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To describe a piece of culture as “mesmerizing” or “electrifying” is so commonplace today that you might, like me, have heard these phrases countless times without giving much thought to how and why they became critical clichés. Mesmerism and electricity both emerged as subjects of scientific inquiry in the eighteenth century—the same period when art criticism itself was coming into existence—so perhaps it is not surprising that this language seeped into the cultural lexicon at the time, to become part of the repertoire of terms that we continue to use to characterize aesthetic experience. But it would be a mistake to see this migration of words from science into art as an accident of historical timing. As Stephanie O’Rourke makes clear in Art, Science, and the Body in Early Romanticism, the entry of this terminology into cultural discourse in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries illuminates the role that art played in a much broader set of debates about the nature of sensory perception and knowledge itself.
O’Rourke’s study focuses on three artists—Philippe de Loutherbourg, Henry Fuseli, and Anne-Louis Girodet—and analyzes their engagement with shifting scientific ideas about the capacity of the human body to produce trustworthy information about the world. This focused theme, however, belies the larger stakes of the book. By revealing a related set of concerns among artists whose careers spanned national boundaries and disciplinary contexts, O’Rourke aims to show a larger epistemological realignment that early Romantic art both responded to and helped enact. Romanticism, in O’Rourke’s account, refers not to a set of formal characteristics but to a period-specific sense of doubt about the reliability of sensory experience and visual representation as sources of knowledge. More than simply a stylistic shift toward subjective modes of expression, Romanticism here becomes a key player in transforming how Europeans understood their relationship with reality.
The argument recalls Jonathan Crary’s claim that nineteenth-century art, no less than science, participated in a reevaluation of visual experience as the basis of knowledge (Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century [MIT Press, 1992]; Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture [MIT Press, 2001] ). (Crary advised O’Rourke for her doctoral dissertation, which served as the basis for her book.) O’Rourke’s method, however, differs from Crary’s in an important respect. Where Crary has suggested links between art and science by way of resonances and analogies, O’Rourke searches for the mediating steps that connect the visual characteristics of a painting with, for example, an electrical experiment. The approach comes with risks. Any effort to show the actual line of communication between art and science has the potential to reveal breaks in the circuit. O’Rourke’s meticulous research and lucid writing, however, rarely fail to establish at least a plausible means of transmission.
The choice of artists makes a difference. O’Rourke makes clear at the outset that she chose her three protagonists because they led lives that brought them into contact with scientific debates from the period. Consider the case of Loutherbourg, who in the 1780s began studying mesmerism, a therapy based on the teachings of the physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who believed that it was possible to treat all manner of maladies through the application of magnetic forces to the body. Loutherbourg operated his own short-lived healing clinic based on these principles in London in 1789, when mesmerism had largely been discredited in scientific circles but remained a source of popular fascination. O’Rourke devotes her first chapter to establishing links between Loutherbourg’s mesmeric activities and his practices as a painter. Loutherbourg’s paintings do not illustrate mesmerism in any direct way, but O’Rourke argues that they play upon a deeper “crisis around credibility and empiricism” that stemmed from mesmerism’s vision of a world governed by mysterious and impalpable forces, “a world in which causal relationships and concrete boundaries are suspended, obscured, or upended” (25). O’Rourke connects these conceptual aspects of mesmerism with formal features of Loutherbourg’s landscapes, particularly his emphasis on “perceptual ambiguities” in the depiction of foggy atmosphere and the blurring of boundaries between materials (35–39).
These formal features can, of course, also be understood as products of aesthetic concerns, most notably the late eighteenth-century preoccupation with the sublime. One of the challenges that O’Rourke faces in her argument is determining how stylistic and scientific explanations for the same visual properties should be weighed against each other. The issue arises again in her second chapter, which examines the relationship of Fuseli to the physiognomic theories of his friend and collaborator Johann Caspar Lavater. O’Rourke suggests that Fuseli’s engagement with Lavater’s theories goes beyond a simple transposition of physiognomic principles into the representation of facial anatomy. Fuseli, she argues, takes up the broader problem of “corporeal legibility,” probing the degree to which bodily appearances can yield reliable information (60). After convincingly showing how Fuseli’s illustrations for Lavater’s writings subtly challenge the premises of physiognomic theory, O’Rourke explores how seemingly unrelated works, such as Fuseli’s mythological drawings and paintings, evince similar doubts about the communicative capacity of the body in their distortion of musculature and suppression of detail. O’Rourke here acknowledges that the obscure and ambiguous features of such works resonate with the aesthetic of the sublime, but she emphasizes that “this was hardly the only—or, for Fuseli, the most immediate—context in which the status and nature of corporeal legibility were being questioned” (90). Formal effects may be overdetermined, so we need not necessarily choose between aesthetic and scientific causes. Even so, I sometimes wanted O’Rourke to extend her insights by delving deeper into the relationship between these different possible explanations for the way a picture looks. Should the sublime itself be reconceived as a response to the epistemic crisis that O’Rourke identifies? Or did these two contexts simply coexist alongside each other? How should art historians decide which factor is most relevant to the interpretation of any given work?
One way to determine the relevance of a scientific theory to art’s meaning is by turning to critical reception. O’Rourke’s third chapter, on Girodet and electricity, is especially persuasive for the way it establishes a connection between art and science through the language of critics. Not only did Girodet himself maintain an interest in electricity, but viewers at the time compared the lighting effects of his work—particularly his Pygmalion and Galatea (1819, Musée du Louvre)—to an electrical experiment (104, 147). O’Rourke extends the comparison to Girodet’s best-known paintings, including The Sleep of Endymion (1791, Musée du Louvre), Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes (1802, Château de Malmaison), and Une Scène de déluge (1806, Musée du Louvre). As in her other chapters, O’Rourke suggests that the connection between art and science in these works went beyond mere visual resemblance. She argues that the dazzling and often deceptive electrical demonstrations of scientific entertainers during this period, particularly the application of electrical charges to human bodies, revealed the limits of bodily experience as a source of meaningful evidence—limits that Girodet’s paintings probe. What matters for O’Rourke, then, is not simply that Girodet’s paintings look like an electricity demonstration, but that their spectacular inscrutability instills in the viewer a comparable sense of uncertainty, underscoring the inadequacy of sensory experience as an instrument of knowledge.
The artistic concern for empiricism’s limits comes into full view in O’Rourke’s final chapter, which brings together the book’s three main characters to examine the physiological controversies surrounding the guillotine in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The chapter covers themes that Marc Gotlieb has previously explored, linking artistic representations of severed heads with scientific debates about the fundamentally unknowable experience of a condemned person when the blade passes through the neck (“The Guillotine Sublime,” in Is Paris Still the Capital of the Nineteenth Century? Essays on Art and Modernity, 1850–1900, ed. Hollis Clayson and André Dombrowski [London: Routledge, 2016], 53–72; O’Rourke does not cite the essay). Among the artists in O’Rourke’s study, these resonances are most visible in the work of Fuseli and Girodet, who both represented scenes of decapitation in the years after the Revolution. But the ultimate significance of the guillotine, for O’Rourke, is not the iconographic shadow that it cast on paintings, but the way its experiential opacity for eyewitnesses underscored the growing disconnect between bodily sensation and knowledge at the turn of the nineteenth century. In this way, O’Rourke argues, even a work that has no visible connection with the guillotine, such as Loutherbourg’s depiction of a naval battle (Earl Howe’s Victory, 1795, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich), turns on a comparable sense of uncertainty about the authority of empirical observation by virtue of its chaotic atmosphere and formal obscurity.
These more distant ties between art and science are tantalizing in their interpretive leaps, but they depart from the book’s otherwise scrupulous attention to mediating links. Such speculative cases raise larger questions about the implications of the book as a whole: Is the epistemic crisis that O’Rourke identifies at the turn of the nineteenth century relevant to all examples of painterly ambiguity in art from the period? How should we interpret these formal characteristics in the work of artists who may have been less directly connected to scientific discourse? O’Rourke rarely relates the work of her three artists to paintings by their contemporaries, but a few comparisons might have been helpful for assessing the extent to which her chosen subjects are distinctive. For example, how does the eerie glow in Girodet’s Ossian compare with the unnerving atmosphere of François Gérard’s earlier painting of the same subject (1801, Château de Malmaison)? Is electricity pertinent to both paintings? Does the presence of similar visual features in the work of an artist who had less direct ties to the scientific community reinforce the idea that electrical phenomena were a widespread source of interest, or does it indicate that there may be non-scientific explanations for these visual qualities? (The legend of Ossian itself, after all, is full of uncanny descriptions of light.) Similarly, in the case of Fuseli, does the presence of broad brushstrokes and anatomical distortions in the work of other artists in his circle, such as Alexander Runciman and Johan Tobias Sergel, indicate that scientific debates about corporeal legibility had a wider impact, or does it suggest, conversely, that stylistic factors played an important role in Fuseli’s approach to the body?
Answering these questions would clearly go beyond the scope of O’Rourke’s book, whose admirably focused attention to a few case studies allows for a fine-grained appreciation of how art and science came into contact. By tracing these lines of communication, O’Rourke forces us not only to think anew about familiar paintings, but to reflect on how we establish relationships between art and science in other cases. Appreciating the full significance of the connections that O’Rourke highlights will depend on other scholars extending her model of interpretation to additional examples—an approach that has the potential to reconceptualize not just the work of individual artists, but the entire Romantic era.
Art, Art History, and Film Department, Boston College