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The second chapter revisits the work of Henry Fuseli, an artist whose notoriously distorted representations of the male nude puzzled viewers. Yet Fuseli remained significantly invested, intellectually and artistically, in the legibility of the body: for more than two decades, the Swiss-born, London-based artist collaborated with his childhood friend Johann Lavater on a treatise on physiognomy, the study of the face to determine man’s inner traits. As part of his effort to transform physiognomy into a modern empirical science, Lavater placed great emphasis on the physical correspondence between the external appearance of the body and its internal, imperceptible truths. However, Fuseli often represented bodies that could not be read according to the criteria of Lavater’s system. In doing so, the artist called into question not just physiognomy but the underlying claims on which it was based, unveiling a world in which “appearance” and “truth” fail to correspond.
Chapter 3 shifts from Britain and Switzerland to France, where electric demonstrations and experimental physics courses had become extremely popular in the 1780s. The artist Girodet referenced the visual and structural features of eighteenth-century electricity in both his written and his painted work. Specifically, he was drawn to its treatment of the human body, which was said to be a porous and penetrable entity capable of receiving and transmitting this powerful, immaterial force. Yet Girodet’s paintings featured dissolving bodies, strange atmospheric effects, and highly unorthodox forms of illumination that were incompatible with the empirical procedures that were central to the study of electricity. Reflecting on the revolutionary implications of a porous conception of selfhood, Girodet’s paintings thus interrogated the epistemological and political viability of an electrified body.
The Introduction delineates a shared set of concerns animating both artistic practices and scientific discourses at the turn of the nineteenth century, which were deeply invested in the human body’s ability to secure the relationship between reality and illusion, and between seeing and knowing. It first reevaluates historical accounts of the decline of neoclassicism and rise of Romanticism, and particularly the waning pictorial supremacy of the idealized nude body. It then lays out the importance of “popular science” and “Enlightenment empiricism” for the cultural landscape of eighteenth-century Britain and Continental Europe, revealing how the scientific authority of the human body was undergoing intense scrutiny. Recognizing such developments as interlocking rather than parallel enables us to think more critically about how artworks interrogated some of the visual and structural features of popular scientific discourses and, ultimately, the empirical framework that undergirded them.
The first chapter situates Philippe de Loutherbourg’s work in relation to animal magnetism. It reveals how his art dramatized the exact structural characteristics of animal magnetism that made it both enormously popular and widely discredited – namely, its twin claims to possess significant control over the body and to lie beyond the reach of conventional scientific forms of apprehension or measurement. Revisiting several of de Loutherbourg’s major British and Swiss paintings, it argues that they cultivated effects of profound perceptual ambiguity and in doing so illuminated the epistemological fault lines along which animal magnetism was positioned. When London critics subsequently described his paintings as “magnetic,” they, in turn, drew on that science to articulate – even to conceptualize – their experience of looking at art.
The fourth chapter offers an extended conclusion that examines an international controversy ignited by the guillotine that revolved around the relationship between cognition and sensation, the evidentiary authority of bodily experience, and the limitations of human perception. It argues that the works of Fuseli, Girodet, and de Loutherbourg point to the radical remapping of an Enlightenment empirical framework that used the human body as a privileged source of knowledge. The controversies that circulated around the guillotine heralded, instead, a world in which “appearance” and “truth,” “seeing” and “knowing,” were radically decoupled – a world where scientists began removing direct sensory observation from their experimental procedures and where the idealized nude body no longer stabilized pictorial meaning. It proposes that this shift had significant implications for the epistemological status of experience for Romanticism, more broadly.
Can we really trust the things our bodies tell us about the world? This work reveals how deeply intertwined cultural practices of art and science questioned the authority of the human body in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Focusing on Henry Fuseli, Anne-Louis Girodet and Philippe de Loutherbourg, it argues that romantic artworks participated in a widespread crisis concerning the body as a source of reliable scientific knowledge. Rarely discussed sources and new archival material illuminate how artists drew upon contemporary sciences and inverted them, undermining their founding empiricist principles. The result is an alternative history of romantic visual culture that is deeply embroiled in controversies around electricity, mesmerism, physiognomy and other popular sciences. This volume reorients conventional accounts of romanticism and some of its most important artworks, while also putting forward a new model for the kinds of questions that we can ask about them.
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