217). Her commitment to a capacious and embodied definition of both self and art is one of the strengths of Enlightened Animals, and it is supported by attentive and persuasive readings of works both hypercanonical (Chardin’s still lifes) and overlooked (from ceramic tureens to painted dog portraits and engraved book illustrations).

Cohen’s choice of sources, however, risks disembodying her objects of study. The privileging of high Enlightenment texts over political, social, and even aesthetic contexts means that Cohen’s materially grounded approach paradoxically tends to isolate the artwork from the hurly-burly of its eighteenth-century life, and from the lived reality of animals at the time. Cohen’s discussion of Desportes’s animal-themed overdoor paintings for the Château de Bercy, for example, remarks on the open mouths of the animals, which imply conversation, without situating the paintings in the architectural space for which they were designed or considering the real animals that occupied those spaces. Nor does she discuss the implications of Desportes’s mixing of European hunting dogs and game animals with non-European animal species, an iconographic choice that invokes France’s trade networks and colonial conquests. When Cohen analyzes the boar-head tureens whose vividly animated bodies she rightly argues forced viewers to reflect on the kinship between the human eating and the animal eaten, she does not remark upon the most striking feature of the boar’s head type: that, viewed from the rear, the representation of a living boar yields to a disturbingly lifelike depiction of a cooked ham, complete with protruding bone (ca. 1750, Strasbourg, Muse des Arts Decoratifs). In both cases, considering the users’ experience of the artworks, or the political implications of the representation of animals at a moment of colonial expansion, would only enrich Cohen’s arguments.

Cohen is committed to privileging animal life, and she makes a powerful case for a similar commitment in Enlightenment thought and visual culture. Enlightened Animals convincingly positions artists like Chardin, Oudry, and Kändler as sophisticated advocates for animals in the intertwined discourses on materiality, sensation, and the animal and human self. Some of the questions Cohen raises, however, remain unresolved, or are answered in ways that may give eighteenth-century artists too much credit for undoing human-animal hierarchies. For instance, in her discussions of Oudry’s La Fontaine illustrations and the Meissen menagerie, Cohen brings up the problem of anthropomorphism, but she dismisses the idea that these artists are endowing animals with human qualities. However, we should not discount the less optimistic reading: that artists and viewers are operating from a place of anthropocentricism, using animal bodies as amusing glosses on human foibles. Similarly, Cohen’s readings of depictions of animal victims of (or collaborators with) human hunting and natural science—Chardin’s hares, Oudry’s hounds, Kändler’s birds—elides the real and implied violence in these artworks. Human viewers identify with animal protagonists, but are also often the agents of their coercion or destruction.

Oudry’s illustration of La Fontaine’s fable about painting and lions makes a joke about human pretensions to subjective and artistic superiority. In fact, as Cohen’s book amply demonstrates, eighteenth-century artists and thinkers took the animal protagonist, as well as the overturning of human-animal hierarchies and the reimagining of the artist as animal, very seriously. Without ever losing sight of (or touch with, as Cohen and the eighteenth-century sensationalists remind us) the material and formal qualities of art, Enlightened Animals uses the theoretical lessons of human-animal studies to produce moving new readings of eighteenth-century French visual and material culture.

Amy Freund
Associate Professor and Kleinheniz Chair, Department of Art History, Southern Methodist University