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date: 15 October 2018

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female Body

Abstract and Keywords

With the development of connoisseurship in eighteenth-century England came new scrutiny of the female body. This article examines the contemporary intersection between aesthetic appreciation and the act of viewing the female form. Drawing upon recent scholarship, it charts a history of “body connoisseurship” from the Society of Dilettanti, to London’s Theatres Royal, to the Royal Academy of Arts, and reveals how the focus on the female physique—as an object of beauty, sex, ownership, and exchange—was shaped not only by men but also by women who exerted increasing control over their own representational narratives. More fundamentally, it places women at the center of connoisseurial debates in the period, contending that depictions of women’s bodies within connoisseurial contexts function at once as emblems of knowledge, both aesthetic and concupiscent, and as emblems that ironize and destabilize such knowledge by cultivating a fiction of the profound unknowability of women—and thus of beauty itself.

Keywords: connoisseurship, spectatorship, art, aesthetics, beauty, sexuality, painting, performance, theatre

Related OUP Handbooks Articles

  • Adolph H. Borbein, “Connoisseurship.” The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Architecture. Ed. Clemente Macaroni. 2014.

  • Helen E. M. Brooks, “Theorizing the Woman Performer.” The Oxford Handbook of the Georgian Theatre, 1737–1832. Ed. Julia Swindells and David Francis Taylor. 2014.

  • Hal Gladfelder, “Literature and Pornography, 1660–1800.” OUP Handbooks Online. 2013.

  • James Noggle, “Literature and Taste, 1700-1800.” OUP Handbooks Online. 2015.

Introduction

I open to Gentlemen a New Scene of Pleasure, a New Innocent Amusement, and an Accomplishment which they have yet scarce heard of, but no less worthy of their Attention…. My present business is then in short to persuade our Nobility, and Gentry to become Lovers of Painting and Connoisseurs.1

Thus begins Jonathan Richardson’s essay An Argument in Behalf of the Science of a Connoisseur, the second discourse of his Two Discourses (1719), a treatise that promotes connoisseurship as a new and innovative practice, necessary for the appreciation and assessment of art.2 As if drawing back theatre, exhibition, or bed curtains, Richardson enacts in this opening passage a moment of revelation and with it a “Scene of Pleasure,” a prospect of titillating entertainment and sensuous exercise—an opportunity to play the role of a “lover.” But if connoisseurship is an evocative “amusement,” it is also an “accomplishment” and a “science,” one of skillful visual discernment built upon systematic knowledge formation or what he terms elsewhere “Connoissance.”3 Through this merging of the sensory and the scientific, Richardson stresses the notion that connoisseurship requires a new kind of looking—one that seeks delight not for its own sake but as a product of visual cultivation.

Connoisseurship distinguished itself in this way from alternative forms of viewing and collecting, exemplified, for instance, in Renaissance “cabinets of curiosity” or Wunderkammern, wherein paintings could be intermixed with natural objects and antiquities such as shells, corals, insects, raw minerals, fossils, medals, old coins, and gemstones.4 The acquisition of objects on the grounds that they were “curious”—rare, old, peculiar, exotic, and so on—and to display them according to an associative logic continued to thrive during the eighteenth century, but for those eager “to define a method of legitimate inquiry,” and to transform the activity of collecting “from the material realm … to an aesthetic realm,” this approach began to appear indiscriminate, haphazard, and fetishistic.5 Connoisseurship purported to function, alternatively, through a discriminatory and evaluative logic that entailed, first, the privileging of objects produced by artists (paintings, prints, sculpture, architecture, jewels) and, second, the ability to offer a disinterested appraisal of a work of art. It therefore encompassed more than the activities of dating or attribution, discerning provenance, or spotting an original from a fake. For Richardson, connoisseurship is foremost an exercise in qualitative observation, employed as a means to judge an artwork’s distinctiveness and relative aesthetic merit. More broadly, he argues in favor of connoisseurship as a civilizing force, essential in the education of a “Gentleman of Taste” and for the advancement of the English nation through “The Reformation of our Manners, Refinement of our Pleasures, and Increase of our Fortunes, and Reputation.”6

With its promise of cultural and intellectual improvement, visual enjoyment, and heightened social status, connoisseurship appealed to Englishmen who had the classical education and independent financial means to engage in its practice. Unlike most women, labourers, and artisans, such gentlemen had the wherewithal to attend university and gain knowledge of classical language and literature, religion, philosophy, and history; to embark on Continental Grand Tours; and to establish art collections. Connoisseurship both complemented and justified these endeavours, and, in turn, supported class hierarchies.7 In 1732 a group who shared the distinction of having made a Grand Tour of Italy met together in London; in 1734, they formally established the Society of Dilettanti, a London dining club and the “first English institutional embodiment of the culture of the connoisseur.”8 The Society, which included forty-eight men in 1736, grew over the years in distinction, and its members acted as patrons, scholars, and critics of the arts. One of their mottos Viva la virtú, loosely translated as “long live fine art,” alluded to eighteenth-century civic humanistic conceptions of virtú as knowledge, honor, and strength of character. To cultivate virtú was to cultivate the self as a means to elevate one’s social standing and to promote social and national welfare.9 To this end, the Dilettanti supported the Italian opera company at London’s Haymarket Theatre (c.1740–1745), advocated in 1753 for the establishment of a Royal Academy of Arts, funded archaeological expeditions to Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor, and underwrote the elaborately illustrated folios The Antiquities of Athens (1762–1814), Ionian Antiquities (1769, 1797), and Select Specimens of Antient Sculpture (1809, 1835)—tomes that were influential in shifting the neoclassical focus from Rome to Greece, in promoting the study and accumulation of historic art and architecture, and in celebrating British art collections.10 Due to their efforts, the Society became a cornerstone organization throughout the century for consultation on matters of art and taste.11

But as Richardson’s opening quotation indicates, central to connoisseurship is sensual knowledge, and the Dilettanti’s reputation for revelry, bibulousness, and playboy behavior speaks to their devotion to cultivating the pleasures of connoisseurship in concert with its science.12 The very name of the Society, which derives from the Italian verb dilettare, “to delight,” suggests as much, as do Joshua Reynolds’s famous set of group portraits (Figs. 1 and 2), which depict Dilettanti examining art, drinking wine, conversing, and engaging in prurient display.13 In these images, Reynolds captures the Society’s linked pursuit of the antique and antic, virtú and vice through two pairs of juxtaposed actions.14 In the first painting, Sir William Hamilton sits in the center of a group of Dilettanti and points to an engraving of a Greek vase from his collection; behind him, one of the members flourishes a woman’s garter (an alleged boast of conquest) for the assembled party to see. In the second painting, several Dilettanti gather to inspect a collection of gemstones; the figure on the left holds a gem up to the light and, in the act of pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, makes a gesture that contemporaries would have recognized as an obscene sign for the female sex. In both of these images, an iconography of connoisseurship is coupled with an iconography of the sexualized female body.15

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 1. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Members of the Dilettanti Society. The Vase Group (1777–1779).

By permission of the Society of Dilettanti. Courtesy of the Photographic Survey, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 2. Sir Joshua Reynolds, Members of the Dilettanti Society. The Gem Group (1777–1779).

By permission of the Society of Dilettanti. Courtesy of the Photographic Survey, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Artists also captured the salacious impulses of the Dilettanti in portraits of individual members, such as George Knapton’s 1742 rendering of Sir Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer (Fig. 3), English politician, leading member of the Dilettanti Society, and founder of the Hellfire Club (known variously as the Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe and, later, the Medmenham Monks—a society of men who celebrated drinking, banqueting, and sexual debauchery). In Knapton’s portrait, Dashwood wears the habit of a Franciscan monk and holds a chalice inscribed Matri Sanctorum “mother of the saints,” but the mother in question is the Venus de’ Medici (Fig. 4), not the Virgin Mary. On the actual, first-century BCE sculpture of the Venus de’ Medici, housed in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, a left hand restored to the statue in the seventeenth century provides a modest covering, but in Knapton’s painting the hand is gone, an omission that conveniently allows Dashwood to leer at what the politician and libertine John Wilkes described as “the hallowed gloom of Maidenhead Thicket.”16 In 1757, Dashwood commissioned a similarly sacrilegious portrait from William Hogarth entitled Sir Francis Dashwood at His Devotions (c. 1758; Fig. 5, here in its later form as a print). Modeled on Agostino Carracci’s etching of St. Francis Adoring the Cross (c. 1580–1585), it shows Dashwood kneeling at a shrine in which the Bible has been replaced with the erotic dialogue De Elegantiae Latini Sermonis, the customary memento mori with a masquerade mask (a sign of “saturnalian excess”17), and the figure of Christ on the cross with an orgasmic female nude, prostrate and legs spread, on which Dashwood gazes. The halo above Dashwood reveals the profile of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and fellow member of the Society of Dilettanti and the Hellfire Club. The fact that Montagu resembles a satyr comments on the men’s shared penchant for drinking and licentiousness and on the portrait as a “satire” on Roman Catholic ritual and Renaissance devotional images. Other of the numerous relics of Dilettanti ribaldry include the Society’s balloting box (Fig. 6), which features the goddess Justitia straddling a vaginal tun into which members inserted their ballot balls, and statements recorded in the Society minutes: on March 19, 1786, for instance, Thomas Noel, 2nd Viscount Wentworth, proposed a toast to “Cunt & the Comm[it]ee,” and the group proposed that it “be given to all Future Committees to begin their office by drinking the said Laudable Toast.”18

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 3. George Knapton, Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Le Despencer (1742).

By permission of the Society of Dilettanti. Courtesy of the Photographic Survey, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

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Figure 4. Venus de’ Medici (c.1768–1805).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

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Figure 5. William Platt, after William Hogarth, Sir Francis Dashwood Worshipping Venus (late eighteenth century).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 6. George Knapton and Thomas Adye, Balloting Box (1737–1738).

By permission of the Society of Dilettanti. Courtesy of the Photographic Survey, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

That the Society’s history and identity is bound up with its unique admixture of the scholarly and the erotic, the sacred and the profane is a fact well documented.19 Studies of the Dilettanti by John Brewer, Jason M. Kelly, Bruce Redford, and Shearer West read this phenomenon less as a sign of aristocratic privilege turned profligate and more as exemplifying a culture of male sociability, a “clubby” and “associational” world in which refinement and pleasure were not “contradictory” but “complementary” pursuits.20 Redford explains that all of the activities of the Dilettanti were conducted in a spirit of ludic excess: “Over the course of three generations, they reveled in promiscuity—sexual, aesthetic, intellectual.”21 The female bodies so prevalent in Dilettanti culture, whether imagined or actual, can accordingly be read as mediums through which Society members fostered homosocial conviviality and expressed republican sentiment.22 Recent scholarship has sought to recover the Dilettanti’s rakish proclivities in precisely this way by reframing them within a contemporary masculine discourse that embraced “the ambiguity between … politeness and libertinism.”23

This article builds upon this research, particularly with regard to its discernment of an eighteenth-century connoisseurial culture; however, rather than conceive of the presence of the female body in Dilettanti society as one element within a broader ecology of taste (on par, say, with fine art, fine wine, and fine food), as a manifestation of a sexually charged atmosphere, or as a vehicle through which Dilettanti sociability and politics were cultivated and articulated, it places the female physique at the heart of the connoisseurial project. Representations of women in Dilettanti culture—in paintings and graphic satire, landscape gardens and literature—attest to the female body’s role not only as an eroticized object of delectation, collection, and display but also as a figure for nature and beauty, a figure through which men of taste enacted claims to aesthetic knowledge. This article thus conceives of connoisseurship as a performance and contends that the female body operates (1) as an exemplary site of its enactment and (2) as a key marker for concerns in the era over the aims of artistic assessment (the role of the aesthete) and of artistic production (the role of the artist). It further posits that connoisseurial claims to aesthetic knowledge, when played out through the female body, were, like performances, ephemeral, and this is because representations of the female body troubled claims to aesthetic knowledge through the very fiction they promoted: that of the profound mystery and sexual otherness of women. Finally, this article reveals how the connoisseurial focus on the female form typifies a broader culture of “body connoisseurship,” which developed over the course of the eighteenth century and came to full fruition in the London Theatres Royal and the Royal Academy of Arts.24 In these realms, women played an increasingly active role in the connoisseurial project by cultivating and directing the viewing of their own bodies.

Scenes of Pleasure: Classical Beauty and the Problem of Beholding

There is no such thing as a monogamous collector. Sight is a promiscuous sense.

The avid gaze always wants more.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance, (1992)25

The connoisseur’s power to aestheticize expresses a deeper need to fetishize.

Ann Bermingham, “Elegant Females and Gentleman Connoisseurs” (1995)26

During the eighteenth century, questions of perception took center stage in science, moral philosophy, literature, and aesthetics. Isaac Newton’s optical advances, George Berkeley’s theory of vision, John Locke’s understanding of sensory experience, Adam Smith’s notion of sympathetic identification, David Hume’s conception of taste, Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s The Spectator magazine, and Edmund Burke’s ideas of beauty and sublimity all foreground perception and its mediation by sight. For Enlightenment thinkers, sight was a sensory faculty that could be shaped and directed to improve perception. This cultivation of visual skill, the education of the eye, was especially important at a time when the objective was not simply to see better but to view well. Viewing became a discursive act within a broader “culture of visuality,” as Peter de Bolla puts it,27 and connoisseurship played a crucial role in the formation of contemporary approaches to and attitudes about viewing. According to Jonathan Richardson, the aforementioned author of Two Discourses (1719), connoisseurship directs the pleasures of looking toward edificatory ends. He writes,

All Animated Beings naturally covet Pleasure, and eagerly pursue it as their Chiefest Good; the great Affair is to chuse those that are Worthy of Rational Beings, Such as are not only Innocent, but Noble, and Excellent: … If Gentlemen therefore found Pleasure in Pictures, Drawings, Prints, Statues, Intaglias, and the like Curious works of Art; in discovering their Beauties, and Defects; in making proper Observations thereupon; and in all the other parts of the business of a Connoisseur, how many Hours of Leisure would Here be profitably employ’d, instead of what is Criminal, Scandalous, and Mischievous!28

Connoisseurship elevates the act of looking by lifting the spectator out of a purely sensual engagement with art through the exercise of visual expertise—the stimulation of the intellect in “discovering” and “making proper Observations” about an object under scrutiny. It also comprises a move from the private to public inasmuch as connoisseurial “Observations” must be tested against the opinions of others in order for them to be deemed “proper.” Daniela Bleichmar observes that connoisseurship became “a form of expertise characterized first and foremost by … looking closely, [and] standing back to appreciate” along with “active conversation and discussion.”29 And as Brewer remarks, looking at art was “not just an aesthetic matter but a social activity.”30 This combination of erudition and sociability made the connoisseur a model for the ideal viewer.

Under the dilettantish gaze, however, fine art—the pictures, drawings, prints, and statues that Richardson speaks of—could offer opportunities for concupiscent looking. It is this very prospect that Alexander Pope explores in his Epistle to Burlington (1731) when he alludes to the viewing of paintings in Timon’s villa, a fictional locale long believed to be a disguised caricature of paintings in the Church of St. Lawrence at Cannons, the Jacobean estate rebuilt in a lavish Georgian Baroque style between 1713 and 1724 by James Brydges, First Duke of Chandos, the so-called Apollo of the Arts:

  • On painted Cielings you devoutly stare,
  • Where sprawl the Saints of Verrio or Laguerre,
  • On gilded clouds in fair expansion lie,
  • And bring all Paradise before your eye.31

In these two couplets, the “fair expansion” of Antonio Verrio’s and Louis Laguerre’s languid female saints refers to the spreading of their legs. Pope’s erotic tableau participates in his poem’s exposure of poor taste in the design of contemporary estates, including Cannons, Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House, and Houghton Hall.32 More specifically, Pope satirizes the sensuality of the dilettantish gaze. Sir Francis Dashwood’s West Wycombe Park, if it had been completed during the time that Pope penned the above lines, might have offered another case in point. In a section of the garden known as “Venus’ parlor,” Dashwood erected a Temple of Venus (Fig. 7), an architectural folly positioned on a raised hill that housed a copy of the Venus de’ Medici—the focal point of Dashwood’s carnal religion. Below the hill was a womb-like grotto with an oval entrance, dubbed “Venus’ chamber.” In 1763, John Wilkes wrote of this vaginal allusion that “you find at first what is called an error in limine; for the entrance to it is the same entrance by which we all come into the world, and the door is what some idle wits have called the door of life.”33 While Dashwood’s emblematic gardens present an extraordinary version of what James G. Turner refers to as an eighteenth-century “aesthetic of sexualized topography,” it was precisely this conflation of high art and indecent spectacle that concerned thinkers in the period.34 Pope in his Epistle advises an alternative aesthetic approach:

  •   In all, let Nature never be forgot.
  •   But treat the Goddess like a modest fair,
  •   Nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare;
  •   Let not each beauty ev’ry where be spy’d,
  •   Where half the skill is decently to hide.
  •   He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
  •   Surprizes, varies, and conceals the Bounds.35

Promoting a polite method of depicting beauty, Pope argues that good art “pleasingly confounds” by reconciling desire with virtue, by hiding more than revealing and thereby exemplifying a form of pudicitas. However, because “Nature” is gendered in standard poetic fashion through the use of a feminine pronoun and takes the form of a kept mistress being clothed by her master, her appearance in the end is more coy than virtuous, more alluring than chaste.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 7. The Temple of Venus, as it appears today at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire.

© National Trust Images/Alasdair Ogilvie.

As emblems of nature and beauty, women were ideal aesthetic objects; that said, representations of the female form could also excite temptations to engage in a prurient form of looking. At the crux of this debate over how to create and view art was the Venus de’ Medici (Fig. 4), a classical figure, John Barrell has shown, in whom the dangers of aestheticism were figured sexually.36 The challenge was to admire the body of Venus “as form, and to resist [it] as agent”—in other words, to appreciate it as an artistic representation rather than as a carnal being.37 Anatomical drawings of the Venus de’ Medici (Fig. 8) illustrate this impulse, but the difficulty of such attempts to privilege intellectual over sensual pleasure, Barrell observes, is that “the sense of sight only too eagerly invokes the sense of touch.”38

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 8. Anatomical drawing of the Venus de’ Medici with measurements. From Gérard Audran, Les Proportions du corps humain, mesurées sure les plus belles figures de l’antinquite (Paris, 1683), translated into English as The proportions of the human body, measured from the most beautiful antique statues; By Mons. Audran, engraver to the late King of France; done from the originals engraved at Paris. In twenty eight large folio plates. London: Engraven and sold by John Sturt, in Golden Lion-Court in Aldersgate-Street, 1718. Plate 15. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. The John P. Robarts Research Library, University of Toronto.

For Hogarth, the Venus de’ Medici was an archetypal figure for beauty in her embodiment of the serpentine line, an S-shape that pairs concave and convex, flow and variation. He thus positions her at the center of Plate I of his Analysis of Beauty (1753; Fig. 9). According to Turner, “Her form and posture reconciled two contrary motions, just as her gesture [her covering of her breasts and pubis] combined concealment and display, modesty and availability”—a harmonious balancing.39 Moreover, as Abigail Zitin has shown, Hogarth’s serpentine line figures beauty in terms of a “formal abstraction,” “an aesthetics of technique” through which beauty can “be adequately perceived and enjoyed.”40 But despite this more formalized and decorous conception of beauty, Hogarth also defines beauty in his Analysis in terms of enraptured, even lustful observation: “Intricacy in form, therefore, I shall define to be in that peculiarity in the lines, which compose it, that leads the eye a wanton kind of chace, and from the pleasure that gives the mind, intitles it to the name of beautiful.”41 Beauty, here, speaks to artistic design and to a visual moment of curiosity, pursuit, and delight that produces an excitation of the senses. Indeed, as Ronald Paulson has observed, Hogarth, unlike other contemporary aestheticians, was “unwilling to dissociate the senses from sensuality”; for Hogarth, “the artist’s function is not to enforce morality but to analyse it as another object with its own formal properties.”42 Edmund Burke differed, declaring four years later in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) that “the application of beauty to virtue may be made with propriety.”43 This notion is nonetheless undercut in the Enquiry when Burke cites the serpentine line in the form of a woman’s neck and breasts, evincing a Hogarthian fusion of artistic appreciation and delectation:

Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness; the softness; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never from the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily, without knowing where to fix, or whither it is carried.44

Burke’s cumulative sentence produces the effect of building desire as it elaborates a description of a woman’s body. Its successive phrases, paused by semicolons, build up tension slowly and then, with less binding commas, speed up until the eye, “deceived” and rendered “giddy” by the sensual “maze” of the neck and breasts, loses sight of the initial scientific directive to “observe that part” and gives way to ecstatic, fleshly exuberance. In the process of observing, aesthetic attention becomes a vehicle for amorous adoration, and the anatomization of the body for the effusive expression of material sexuality.

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Figure 9. William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, (London, 1753), Plate I.

Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.

In 1731, the same year that Pope published his Epistle to Burlington, Hogarth addressed the problem of aesthetic desire in an engraving entitled Boys Peeping at Nature (Fig. 10), designed as an entry ticket for his moral print series A Harlot’s Progress (1732). The image depicts three putti: one painting the multibreasted figure of Nature (an Ephesian Artemis), another making a print (applying a burin to a copper plate), and another at the center, repelling the advances of a faun or young satyr who attempts to glance up Nature’s skirt and “peep” at the goddess’s mysteries. At the top of the engraving is the phrase, “Antiquam exquirite Matrem. Vir.” (“Seek out your ancient mother”), a divine directive from the oracle at Apollo’s Temple in Virgil’s Aeneid.45 The engraving asserts that artists must seek knowledge of Nature in its antique forms, though it offers two perspectives on the matter. If the viewer identifies with the central putto who pushes away the satyr, it makes it clear that the type of “look” or knowledge advocated here is not sexual. Further, by depicting Artemis (an early version of the Roman goddess Diana) rather than Venus, Hogarth shifts the narrative from sexual desire to chastity. The implication, by extension, is that A Harlot’s Progress is an edifying form of art. If one identifies with the satyr, however, the image suggests a different aim: that one must look “past art and artifice … to search out what lies below, hidden from view … as an aesthetic program.”46 At the bottom of the image are lines from Horace’s Ars Poetica, “necesse est / Indiciis monstrare recentibus abdita rerum. / —dabiturque Licentia Sumpta pudenter. Hor.” (“A difficult subject must be presented in new terms…. and license is allowed if it is used with care.”).47 Paulson translates the message of the ticket as follows: “To explore the kind of reality he is interested in, he [Hogarth] must (with Aeneas) seek his mother, Nature, and (with Horace) adopt new and different means if necessary; to establish truth or reality he must do as the [satyr] does, exploring the ‘indecent’ parts of Nature.”48 The engraving’s illustration of a naughty satyr—his seeking out the concealed and sometimes forbidden—is thus aesthetically justified. Yet it elicits sexual excitement all the same, allowing Hogarth to appeal to his viewers’ ocular proclivities. Around 1750, Hogarth reworked the image (Fig. 11), expunging the lines from Virgil and Horace, altering the arrangement of draperies, and, most important, omitting the satyr, substituting in his place an outlined portrait of a woman. This modification, which focuses attention on the female bust (actual and artistic) rather than on female genitalia, acts as an “improved” version of the moral allegory communicated in the engraving’s first state. By removing the sexual imagery, the engraving in its final state depicts the female body in even more classical, maternal, and creative terms, and in this way manifests a tempering of the passions that the central putto’s action in first state merely espouses. Although the outlined portrait may serve as a cynical commentary on Hogarth’s need to paint likenesses to earn a living, it also maintains that beauty, figured in such a way, has the potential to refine.49

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Figure 10. William Hogarth, Boys Peeping at Nature (1731). Subscription ticket for A Harlot’s Progress.

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

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Figure 11. William Hogarth, Boys Peeping at Nature (c. 1750).

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

This transition in the artistic representation of women’s bodies from erotic vessels to symbols of design and elevated function exemplifies an increasing stress over the course of the century on depicting beauty in ennobling terms, an objective later advanced under the auspices of the Royal Academy of Arts. Hogarth, with his often variant aesthetic emphasis on dolce as a fundamental component of utile, could not escape charges that his artistic vision was clouded by masturbatory fantasy. The drawing Hogarth’s Cottage (Fig. 12)—executed by Samuel Ireland in 1786, over twenty years after Hogarth’s death, and professing to be a facsimile from “an original Design” by Hogarth for an etching on a breeches button—does just this. The drawing depicts the sun rising behind two mountains foregrounded by a hill and a small cottage, its door open and surrounded by foliage, where the sun is evocative of a head, the mountains breasts, the hill a belly and navel, the cottage entryway a vulva, and the brush surrounding it, pubic hair—a bawdy landscape contrived out of viewing a nude woman in linear perspective, a kind of looking associated with a particular kind of sexual act.

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Figure 12. Samuel Ireland, Hogarth’s Cottage. From the Original Design in the Possession of Sam.l Ireland (March 1, 1786).

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Later eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century paintings and drawings portray the gaze of the connoisseur in much the same way. In Richard Cosway’s Group of Connoisseurs (1775; Fig. 13) a party of men view marble sculptures, one of which is a torso of a naked Venus, and while at first glance the gathering appears respectable, upon closer inspection it becomes clear that two of them have hands busily thrust into their breeches.50 Thomas Rowlandson’s Exhibition Stare-Case (c. 1811, Fig. 14) depicts visitors to the New Somerset House, home of the Royal Academy, ascending and descending the curved staircase. The background reveals part of a dome, underneath which is a frieze, depicting Venus reclining on a cart drawn by nymphs and satyrs. At the center-right of the image is a statue positioned in a niche of the Callipygian Venus, exposing her posterior. In the foreground, male spectators delight in viewing women who, in the process of being toppled down the stairs, have become like the statue: barelegged and bare bottomed. Both Cosway’s and Rowlandson’s images feature a man holding a quizzing glass—a marker, along with the spyglass, of a new age of beholding and a common prop in contemporary visual satire for signifying “peeping,” a studied yet often lewd or lecherous act of looking routinely associated with connoisseurship.51 George Colman the Younger’s poem “Fire! Or the Sun-Poker” (1816) illustrates this association in a scene where Jove presents the figure of a woman to the gods:

  •   So, —when the Fair One was announc’d,—
  •   Up their Immortalships all bounc’d,
  •                 Without the least decorum;
  •   And all the Cognoscenti of the Skies
  •   Popp’d up their spying-glesses [sic] to their eyes,
  •                 To pass their judgment on the Piece before ’em;
  •                       Peeping, and peering,
  •                       Praising, or jeering;
  •   Spluttering encomium, and stricture;
  •                    As purchasers, and puffers, auctioneering,
  •   Cry up, or down, a Statue, or a Picture.52

In these lines, the “Fair One” is likened to a “Piece” of antiquity upon which the gods “pass their judgment”—an activity aided by the use of glasses. Much like this poem, numerous ribald images in the period, such as Isaac Cruikshank’s Caleb Curious. The Witty Wine Merchant (1792); Rowlandson’s The Connoisseurs (c. 1790), Connoisseurs (1799), The Modern Pygmalion (c. 1790-1810), Cunnyseurs (c. 1790–1810), and Italian Picture Dealers Humbuging My Lord Anglaise (1812); Piercy Roberts’s Buck’s Beauty and Rowlandson’s Connoisseur (1810); and the anonymously etched A Connoisseur in Brokers Alley (c. 1815) undercut the connoisseur’s claim to the objective and disinterested practice of assessing art by exposing it as a ruse for voyeuristic titillation. Of Rowlandson’s satires in particular, Kelly observes that they “would have reminded many of his viewers that the dilettante was a modern Pygmalion at the altar of Venus.”53

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 13. Richard Cosway, Group of Connoisseurs (1775).

Courtesy of Burnley Borough Council, Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museums.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 14. Thomas Rowlandson, Exhibition Stare Case (c. 1811).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

In the myth, Pygmalion’s statue comes to life—as the stone turns into a woman, the ideal is made real. Women such as Emma Hamilton (1765–1815) and Rose Parisot (c. 1775–1837) enacted the dilettantish sensualization of the female form through the animated display of their bodies off and on stage. Their performances, which involved rendering themselves into living art objects, mark one of the ways in which women responded in the eighteenth century to connoisseurial practices—here, as a means of self-promotion. Emma Hamilton (Fig. 15) became famous for her private performances of “Attitudes” in which she represented various classical figures by shifting gracefully between static pose and expressive gesture. As the mistress and later wife of Sir William Hamilton, a Scottish diplomat and antiquarian, and the mistress of Admiral Horatio Nelson, she moved in high circles and became famous for her mimoplastic art. After viewing her in 1787, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reported that—

with a few shawls, [she] gives so much variety to her poses, gestures, expressions etc., that the spectator can hardly believe his eyes. He sees what thousands of artists would have liked to express realized before him in movements and surprising transformations—standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining, serious, sad, playful, ecstatic, contrite, alluring, threatening, anxious, one pose follows another without a break. …. In her, he [Sir William Hamilton] has found all the antiquities…. This much is certain: as a performance it is like nothing you ever saw before in your life.54

Emma’s attitudes, Goethe writes, hypostatize “what thousands of artists would have liked to express” and bring to life “all the antiquities.” She was classical art in motion. When Hamilton married Emma in 1791, Horace Walpole remarked, “Sir William has actually married his gallery of statues.”55 Her attitudes were sketched from life by Frederick Rehberg and then engraved by Thomas Piroli in 1794. Another performer who evoked classical forms was Rose Parisot (Fig. 16), a French ballet dancer who captivated London audiences with her balance, flexibility, and sheer Grecian-style costumes.56

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 15. Elizabeth Vigée le Brun, Emma Hamilton as a Bacchante (c. 1790–1792).

© National Museums Liverpool, Lady Lever Art Gallery.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 16. Charles Turner, after John James Masquerier, Mademoiselle Parisot (c. 1799).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Both women and their “erotic classicism” were depicted in contemporary satire as objects of the connoisseurial gaze.57 An edition of Town and Country Magazine featured a tête-à-tête engraving of Emma and Sir William Hamilton in which the former is dubbed “The Venus de Medicis” and the latter “The Consular Artist” (1790, Fig. 17). Rowlandson’s Lady H******* [Hamilton’s] Attitudes (c. 1800; Fig. 18) portrays Emma as a Venus and Galatea figure. A young male artist with a quizzing glass views and sketches her, his stylus pointing suggestively toward her groin, as she performs an “attitude” with only a shawl to frame her body and a tazza to rest her foot upon. An older, bespectacled gentleman, possibly Hamilton performing the role of “art dealer as pimp,” smiles as he draws back a curtain and points to the statuesque Emma.58 In the foreground are fragments of classical sculpture, the head of a man and a woman nearly kissing, and in the background, to the right, a satyr embraces a naked nymph. Isaac Cruikshank’s A Peep at the Parisot! with Q in the corner!! (1796; Fig. 19) offers a related assessment of Mademoiselle Parisot’s balletic performances. Parisot, balancing on her right toe, extends her left leg parallel to the ground, opening her skirt and exposing herself to a bevy of onlookers in the pit, including (from right to left) a smiling Charles James Fox, a forward-leaning William Pitt, a thumb-biting Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a spyglass-wielding Duke of Queensbury (the “Q” of the title), and behind them a bespectacled Edmund Burke, among other notables.59 Spectators with quizzing glasses appear in the door behind Parisot and in the theatre box, which is decorated with trumpet-blowing cherubs. A similar etching by Robert Newton (1796; Fig. 20) features the Bishop of Durham with a spyglass and the Duke of Queensbury with a quizzing glass looking up Parisot’s billowy skirt.60 In both of these images and in the caricatures of Emma Hamilton, the implication is that beauty—whether in the artist’s studio or in the theatre—invites a type of beholding that stimulates the flesh rather than the spirit.

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Figure 17. The Venus de Medicis. The Consular Artist. (1790). Plate from “Histories of the Tête-à-Tête Annexed” in Town and Country Magazine, v. 22, p. 483.

Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 18. Thomas Rowlandson, Lady H******* [Hamilton’s] Attitudes (c. 1790s).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 19. Isaac Cruikshank, A Peep at the Parisot! with Q in the corner!! (1796).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 20. Robert Newton, Mademoiselle Parisot (1796).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

But they are doing even more than this. Many representations of connoisseurial viewing in the period—poetic and pictorial—address not just questions of decency but questions of authority in the act of beholding. Nancy Armstrong has argued that the eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of a power relationship that gendered the spectator as male and the spectacle as female.61 While one might imagine, according to this arrangement, that power would reside in the male beholder at the expense of the female beheld, satirical images such as these of Emma Hamilton and Rose Parisot complicate gender hierarchies by advancing the notion that viewing the female form threatens the welfare of the state. In featuring personages such as William Hamilton, William Pitt, and the Bishop of Durham, they engage a sexual politics, contending that such beauties effeminize these men and distract them from more important matters. Like the gods in Colman’s poem who sacrifice “decorum” and resort to lowly “peeping,” eminent men demean themselves when they allow visual stimuli to rouse libidinous passions. Rather than cultivate virtue, connoisseurship has the potential to diminish masculine power, particularly in the civic world.62 The female beauties in these images are hence more than “ornaments”; they are the seductive “agents of corruption.”63

I also want to suggest, however, that eighteenth-century representations of connoisseurial viewing ultimately locate culpability less in the figure of the woman than in the act of looking itself. In essence, they challenge the connoisseur’s claim to cultivated judgment and superior visual access even as they undermine the acquisitive sexuality of the male gaze—the desire to possess a woman by turning her into art.64 A number of them, for instance, concentrate acts of looking up skirts, around nether regions, and between legs. This is more than a display of fetishistic predation, pornographic bawdiness, a critique of poor taste, or a warning about the seductive potential of art.65 It stands as a metaphor for a desire to see under and see into, a desire to know absolutely and intimately, and its profound frustration. Connoisseurs, quizzing glasses in hand, may attempt to examine, study, and analyze what is often hidden or secret, but such representations, rather than grant them knowledge and intellectual power, confound full access. Those doing the looking are often older men with questionable potency and virility; they do not obtain the classical beauty depicted but rather desperately ogle her in a way that underscores a fantasy of female anatomical and aesthetic otherness—a fantasy that relies upon a distancing of the male viewer in relation to the female object. If women in portraits of connoisseurship (satirical and non-satirical) are stand-ins for beauty, and their genitals for the mysterious origins of that beauty, then beauty for the connoisseur, albeit fascinating, remains elusive and unknowable.66 In the end, it is not the connoisseur’s inability to penetrate that mystery that marks him as absurd or foolish; it is his misrecognition—the fact that he appears to believe that he is doing so.

Such skepticism about connoisseurial expertise informs Samuel Johnson’s definition of a “connoisseur” (Dictionary, 1755) as “a judge, a critick. It is often used of a pretended critick.”67 As this article demonstrates, fundamental questions about taste, propriety, and aesthetic acumen circulated around the viewing of the female form in the eighteenth century. The sexualized showcasing of women’s bodies in connoisseurial culture, however, did not necessarily perform the libertine fantasy of critical access to beauty.68 Rather, the oft-repeated iconography calls attention to a potential for opacity in the relationship between seer and seen—moments in which a craving for aesthetic insight is left unsatisfied, and the power dynamic shifts from onlooker to object. If visual power typically resides in the beholder, the mystery that inheres in these objects prevents their subordination.69 They may charm and entice, but they will never fully gratify, and this is why, for a collector, one can never be enough. A yearning unfulfilled speaks not only to what it means to maintain desire but also to what it means to pursue beauty. Aesthetic appreciation entails delimited access. As Johnson would put it, “the idea of beauty is vague and undefined, different in different minds, and diversified by time or place…. It is, indeed, so little subject to the examinations of reason, … To trace all the sources of that various pleasure which we ascribe to the agency of beauty, or to disentangle all the perceptions involved in its idea, would, perhaps require a very great part of the life of Aristotle or Plato.”70 And as Burke concedes of his own enquiry into sublimity and beauty, “I would not be understood to say, that I can come to the ultimate cause…. A little thought will show this to be impossible…. The great chain of causes, which links one to another, even to the throne of God himself, can never be unravelled by any industry of ours.”71 To think otherwise is, perhaps, the mark of a “pretended critick.” It is also through this prospect—the ability or opportunity to be an object admired, even eroticized and fetishized, but not fully mastered—that many British women entered the public world of the theatre and art in the eighteenth century.

Scenes of Performance: The Actress and the Artist

Beauty, methinks, seems a requisite qualification in an actress.

   —Oliver Goldsmith, “Remarks on Our Theatres,” The Bee (1759)72

We banish anatomy from the parlour of the polite gentleman.

  —Isaac Ware, A Complete Body of Architecture (1756)73

Scrutiny of the female form as an emblem of beauty occurred in artistic circles and in theatrical circles. We have seen the latter in the case of Rose Parisot, a ballerina, but the fact was that eighteenth-century spectators paid special attention to the bodies of all female performers. Georgian-era reviews of actresses, for instance, almost inevitably focus on their “figures.” Essay titles such as “Miss Farren’s Abilities. Her figure and faults described,” “Miss Phillips, an actress of great expectation, Her figure,” or “Mrs. Bulkley’s figure and talents” reveal as much, as does the language of the reviews themselves.74 One example, entitled “Mrs. Siddons’s figure and person described,” reads as follows:

There never perhaps was a better stage figure seen than Mrs. Siddons. Her height is above the middle size; she is not at all inclined to the embonpoint, yet sufficiently muscular, to prevent all appearances of asperity, or acute angles in the variety of action, or the display of attitude; the symmetry of her person is captivating; … most people think her more beautiful than she is.75

Critics read actresses’ bodies as instruments of articulation, measuring physical and deportmental traits against histrionic theory as a means to gauge how well stage performers communicated character and emotion. In such analyses, the assessment of actresses’ bodies is a connoisseurial enterprise. It is in this vein that Oliver Goldsmith meditates on Mademoiselle Clarion’s proficiency as an actress:

Mademoiselle Clarion, a celebrated actress at Paris, seems to me the most perfect female figure I have ever seen upon any stage…. There are actresses here [in England] who have as much of what connoisseurs call statuary grace, … but they all fall infinitely short of her when the soul comes to give expression to the limbs, and animates every feature.76

But as with the viewing of the female figure in painting and sculpture, the viewing of an actress’s body could be purely for pleasure’s sake.77 John Hill in his treatise The Actor (1750) remarks on this:

There are a great many people that frequent the playhouses, who are less apt to be affected with those objects which are form’d to entertain the understanding, than with those destin’d to act principally on the senses. These gentlemen are …. drawn to the theatres by the names of the actresses[.] … Tell these people that there is a new actress to appear on the stage such a night, the first question they ask is, Is she handsome?78

Like his contemporaries, Hill is concerned with the problem of aesthetic spectatorship—that going to the theatre to view a “handsome” actress does more to stimulate the senses than to elevate the mind. Contemporary critical depictions, literary and graphic, attest to the ways in which the viewing of actresses was often bound up with the erotic. James Boaden, for instance, enthuses over the actress Dorothy Jordan saying,

Certainly no lady in my time was ever so decidedly marked out for comic delight.   … [Her] gestures … spoke a language infinitely more expressive than words—

… Of her beautiful compact figure she had the most captivating use; its spring, its wild activity, its quickness of turn. She made a grand deposit of her tucker, and  her bosom concealed everything but its own charms. The redundant curls of her hair, half shewing and half concealing the archness of her physiognomy, added to a playfulness, which … could not seem otherwise than natural and delightful.79

Boaden details the “delight” afforded by Jordan’s acting in terms of her physical movement—her “expressive” gesture, the “spring” of her figure, the motion of her bottom and breasts, and the profusion of serpentine curls on her head, which in partially hiding her face, make the actress appear to flirt coquettishly with onlookers.80 Actress’s bodies—like other idealized female bodies—raised key questions among artists, aesthetes, and the wider public over how to direct acts of beholding. Much of the sexualized discourse surrounding the assessment of actresses was tied to the fact of women’s recent appearance on English theatrical stages and to their attendant mass-market objectification. But as I suggested earlier, power relations between spectator and spectacle were hardly one-dimensional, and it is precisely within the critical composite of physical objectification and aesthetic assessment that women shaped their own self-representations and contributed to what Shearer West terms “body connoisseurship.”81

With the Restoration of the theatres in 1660 came a novel innovation: the appearance of actresses on the English stage. Women such as Moll Davis, Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Barry, Mary Saunderson (Mrs. Betterton), and Anne Bracegirdle became pioneers in the field of stage performance and in the fashioning of a public presence for women. Because some of these early actresses were also lovers of celebrated men—Gwyn and Davis, mistresses of King Charles II; and Barry, mistress of John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester—acting and prostitution were closely linked in the public eye. This view would persist throughout the eighteenth century under the aegis of actresses such as Lavinia Fenton, mistress (and later wife) of the Duke of Bolton; Margaret “Peg” Woffington, mistress of David Garrick; Mary Robinson, mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) and Colonel Banastre Tarleton; and Dorothy Jordan, mistress of the Duke of Clarence (later William IV). The fact that the neighborhoods surrounding the licensed theatres of Drury Lane and Covent Garden were known for their “bagnios” or brothels only served to underscore this cultural tie.82 The problem, however, was not merely one of sexual reputation or playhouse location, but of publicity. As Kristina Straub points out, “Actresses made a different spectacle of themselves than did the men, because the professionalism that helped to regularize and dignify, to some extent, the actor who made a spectacle of himself, simply associated the actress with prostitution.”83 Women were associated with the world’s oldest profession by sheer virtue of appearing on stage.

During the Restoration, the connection between the stage and the boudoir dovetailed relatively unproblematically with the theatre’s reputation for bawdy raucousness and displays of libertine privilege, but with the turn of the century came new conceptions of the stage as a model for society and regulator of the passions, and with them, new attitudes regarding the appropriate performance of masculinity and femininity. Consider Jeremy Collier’s influential Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), which declares that “The business of Plays is to recommend Virtue, and discountenance Vice,” derides rakish heroism, and cautions “the ladies” against exposure to theatrical obscenities.84 During the Georgian era, as the family became the center of the nation, dramas increasingly lauded men and women who exhibited filial and spousal devotion. Actresses who played these roles and maintained respectability in their own lives—women such as Catherine Clive, Hannah Pritchard, Mary Saunderson, and Sarah Siddons—were accordingly praised. Take, for example, William Whitehead’s poetic encomium to Pritchard, inscribed on her monument at Westminster Abbey:

  •   Her comic vein had ev’ry charm to please,
  •   ’Twas nature’s dictates breath’d with nature’s ease.
  •   E’en when her powers sustain’d the tragic load,
  •   Full, clear, and just, th’harmonious accents flow’d’
  •   And the big passions of her feeling heart
  •   Burst freely forth, and sham’d the mimic art.
  •   Oft, on the scene, with colours not her own,
  •   She painted vice, and taught us what to shun;
  •   One virtuous track her real life pursu’d.
  •   That nobler part was uniformly good.
  •   Each duty there to such perfection wrought,
  •   That, if the precepts fail’d, the example taught.85

Pritchard’s “virtuous track” in her “real life,” this poem asserts, informed her on stage acting to such a degree that it was not acting at all (“her feeling heart / … sham’d the mimic art”) but “nature’s” expression of good behavior.

Society called upon women to embrace domestic ideals associated with the private realm even as women became more visible in public spaces—as actresses, singers, dancers, and spectators. Although this may seem somewhat paradoxical, Harriet Guest has shown that the spread of such ideals required their public exhibition. In other words, the “moralisation of commercial society” necessitated the representation of feminine virtue and propriety within the civic arena.86 In this vein, Mary Jones’s antipastoral poem “On the Reasonableness of Her Coming to the Oxford Act” (1750) insists that female beauty is best displayed not in a country retreat but in a city at the theatre (The Oxford Act was a ballad opera performed by Oxford University students):

  •         Beauty, the bounty of indulgent Heav’n,
  • To favour’d Maids of mortal race was giv’n;
  • Not to retire with to some lonely scene,
  • But to shine forth, and to be seen of Men.
  •    .   .   .   .   .   
  •        Come then, and leave those unfrequented shades,
  • To dirty shepherds, and to homely maids:
  • To our Athenian Theatres repair,
  • And let the learn’d and gay admire thee there.
  • Inspire, and then reward some gen’rous youth,
  • Nurs’d in the arms of science, and of truth:
  • For trust me, Charlot, who no flatt’ry mean—
  • To be admir’d, you only need be seen.87

Hannah Cowley articulates a similar notion about the role of a public woman in her drama The Belle’s Stratagem (1780). In a conversation between the character Sir George Touchwood and Mrs. Racket, the former defines a “fine lady” as someone who, because she frequents public places, lacks virtue and generally brings “ruin” upon her husband. Mrs. Racket’s defiant reply reveals how such a view had become outré: “Now, sir, hear my definition of a fine lady … she has taste, elegance, spirit, understanding. In her manner she is free, in her morals nice. Her behaviour is undistinguishingly polite to her husband and to all others … In a word, a fine lady is the life of conversation, the spirit of society, the joy of the public!”88 A woman—or “English beauty”—when in public is no longer to be viewed as a fallen woman; women can be both visible and virtuous.89

Critics have read the contemporary emphasis on actresses’ respectability (or not) as “an increasingly regulated violence in the containment of feminine sexuality as it appears in the public realm.”90 And, as Katherine Shevelow has indicated, at the very time that women were becoming visible as readers, writers, and consumers, eighteenth-century culture produced a limited mode of femininity.91 To be sure, media and the stage policed female sexuality, commenting regularly on women’s alleged chastity or pruriency as a means to control and direct women’s behavior. But to read actresses solely as policed objects is to ignore the degree to which they had a hand in determining how they were viewed and how they, themselves, drew upon gender conventions. In her book Rival Queens, Felicity Nussbaum contends that eighteenth-century actresses, “the first female subjects in the public arena,” “were self-reflexive economic agents who actively shaped their identities to make celebrated properties of themselves … [and] learned to overcome the challenges of the possibility of female self-representation.”92 Actresses generated social and commercial appeal by manipulating how they were seen. Even as objects, they were hardly passive. In the upcoming paragraphs, I build on Nussbaum’s work by proposing that actresses played an essential role in shaping aesthetic concepts of beauty by engaging in the art world and directing the connoisseurial gaze.

Like the stage, the practice of connoisseurship went through a cultural transformation when the lifestyle of the dilettante had “to come to terms with standards of gentlemanly conduct as it was understood by a broader, and increasingly, middling, public.”93 This middling public promoted a newly delineated culture of polite sociability, characterized in part by its rejection of excess—sexual, emotional, fashionable, pedagogic, gustatory—in favor of moderation and attention to the public weal. Defined less by birth and more by refinement in behavior, a gentleman was becoming, in the meritocratic words of Samuel Richardson, someone who is known “not so much for being a handsome man; not so much for his birth and fortune; nor for this or that single worthiness; as for being, in the great and yet comprehensive sense of the word, a good man.”94 Connoisseurship, in order to obtain greater respectability, had to appear to distance itself from its louche and sybaritic foundations and enact an aesthetic of temperance: in short, a move from virtú to virtue, civitas to civility. Politeness did not entail the expulsion of or an alternative to the sensual, but it did require a performed (even if not “authentic”) display of restraint and self-control.95 Joseph Wright’s Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight (1765; Fig. 21, here in its later form as a print) exemplifies this shift through its display of connoisseurship as an act of polite sociability. It shows three men studying a miniature copy of the Borghese Gladiator. The statue is no “prop,” as Kelly observes; it is “central to their conversation.”96 One might imagine the group discussing the merits of the figure: its design, shape, and form. The viewer of the painting is invited to participate in this community and to complete the intellectual circle. Candlelight, then, is suggestive of more than literal illumination, and the spectacles worn by the figure on the left, rather than imply illicit peeping, connote dignified and careful examination. These connoisseurs practice a superior type of looking, one that is edifying, enlightening. The painting thus constitutes a social performance, between the men who play the role of aestheticians and between the image and the spectator, in which the image stages cultural elevation for the spectator and, in doing so, ennobles connoisseurship as a field of study. Many depictions of connoisseurship in the eighteenth century feature a homosocial grouping, but it is significant that the object under scrutiny, here, is that of a man.97 The Dilettanti focus on the phallus—most conspicuous in society member Richard Payne Knight’s publication Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786)—also sparked fears over connoisseurial luxury and effeminacy in the form of homoerotic desire,98 but it was especially in the viewing of the female form that tensions between the sensual and civil contemplation of art came to the fore.

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Figure 21. William Pether after Joseph Wright of Derby. Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight (1769).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

In 1769, the same year that saw William Pether’s engraving of Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, the Royal Academy of Art opened its doors to the public, a coincidence that nevertheless elucidates the period’s shifting models of aesthetic authority. For even as gentlemen connoisseurs sought increasing respectability as critics and collectors, accomplished painters, sculptors, architects, and engravers began to be viewed by the British public as more than tradesmen, to the degree that “The public … became disposed to accept the view that artists … should have greater authority than private collectors, whose concerns sometimes appeared disreputable.”99 The establishment of the Royal Academy resulted in the credentialing of painting as a skilled art and as key medium for moral improvement. With Joshua Reynolds as its first president, himself a member of the Society of Dilettanti since 1766, the Academy quickly became a new leader in the republic of taste. In his Discourses, a series of lectures delivered at the Academy to students, Dilettanti, and the fashionable set from 1769 to 1790, Reynolds tackles one of the most pressing concerns of the day—the relationship between beauty and art:

The Art which we profess has beauty for its object; … but the beauty of which we are in quest is general and intellectual; it is an idea that subsists only in the mind; … it is an idea residing in the breast of the artist, which he is always labouring to impart, and which he dies at last without imparting; but which he is yet so far able to communicate, as to raise the thoughts, and extend the views of the spectator; and which, by a succession of art, may be so far diffused, that its effects may extend themselves imperceptibly into publick benefits, and be among the means of bestowing on whole nations refinement of taste: which, if it does not lead directly to purity of manners, obviates at least their greatest depravation, by disentangling the mind from appetite, and conducting the thoughts through successive stages of excellence, till that contemplation of universal rectitude and harmony which began by Taste, may, as it is exalted and refined, conclude in Virtue.100

Artists must draw their subjects from the physical world, but their painting of those subjects should not, Reynolds argues, depict nature as it is but nature as an ideal. What Reynolds refers to elsewhere as “Ideal Beauty” is synonymous here with “Virtue” because it “disentangl[es] the mind from appetite.”101 To achieve “publick benefits,” sheer materiality in art must be shunned in favor of a higher aesthetic aim: imaginative grandeur and intellectual improvement. This improving objective was, according to many, best executed in the form of history painting, which depicts religious, mythological, allegorical, historical subjects. Achieving this aim in portraiture proved more complicated not only because portraiture was generally perceived to be a mechanical and commercial trade, a job one did for a commission rather than for the sake of art itself, but also because portraits, particularly of women, were prone to the sensual.102

Some images of actresses reveal as much—or, rather, reveal so much that they leave little to the imagination. Perhaps most notable among these are portraits of Nell Gwyn, one of the first actresses on the English stage and a well-known courtesan to King Charles II. Peter Lely’s Portrait of a Young Woman and Child, as Venus and Cupid (c. 1668; Fig. 22), a painting long thought to depict Gwyn, spotlights the actress’s flesh against a backdrop of white silk bedclothes, as an amoretto gazes down at her wispy girdle.103 Gwyn’s bared breasts symbolize her physical allure, youthful fertility, and status as a courtesan; the concealment of her groin, however, communicates mystery—a blending of disclosure and secrecy. Beauty is again made erotic and enigmatic. That said, this beauty is not beauty in the abstract but a real woman gazing back at the viewer—an actual individual who projects “to-be-looked-at-ness”—and yet the reciprocity between beholder and beheld disputes the notion of a male viewer as the sole “bearer of the look.”104 Adrian Hamilton writes that portraits in this period of court ladies, like this portrait of Gwyn, are more than seductive objects; they are “portraits of how women themselves liked to be shown.”105 Joseph Roach also contends that—

Even though she made a spectacle of herself in an age of painted beauties, there has always been more to Nell Gwyn’s image than meets the eye…. Within months of her acting debut, she had already become known by her first name to people she had never met, … This is true in part because … Gwyn, primitively but innovatively exploited … public intimacy, or the general circulation of their images in the absence of their persons.106

Gwyn, these critics suggest, was enterprising in matters of self-promotion; by shaping her public image, she generated a cult of personality around the circulation of her sexualized portraits. Sex most certainly sells, but sensual beauty operated for Gwyn as more than an advertisement for male viewing; the display of her body—and the fantasy of revelation that it fostered—served as a tool through which she cultivated celebrity status. Through her portraits, Gwyn performs a version of what Julia Fawcett terms “overexpression,” a form of self-representation that, even as it seduces viewers into believing that they are gaining access to an object, obviates true intimacy and disclosure, affording that object continued sovereignty over itself.107

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Figure 22. Peter Lely, Portrait of a Young Woman and Child, as Venus and Cupid (c. 1668).

Private collection.

Portraits of actresses circulated throughout the long eighteenth century as saleable commodities but never more so than during the last half of the eighteenth century: the “era of exhibitions.”108 The Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions drew artists and spectators en masse. The 1760 exhibition featured 130 works of art, and the 1785 exhibition 500. The 1761 exhibition boasted 20,000 visitors, which prompted the institution of admissions fees. In 1780, the exhibition gained £500 in revenue in one day and sold 20,000 catalogues. A contemporary observer reported, “The rage to see these exhibitions is so great that sometimes one cannot pass through the streets where they are.”109 Exhibitions and the flourishing market for portraits and mezzotints proved a boon for painter and sitter alike, providing broad public exposure and elevating their cultural ranking.110 “The portraitist could now conceive works to be seen by a wide public,” Desmond Shawe-Taylor remarks, “and in direct competition with other portraitists and history painters.”111 And as Kimberly Crouch reveals, “the most popular and accomplished actresses were, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, often the subject of portraits that represented them as fashionably dressed women of quality…. [Thomas] Gainsborough’s portraits of Sarah Siddons and Mary Robinson, and Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Elizabeth Farren, all present actresses as aristocratic women.”112 But social prestige—the move from being depicted as a mistress to an aristocrat—was not enough. Moral elevation—the impulse to reconcile the display of female beauty with an aesthetic concern for virtue and the ideology of the honorable woman—also became key.113 Portraits of actresses in the later eighteenth century register this concern. Martin Postle contends that Reynolds’s paintings of women “were designed to proffer an image that satisfied a collective male fantasy of idealized femininity. In particular, Reynolds’s quasi-allegorical portraits … presented sanitized images of female sexuality.”114 Again, of specific interest here is the way in which serving that fantasy was an objective of both the artist and the actress.

Reynolds painted his portrait of the famous comic actress Frances Abington—Mrs Abington as the Comic Muse (1764–1768, 1772-1773; Fig. 23)—a decade prior to her debut as Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777). Despite her later affiliation with this signature role, her public persona became associated less with scandal than with respectable celebrity. Her love affair with the Irish MP Francis Needham, her separation from her husband, and rumors that she was once a flower-seller and prostitute did not prevent her becoming widely recognized for her moral virtues and chaste lifestyle.115 As one commentator observed, “The decency of her behavior in private life has attracted the notice and gained her the esteem of many persons of quality of her own sex,” and according to a nineteenth-century theatre historian, “With Mrs Abington came a species of excellence which the stage seems never before to have boasted in the same perfection. The higher parts in comedy have been performed chastely and truly, perhaps in these particulars [none] more so than by this actress.”116 Reynolds’s portrait draws upon Abington’s sex appeal as a popular actress but ultimately accentuates her “chaste” approach to comedy. Tastefully accoutered, comic mask in hand, Abington is the living embodiment of the muse Thalia, the statue next to which she poses. Another art figure made flesh, Abington’s blushing face and lithe body convey a red-blooded vitality absent from the nearby sculpture. But while her look is somewhat flirtatious (a common representational trope for comediennes), the sexual frisson excited by her body and by that look is tempered by the solemn and sophisticated allegorical atmosphere—a history setting that raises the portrait to the level of high art. Gill Perry writes that “the activity of controlled flirtation could … sometimes enabl[e] the actress to negotiate her social position and more desirable constructions of her character.”117 This portrait of “controlled flirtation” was likely commissioned by Abington as an advertisement when she became an actress at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and Nicholas Penny affirms that Abington played a key role in its design, returning on multiple occasions to Reynolds’s studio to have him repaint her hair and dress to reflect current trends.118 The painting accordingly presents Abington as a savvy self-promoter and consumer of current-day fashions, yet it also, by removing her from the contemporary stage and placing her in a lofty classical milieu, presents the actress as an icon of the latest feminine style: elevated beauty.

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Figure 23. Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Abington as The Comic Muse (1764–1768; 1772–1773, hair and dress repainted). Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust). Acc. no. 2304.

Photo: © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

Because of their public visibility and sexualized status, actresses were subject to prurient satire, and perhaps none more so than Dorothy Jordan and Mary Robinson. In James Gillray’s Lubber’s-Hole,—alias—The Crack’d Jordan (1791; Fig. 24), Jordan is rendered as a chipped and broken chamber pot—a “jordan.” The fact that the pot is cracked refers to her damaged morality and also visually reduces Jordan to a vagina being entered by a clumsy Duke of Clarence. The print The Discovery, a New Comedy Acted in Hyde-Park (1783; Fig. 25) depicts Robinson falling from her horse and illustrates a narrative that appeared in a previous issue of The Rambler’s Magazine:

Mrs. Robinson, alighting from her horse in Hyde-Park, the other day, found the saddle so ill inclined to part with its lovely burthen, that it rudely caught hold of her clothes, and, for some minutes, placed Fair frailty in that unblushing state of nature, which rivetted the wondering eye of Adam on the naked beauties of the astonished Eve. The Colonel [Banastre Tarleton] did all in his power to cover the  retreat, which after a smart ocular fire from the attacking crowd, was happily effected, without any material injury to the lady’s modest feelings.119

Robinson’s “naked beauties” are temporarily exposed to the “ocular fire” of onlookers, two of whom look through quizzing glasses up her skirt. The title of the print, stating that the scene is from “a New Comedy Acted in Hyde-Park,” further implies that these dilettantish viewers are akin to theatregoers who gaze on actresses’ bodies with lascivious intent. Representations of actresses such as these—titillatingly laced with double entendre—were pervasive in the Georgian era, but I want to suggest that their significance lies less in their pornographic eroticism than in the way that they address momentous aesthetic concerns over the relationship between knowledge and pleasure. Much like graphic images satirizing connoisseurs, caricatures such as these simultaneously project and interrogate the idea of actresses’ bodies as objects of beauty to be exposed, penetrated, and possessed.

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Figure 24. James Gillray, Lubber’s-Hole—alias—The Crack’d Jordan (1791).

© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 25. The Discovery, a New Comedy Acted in Hyde-Park. The Rambler’s Magazine (May 1783).

© The British Library Board, Cup.820.a.12.

As we have seen in the case of Abington, portraits of actresses by Royal Academy painters offered an alternative narrative of the actress as object of beauty—one that figured the connoisseurial appreciation of the actress’s body in more decorous terms. John Hoppner’s large-scale portrait Mrs Jordan as the Comic Muse (1786; Fig. 26), first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1786 and engraved by Thomas Park in 1787, mobilizes mythological features of history painting in its depiction of the actress as muse turning toward Euphrosyne (the goddess of mirth and the incarnation of grace and beauty) who repulses the advances of voyeuristic satyr. In the image, Jordan appears an object of libidinous desire with her lively body, sweet expression, rouged cheeks, and exposed arms and ankle; even so, her movement away from the satyr is indicative of virtue. If the satyr is a stand-in for the sexualized male theatregoer, as Claire Tomalin contends, then the painting also performs an allegory about the grotesque ogling of actresses and the laudable feminine reaction to that look.120 A viewer of the painting, even if he might identify with the predatory leer of the satyr, is called upon to recognize its inappropriateness as a kind of viewing. Given the allegorical dimension of the portrait and the etymological link between “satyr” and “satire,” the image may also depict Jordan’s dignified response to the base and ribald caricatures of her.

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Figure 26. John Hoppner, Mrs Jordan as the Comic Muse (1786).

Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Portraiture could thus serve as a vital tool for renegotiating an actress’s relationship to contemporary codes of looking, and if anyone understood the power of the visual image to self-advertise, obscure social class, and elevate one’s status, Mary Robinson did. Anca Munteanu argues that “in the 1780s Robinson deftly uses the medium of portraiture to counterbalance the vicious, pornographic attacks from the many caricatures whose target she had become and … to acquire visibility as a member of polite society.”121 Portraits of Robinson, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Angelica Kauffman, Joshua Reynolds, and George Romney, among other notable artists of the day, speak to the ways in which Robinson cultivated, through portraiture, a kinetic yet enigmatic persona—one that offered a fantasy of access while maintaining mystery and one that dignified her through narratives of heartache and loss. The sobriquet “Peridita” in Gainsborough’s celebrated full-length portrait Mrs Mary Robinson (Perdita) (1781; Fig. 27) derives from her starring role in Florizel and Perdita, David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. In 1779, during a royal command performance of the play, Robinson captivated the seventeen-year-old Prince of Wales, and a notorious romance between the newly styled “Florizel” and “Perdita” ensued shortly thereafter. Their affaire de coeur—a crossed-class liaison between the heir apparent and a merchant’s daughter—became the subject of heated gossip and formally launched Robinson’s career as a courtesan and high-society sybarite. But Gainsborough painted her after her relationship with the Prince ended and after her retirement from the stage at the close of the 1779–1780 season.122 “Perdita” therefore functions on multiple levels, referring to her past stage character, to her one-time relationship with the Prince, and to her current fortune as the “lost one.” In the painting, Robinson is seated in a pastoral landscape in a fashionable white gown, appearing at once as a society beauty and as a child of nature. She holds a miniature portrait of the Prince, a “pledge of eternal love,” and next to her is a dog.123 The miniature and the dog stand as classic symbols for fidelity, as Anne Mellor has noted,124 but Robinson looks at neither of them. Instead, her meditative gaze extends beyond the borders of the painting. “By having Robinson glancing up and away from the viewer,” Munteanu observes, “Gainsborough elevates her into a realm that remains inaccessible to both the space of the miniature and that of the judging world.”125

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Figure 27. Thomas Gainsborough, Mrs Mary Robinson (Perdita) (1781).

© The Wallace Collection, London.

Joshua Reynolds captures a similar pose in his portrait Mrs Mary Robinson (1783–1784; Fig. 28), completed after Robinson had suffered partial paralysis from an illness she contracted while travelling to Dover in pursuit of Tarleton. William Birch engraved it under the title “Contemplation” (1787), and Robinson authorized another engraving of Reynolds’s painting by Thomas Burke for use as the frontispiece to her Poems of 1791. Again dressed in white, Robinson looks out toward the stormy ocean in an attitude of introspection. The recent discovery of pentimenti in this painting has revealed that Robinson’s right arm was originally raised in a “penseroso” pose, with her chin resting on her hand.126 Both the Gainsborough and Reynolds portraits register the sitter’s stoic melancholy in the aftermath of lost love. Though the images acknowledge Robinson as a courtesan, their poetic portrayal of her as a figure of loss and sublimated mourning renders her a figure of sympathy rather than derision. The fact that Robinson played a key role in scripting the narratives of these paintings has been asserted by a variety of scholars; Robinson’s friendship with Reynolds and comprehension of his aesthetic aims also support this notion.127 In her poem “To Sir Joshua Reynolds” (1789), which she later incorporated into her long poem Ainsi va le Monde (1791), she pays tribute to the artist’s ability to capture “exterior grace” while at the same time “mark[ing] the line / That stamps perfection on the form divine.” Reynolds excels at portraiture, Robinson argues, not just because he limns “the dimpled smile on Beauty’s face” but because he captures higher intellectual and ethereal qualities: “The veil transparent o’er the breast of snow: / The Statesman’s thought” and “The Poet’s fire.”128

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Figure 28. Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Mary Robinson, (1783–1784).

© The Wallace Collection, London.

Reynolds’s pinnacle achievement in this regard—the elevation of the actress’s portrait to the realm of fine art—is his iconic painting Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784; Fig. 29), engraved in stipple in 1787 by Francis Haward, in which the actress sits enthroned as Melpomene, wearing a rich, caramel-colored robe with grapelike strands of pearls knotted at her breast. Engaged in deep thought, Siddons is flanked by the Aristotelian figures of Pity (left) and Fear (also often identified as Terror) (right). After seeing the portrait during its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1784, one reviewer opined,

Thank Heaven! we have at last arrived at something to admire and wonder at…. Sir Joshua’s works are a feast for the mind, … The correspondence of parts, both in form and colour, in this picture, make it evident, that the whole proceeded from the most poetic mind, and the most elegant hand that now wields the pencil. The dignity of character—the sublime effect—the richness and harmony of colouring, are all wrought up to the highest degree of excellence. We do not find, that this elevated genius has failed in any single instance. The same refined understanding[,] eye[,] and hand have been mutually employed, and kept equal pace with each other in this most distinguished of all modern works.129

Reynolds’s “genius” in this painting, his “feast for the mind,” was not, however, entirely his own but a product of his collaboration with Siddons. In her Reminiscences, the actress writes, “When I attended him for the first sitting, … he took me by the hand, saying, ‘Ascend your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some grand Idea of The Tragick Muse.’ I walkd up the steps & seated myself instantly in the attitude in which She now appears. This idea satisfyd him so well that he, without one moments hesitation, determined not to alter it.’”130 Siddons likely suggested not only the pose but also her hair and costume. In recounting one of her stage performances, she states that Reynolds—

approved very much of my costumes and my hair without powder, which at that time was used in great profusion, with a reddish-brown tint and a great quantity of pomatum, which, well kneaded together, modeled the fair ladies tresses into large curls like demycannon. My locks were generally braided into a small compass so as to ascertain the size and shape of my head[.] … My short waist was to him a pleasing contrast to the long stiff stays and hoop petticoats which were then the fashion even on the stage, [and] obtaind his unqualified approbation.131

Her braided hair and simplified dress, elements featured in his portrait of her, captured Reynolds’s eye: she was a living antique. But if Siddons was turned into a work of art, it is because she was herself an artisan who engendered this transformation. As James Boaden observed in his biography of her, “The true actress is in every thing an artist.”132 And Siddons was. In addition to excelling on stage, she took sculpting lessons at Strawberry Hill from Anne Seymour Damer, modeling portraits of her family members, including her brother John Philip Kemble as Coriolanus; of classical and historical subjects (her bust of Milton’s Adam was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1802); and of herself (Fig. 30).133 Given her talents, it is impossible to read Siddons as a mere vehicle for male desire and creativity.134 Thomas Campbell’s description of her acting reveals the degree to which she achieved the aesthetic ideals of the day:

Her lofty beauty, her graceful walk and gesture, and her potent elocution, were endowments which at the first sight marked her supremacy on the stage. But it … was no individual or insulated beauty, that we exclusively admired…. [I]t was the high judgment which watched over all these qualifications, the equally vigilant sympathy which threw itself into the assumed character … that rivetted the experienced spectator’s admiration.135

Campbell defines Siddons’s beauty less by “her graceful walk and gesture, and her potent elocution,” than by an intellectual impulse, a “high judgment” that moves the “experienced spectator” beyond and above these initial “individual or insulated” considerations. Siddons was an object of connoisseurial interest and admiration largely because she formed herself into an exceptional object—one so awe-inspiring that contemporary critics often refer to her performances as more sublime than beautiful.136 In the roles of artist and aesthetician, she created spectacles so enthralling that they teased her viewers out of thought.

***

“The beautiful is both a baffling and rhetorically complex concept,” Robert W. Jones writes, “and a part of a decisive matrix of values and judgements at the heart of polite discourse.”137 This article has demonstrated how changing concepts of beauty were played out in eighteenth-century connoisseurial circles through representations of women’s bodies. It has argued that the sexualized iconography of dilettantish connoisseurship did more than expose the erotic underpinnings of homosocial camaraderie; it operated as a touchstone for contemporary anxieties over the social and moral implications of aesthetic production and cognition. Furthermore, such iconography ironized and destabilized the very thing it showcased—the connoisseurial quest to secure and to know. Rather than cementing “power, exclusivity, and maleness” through the figuring of woman as a conquered and shared “other,”138 the portrayal of sexual otherness in women—their spectacular unknowability—disrupted convivial and intellectual assuredness, exposing the tenuous nature of claims to the full comprehension of beauty.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 29. Joshua Reynolds, Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1783–1784).

© Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections, San Marino, California.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 30. Sarah Siddons, Self-Portrait Sarah Siddons (c. 1820).

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In addition, this article has shown how over the course of the Georgian era, from the establishment of the Society of Dilettanti to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, the lubricious gaze of the dilettantish connoisseur lost sway in a world that began to favor the display of a more modest modus spectare—one that would influence art criticism for well over a century to come.139 Consider Stephen Daedalus’s discussion with reference to a classical nude—the Venus of Praxiteles—in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916):

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. These are kinetic emotions. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.140

In these lines, the cultivated viewer eschews indulgence in the physical senses of pleasure and disgust in favor of mentally elevated contemplation. Notably, the female body once again functions as a key standard in a conversation about how to view art properly. To understand the history of connoisseurship, then, one must consider its fundamental relationship to the representation of women as figures of beauty. As we have seen, to do so is also to address issues over sex and gender, desire and intimacy, visibility and opacity, private and public display. It is also to address connoisseurship as a staging or enactment of socially sanctioned kinds of looking.

It is especially in this latter vein—the notion of performance as the site of connoisseurship—that this article has also analyzed connoisseurship as a theatrical phenomenon, wherein audience members viewed actresses’ bodies as works of art. Through their collaborations with portraitists, actresses exerted influence over how their bodies were visually consumed. They harnessed versions of the female imaginary—celebrity courtesan (Gwyn), chaste comedienne (Abington), lively woman of integrity (Jordan), the wistful lover (Robinson), and sublime tragedienne (Siddons)—as ways to respond to and shape their own representations to the degree that, particularly in the case of Siddons, they became connoisseurs and artists themselves. By becoming objects with agency, they practiced an early, proto-feminist version of Carolee Schneemann’s performance-based artwork Interior Scroll (1975; Fig. 31), in which Schneemann, her body contoured in dark paint and resembling a pedestaled sculpture, not only comes to life in a Pygmalion-style fulfillment of masculine fantasy but also talks back.141 In the act of reading a scroll unraveled from her vagina, Schneemann acknowledged the historical representation of the female body as a manifestation of beauty and male desire and responded to that figuration by reclaiming the sign of feminine mystery and otherness, speaking from it, and thus introducing a woman’s voice into an otherwise male-dominated paradigm.

Eighteenth-Century Connoisseurship and the Female BodyClick to view larger

Figure 31. Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll (Performance, 1975).

Photo: Sally Dixon. From Carolee Schneemann, Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (MIT Press), p. 152. Author’s collection.

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Notes:

(1.) I am indebted to Julia H. Fawcett and Alex Eric Hernandez, as well as to my anonymous readers, for their ideas and advice on early drafts of this essay. Jonathan Richardson, Two Discourses (London: Printed for W. Churchill, 1719), 2nd Discourse: 7, 8. First emphasis, mine. Richardson, an influential painter, art collector, and author, was not the first to promote the practice of connoisseurship. For an overview of connoisseurial theory in the Western world, see Carol Gibson-Wood, Studies in the Theory of Connoisseurship from Vasari to Morelli (New York: Garland, 1988).

(2.) Richardson’s statement that connoisseurship in England is “yet scarce heard of” was only somewhat true. The word “connoisseur” was imported from France, deriving from the now obsolete “conoistre,” “to know,” and its first recorded use in English is in Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees (1714), wherein connoisseurs are “judges of painting.” See Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, 1714, ed. F. B. Kaye, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), vol. 1, p. 326. As Jason M. Kelly has observed, “Dilettanti, virtuosi, antiquaries, and connoisseurs were closely related social typologies during the eighteenth century,” and Brian Cowan has suggested that the English virtuoso was, in many ways, a “connoisseur avant la lettre.” See Jason M. Kelly, The Society of Dilettanti: Archaeology and Identity in the British Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 8, and Brian Cowan, “An Open Elite: The Peculiarities of Connoisseurship in Early Modern England,” Modern Intellectual History 1, no. 2 (2004): 151–183. By mid-century, the term “connoisseur” had evolved to refer more broadly to any competent judge in matters of taste; see Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “connoisseur.”

(3.) Richardson, 64. “Connoissance” is the now obsolete spelling of the French word “connaissance,” which means “knowledge” but is also indicative of “familiarity,” “expertise,” “learning,” and “science.”

(4.) On early modern “cabinets of curiosity” and on the concept of curiosity itself, see Ken Arnold, Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006), Patrick Mauries, Cabinets of Curiosities (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011), Arthur MacGregor, Tradescant’s Rarities: Essays on the Foundation of the Ashmolean Museum 1683 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), and Barbara M. Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

(5.) Benedict, 159, 201. For traditional accounts of connoisseurship’s relationship to curiosity and virtuosity, see Walter E. Houghton, “The English Virtuoso in the Seventeenth Century,” 2 parts, Journal of the History of Ideas 3, nos. 1 and 2 (1942): 51–73, 190–219, and John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 253–256. For more nuanced studies on this subject, see Claire Pace, “Virtuoso to Connoisseur: Some Seventeenth-Century English Responses to the Visual Arts,” The Seventeenth Century 2, no. 2 (1987): 167–188; Harry Mount, “The Monkey and the Magnifying Glass: Constructions of the Connoisseur in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Oxford Art Journal 29, no. 2 (2006): 167–183; Cowan; and Benedict. For a helpful overview of the critical evolution of this topic, see Kelly, 8–11.

(6.) Richardson, contents page, Sect. IV. Richardson’s Discourses had a significant impact how art was understood and analyzed throughout the eighteenth century; new editions of his book were published in 1725, 1773, and 1792, and his ideas were further disseminated in Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses on Art (1769–1790).

(7.) Benedict maintains, “By the mid-eighteenth century, the consumption of curiosity through experiences and objects denoted connoisseurship…. Authorized by scientific precedent and popularity, the manner of informed, refined inquiry into contemporary as well as historical matters legitimized … curiosity [connoisseurship] as social ambition—at least for some…. [M]idcentury authors, journalists, and critics … [i]n their responses to the contemporary ambivalence toward aristocratic ideals, … redefined the ‘connoisseur’ as a fashionable expert[.] … Thus, curiosity [as connoisseurship] garnered a new class signature” (158–159).

(9.) The concept of virtue in the eighteenth century was complex, nebulous, and ever changing; for a lucid study of the subject, see David Morse, The Age of Virtue: British Culture from the Restoration to Romanticism (New York: Palgrave, 2000). For more on civic humanist associations in the eighteenth century between taste and virtue, see Third Earl of Shaftesbury [Anthony Ashley Cooper], Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, etc., 2 vols., ed. and intro. John M. Robertson (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963); John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: The Body of the Public (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 1–68; Carol Gibson-Wood, Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 7–9; and Robert W. Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 16–36.

(10.) For information on the Dilettanti and Italian opera, see Carole Taylor, “From Losses to Lawsuit: Patronage of the Italian Opera in London by Lord Middlesex, 1739–45,” Music and Letters 68, no. 1 (1987): 1–25. In 1749, John Gwynn published An Essay on Design: Including Proposals for Erecting a Public Academy to be Supported by Voluntary Subscription (Till a Royal Foundation can be Obtained) for Educating the British Youth in Drawing, and the Several Arts Depending Thereon (London and Dublin, 1749), but only after it had been vetted by the Society of Dilettanti. According to Jason M. Kelly, the Dilettanti may have been instrumental in bringing the proposal to the attention of Frederick, Prince of Wales, an act commemorated by Francis Hayman, one of the founding members of the 1768 Royal Academy of Arts, in his painting The Muses Paying Homage to Frederick, Prince of Wales and Princess Augusta (c. 1750–1751). For more on this topic, see Kelly, 92–95.

(11.) Brewer observes, “Through their publications, the research they sponsored and the fame of the individual collections of members, the Dilettanti set the tone, shaped the language, and decided the agenda for the conversation about antiquity and art for much of the century” (259).

(12.) Horace Walpole famously quipped, “There is a new subscription formed for an opera next year, to be carried on by the Dilettanti, a club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk.” See Horace Walpole, “To Mann, Thursday 14 April 1743 OS,” The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, ed. W. S. Lewis, 48 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1937–1983), vol. 18, 208–211, p. 211.

(13.) “Dilettanti” is the plural form of “dilettante,” an Italian word that in the eighteenth century did not carry a negative connotation and denoted “a lover of music or painting” (OED).

(14.) I borrow the first of these word pairings from Bruce Redford’s book title; see Bruce Redford, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008).

(15.) For a study of connoisseurship in a transnational context that reads the colonizing West as masculine and the foreign as feminine, wherein slaves and colonial others become exotic “collectibles,” see Nandini Bhattacharya, Slavery, Colonialism and Connoisseurship: Gender and Eighteenth-Century Literary Transnationalism (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006). The sexualized male body was also a reference point for eighteenth-century connoisseurs, with the book Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786) by Society of Dilettanti member Richard Payne Knight being the most famous example. See Richard Payne Knight, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, Lately Existing at Isernia, in the Kingdom of Naples: In Two Letters; One from Sir William Hamilton, K.B. His Majesty’s Minister at the Court to Naples, to Sir Joseph Banks, Bart. President of the Royal Society; and the other from a Person Residing at Isernia: To Which is Added, A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, and Its Connexion with the Mystic Theology of the Antients by R. P. Knight, esq. (London: T. Spilsbury, 1786). For more on Payne Knight, see G. S. Rousseau, “The Sorrows of Priapus: Anti-Clericalism, Homosocial Desire, and Richard Payne Knight,” in Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), pp. 101–153. See also Redford, 113–128. For pictorial commentary on connoisseurial homoeroticism, see Johan Zoffany’s painting The Tribuna of the Uffizi (1772–1777), which, in addition to depicting a room full of men viewing the Venus de’ Medici and Titian’s Venus of Urbino, features Thomas Patch, a homosexual artist, pointing to a suggestive sculpture of two nude wrestlers.

(16.) John Wilkes, “Curious Description of West Wycombe Church, &c.” The New Foundling Hospital for Wit. New Edition. 6 vols. (London: J. Debrett, 1786), 3: 75–80, p. 78.

(17.) Terry Castle, “Eros and Liberty in the English Masquerade, 1710–90,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 17, no. 2 (1983): 156–176, p. 157.

(19.) See Lionel Cust and Sir Sidney Colvin, History of the Society of Dilettanti (London: Macmillan and Co., 1914), Kelly, and Redford.

(20.) Brewer, 263; Kelly, 39, 77; Redford, 2; Shearer West, “Libertinism and the Ideology of Male Friendship in the Portraits of the Society of the Dilettanti,” Eighteenth-Century Life 16 (May 1992): 76–104.

(21.) Redford, 12.

(22.) West writes, “The Society quite deliberately perpetuated themes of atheism and sex designed to associate the concerns of its members with the concept of republican freedom”; see West, “Libertinism,” 91.

(23.) Kelly, 11.

(24.) I borrow the term “body connoisseurship” from Shearer West; see Shearer West, “Body Connoisseurship,” Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture 1776–1812 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 151–170. In this insightful essay, West discusses how “commentators attempted to develop parallels between art and acting,” by transferring aesthetic language into their assessments of actors’ and actresses’ bodies, from David Garrick to James Quin to Sarah Siddons (151). For more in this vein, see West, “Beauty, Ageing and the Body Politic,” in The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, ed. Gill Perry (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011), pp. 106–119.

(25.) Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1992), p. 71. Qtd. in Redford, 12.

(26.) Ann Bermingham, “Elegant Females and Gentlemen Connoisseurs: The Commerce in Culture and Self-Image in Eighteenth-Century England,” in The Consumption of Culture 1600–1800: Image, Object, Text, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 489–513, p. 502.

(27.) Peter de Bolla, The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape, and Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 5.

(28.) Richardson, 44–45.

(29.) Daniela Bleichmar, “Learning to Look: Visual Expertise across Art and Science in Eighteenth-Century France,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 46, no. 1 (2012): 85–111, p. 106.

(30.) Brewer, 277.

(31.) Alexander Pope, “Epistle IV. To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington,” Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope, ed. Aubrey Williams, Riverside ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969), pp. 189–196, ll. 145–148, p. 194.

(32.) Scholars believe that Timon’s villa in Pope’s poem is a satire on a variety of estates. See Ian Gordan, “Alexander Pope: An Epistle to Burlington,” The Literary Encyclopedia, first published January 24, 2002. Accessed January 28, 2017.

(33.) Wilkes, 78.

(34.) James G. Turner, “The Sexual Politics of Landscape: Images of Venus in Eighteenth-Century Poetry and Landscape Gardening,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 11 (1982): 343–366, p. 357.

(35.) Pope, ll. 50–56, p. 191.

(36.) John Barrell, The Birth of Pandora and the Division of Knowledge (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1992), pp. 63–87.

(39.) Turner, 349.

(40.) Abigail Zitin, “Thinking Like an Artist: Hogarth, Diderot, and the Aesthetics of Technique,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 46, no. 4 (2013): 555–570, p. 556.

(41.) William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, ed. and intro. Ronald Paulson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 33. Emphasis in original.

(42.) Ronald Paulson, “Introduction,” The Analysis of Beauty, by William Hogarth (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. xvii–lxii, p. xxiv, xxxiii. For more on Hogarth and the sensual, see Annie Richardson, “From the Moral Mound to the Material Maze: Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty,” Luxury in the Eighteenth Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods, ed. Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 119–134.

(43.) Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757, ed. and intro. Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 101. “Beauty is the very thing,” writes W.J.T Mitchell, that “Burke thought could be viewed from a safe position of superior strength.” See W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 172.

(44.) Burke, 105.

(45.) Virgil, The Aeneid of Virgil: Books I-VI, ed. and intro. T. E. Page (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964), 3.96, p. 48.

(46.) Katherine Mannheimer, Print, Visuality, and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Satire: “The Scope in Ev’ry Page” (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 25.

(47.) Horace, Horace on the Art of Poetry: Latin Text, English Prose Translation, Introduction and Notes, Together with Ben Jonson’s English Verse Rendering, Ed. Edward Henry Blakeney (London: Scholartis Press, 1928), ll. 48–49 and 51, pp. 23–24.

(48.) Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works, Volume I: Introduction and Catalogue (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965), p. 141.

(49.) In his Apology for Painters, Hogarth observes that in England’s competitive art market only portrait painters have a chance of earning “a tolerable lively hood.” See William Hogarth, Apology for Painters, in Michael Kitson, “Hogarth’s ‘Apology for Painters,’” The Walpole Society 41 (1966–1968), pp. 46–111, p. 99.

(50.) For detailed study of Cosway’s painting, see Viccy Coltman, Classical Sculpture and the Culture of Collecting in Britain since 1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 159–190.

(51.) For a nonsatirical depiction of quizzing glass use, see the painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, The Royal Academy Exhibition at Somerset House (1787).

(52.) George Colman the Younger, Eccentricities for Edinburgh: Containing Poems, entitle’d A Lamentation to Scotch Booksellers. Fire; or the Sun-poker. Mr. Champernoune. The Luminous Historian; or Learning in Love. London Rurality; or Miss Bunn, and Mrs. Bunt (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1816), pp. 13–53, p. 30.

(53.) Kelly, 32.

(54.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Italian Journey, trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (New York: Pantheon, 1962), pp. 199–200.

(55.) Qtd. in Richard Wendorf, Emma Hamilton’s Attitudes by Frederick Rehberg (Cambridge, MA: The Houghton Library, 1990), n.pag.

(56.) For an additional print illustrating French ballet dancing and its association with classical motifs, see James Gillray’s Operatical Reform; or la dance a l’eveque (14 March 1798); of the three female dancers depicted, Olive Baldwin, Thelma Wilson, and Michael Burden have identified Rose Didelot on the right and “possibly” Rose Parisot on the left. See Olive Baldwin, Thelma Wilson, and Michael Burden, “Images of Dancers on the London Stage,” Music in Art 36, no. 1/2 (Spring-Fall 2011): 53–91, p. 58.

(57.) Jeffrey N. Cox discusses the idea of “erotic classicism” in relation to Emma Hamilton. See Jeffrey N. Cox, Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 168–179, p. 172.

(58.) Cox, 176.

(59.) The British Museum website identifies the figures next to Burke (right to left) as the Duke of Bedford, Lord Loughborough, and Lord Erskine.

(60.) The Hon. Shute Barington, Bishop of Durham figures in visual satire due to his protests against the risqué dress of ballerinas. In his address to the House of Lords on March 2, 1798, he declared that the French “female dancers, who, by the allurement of the most indecent attitudes and most wanton theatrical exhibitions succeeded but too effectually in loosening and corrupting the moral feelings of the people”; see William Cobbett, John Wright, and Thomas Curson Hansard, The Parliamentary History of England (London: T. C. Hansard, 1803), p. 1308. See also A M(eye)nute Regulation of the Opera Step- or an Episcopal Examination (1798), a print in which the Bishop again wields a spyglass and peeps up the skirt of a French dancer. Though the dancer featured is Madame Hilligsberg, the print is a direct echo of those depicting Parisot.

(61.) Armstrong observes that in eighteenth-century conduct books, “a woman’s participation in public spectacle … injures her, for as an object of display, she always loses value as a subject.” See Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 77.

(62.) According to the anonymous poem “The Connoisseur. A Satire on the modern Men of Taste” (London: Printed for Robert Turbutt, 1735), the practice of connosseurship is emasculating:

  • And what the girls were deem’d in Ages past,
  • Are our Top Beaux, and modern Men of Taste.
  • But now so lessen’d is the Progeny,
  • That the next Race will only Women be;
  • And tir’d Nature, having lost its Force,
  • Stop Propagation, and so end its Course. (p. 10)

(63.) See Robert W. Jones, 6.

(64.) Samuel Pepys articulates this desire in a diary entry for March 8, 1666: “After dinner I took coach and away to Hales’s, where my wife is sitting; and endeed, her face and neck, which are now finished, do so please me, that I am not myself almost, nor was not all the night after, in writing of my letters, in consideration of the fine picture that I shall be master of.” See Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William J. Matthews, 11 vols. (London: Bell, 1970–1983), vol. 7, p. 69.

(65.) For a reading of these images as forms of pornography, see Bradford Mudge, The Whore’s Story: Women, Pornography, and the British Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 235–237.

(66.) Karen Harvey comments that “despite the claim that the female body in eighteenth-century texts was ‘measured, mapped and known’, many metaphors adopted in the representation of female genetalia appear to be designed precisely to convey a sense of unknowability.” See Karen Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 105–106.

(67.) Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (London: 1755), vol. 1. “Connoisseur.”

(68.) I therefore disagree with Bermingham’s statement that for the connoisseur the beautiful woman “was the blank screen on which masculine desire could project itself…. she was an object of aesthetic exchange among men, a rare commodity to be shared, bartered, envied, and … discarded. She existed to be consumed as a pure image” (507).

(69.) On this subject, Kristina Straub writes that “spectatorship … [is] not a stable authority, but … a continuously shifting site of struggle for control that plays out in terms of gender and sexual difference.” See Kristina Straub, Sexual Suspects: Eighteenth-Century Players and Sexual Ideology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 19.

(70.) Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 92 (February 2, 1751) in The Rambler, ed. W. J. Bate & Albrecht B. Strauss, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 14 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1969), vol. 4, p. 121.

(71.) Burke 117. David Hume likewise observes, “The sentiments of men often differ with regard to beauty … Every voice is united in applauding elegance, propriety, simplicity, spirit … But when critics come to particulars, this seeming unanimity vanishes; and it is found, that they have affixed a very different meaning to their expressions.” See David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, rev. ed., ed. and intro. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), p. 227.

(72.) Oliver Goldsmith, “Remarks on Our Theatres,” The Bee (Saturday, October 6, 1759) The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith (London: Macmillan and Co., 1884), p. 356.

(73.) Isaac Ware, A Complete Body of Architecture. Adorned with Plans and Elevations, from Original Designs (London: Printed for J. Rivington, L. Davis, et. al., 1768), p. 574; qtd. in Coltman, 159.

(74.) The English Review, or an Abstract of English and Foreign Literature (London: J. Murray, 1783), n.pag.

(75.) Anon., English Review, 259–260. In his Memoirs of Mrs Siddons, James Boaden reproduces a version of this account from 1782; see James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), Vol. 1, pp. 287–289. In her essay “Body Connoisseurship,” Shearer West quotes from Boaden’s reproduced version; see West, “Body,” 161.

(76.) Oliver Goldsmith, “On Our Theatres,” The Bee (Saturday, October 13, 1759), The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith (London: Macmillan and Co., 1884), p. 367.

(77.) As West observes, “Body connoisseurship seemed, on the one hand, to be about decorum and propriety, but on the other, it was about voyeurism and desire” (“Body,” 158).

(78.) John Hill, The Actor: A Treatise on the Art of Playing, Interspersed with Theatrical Anecdotes, Critical Remarks on Plays, and Occasional Observations on Audiences (London: Printed for R. Griffiths, 1750), p. 52.

(79.) Boaden, Siddons, Vol. 2, pp. 182–183.

(80.) For more on Dorothy Jordan’s curls, see Gill Perry, Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768–1820 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 87–103.

(81.) See note 24.

(82.) For more on the association of the London patent theatres with brothels, see Brewer, 348–350.

(83.) Straub, 101.

(84.) Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (London: Printed for S. Keble, 1698), p. 1.

(85.) The London Evening Post for November 5–7, 1772 (Issue 6996), p. 3, features the full inscription. For more on Pritchard, this inscription, and her reputation, see Fiona Ritchie, Women and Shakespeare in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 26–27, 34–39, 46–47, 51–53.

(86.) Harriet Guest, “A Double Lustre: Femininity and Social Commerce, 1730–60,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 23, no. 4 (Summer 1990), pp. 479–501, p. 483.

(87.) Mary Jones, “On the Reasonableness of Her Coming to the Oxford Act,” 1750, Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (Oxford: R. Griffiths, 1760), pp. 66–67.

(88.) Hannah Cowley, The Belle’s Stratagem, in Eighteenth-Century Women Dramatists, ed. Melinda C. Finberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 211–280, 2.1, lines 175, 174, 178–184.

(89.) Cowley, 2.1, line 7. For information on the concept of virtue in the eighteenth century, see note 9.

(90.) Straub, 103.

(91.) Katherine Shevelow, Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (London: Routledge 1989), p. 1.

(92.) Felicity Nussbaum, Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater (Philadelphia: U of Philadelphia Press, 2010), pp. 17–18.

(93.) Kelly, 19.

(94.) Samuel Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. In a series of letters published from the originals, by the editor of Pamela and Clarissa (London: Printed for T. Longman et. al, 1796), vol. 1, letter 36, pp. 255–256.

(95.) As Vic Gatrell explains, “Arbiters of taste from Shaftesbury on to Reynolds taught that in public, academic or ‘fine’ art must unify taste, virtue and moral tone in dignified composition. It should, as Shaftesbury put it, celebrated ‘order, harmony and proportion’—ideals that were ‘naturally improving to the temper, advantageous to social affection, and highly assistant to virtue.’ … In private, however, these austere values were relaxed…. ‘Politeness’ for many entailed less a commitment to virtue and the public good than a social veneer. It was mere ‘embroidery, guilding, coloring, daubing’, as Shaftesbury had himself lamented.” See Vic Gatrell, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (New York: Walker & Company, 2006), pp. 256–257.

(96.) Kelly, 23.

(97.) For a similarly choreographed image of connoisseurial sociability, see David Allan’s Conversation Piece Depicting Three Men (John Caw, John Bonar, and Unknown Sitter) (1783), National Gallery of Scotland, featured in Kelly, 24.

(98.) See note 15. Shearer West speculates that “the Society’s interest in Priapus worship could be seen as undermining its essential ‘maleness’ by the hint of homosexual interest, but the phallic emphasis could instead be understood as a means of reinforcing the masculine orientation of the Society”; see West, “Libertinism,” 96.

(99.) Brewer, 281.

(100.) Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. Robert R. Wark (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), Discourse IX, p. 171.

(101.) Reynolds, Discourse III, 45.

(102.) On the hierarchical privileging of history painting over portraiture, Desmond Shawe-Taylor writes, “All arts in the period aspired to the status of a ‘liberal art’, which means, in Dr. Johnson’s words, an art ‘worthy of a gentleman’. To qualify, an art had to be more intellectual than manual: to involve more thinking work, which does no dishonor to a gentleman, than real work, which does.” See Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Georgians: Eighteenth-Century Portraiture and Society (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990), p. 8. Thomas Lawrence, one of the most famous of portrait painters, referred to his trade saying, “I begin to be really weary at finding myself so harnessed and shackled into this dry mill-horse business,” and William Blake remarked dismissively, “Of what consequence is it to the Arts what a Portrait Painter does?”. See, respectively, D. E. Williams, The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence, 2 vols. (London, 1831), I, p. 221, and Reynolds, 304.

(103.) A number of portraits thought to be of Gwyn are unverified. “It is probably the case that more portraits have been identified as images of Nell Gwyn than of anyone else from this period. Very few of these portraits can be proven to show her, … The most secure works are contemporary prints on which she is named”; see Catherine MacLeod and Julia Marciari Alexander, Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2001), p. 168. Lely’s Portrait of a Young Woman and Child, as Venus and Cupid was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in the 1972 exhibition “The Masque of Beauty” as Nell Gwyn, and the auction house Sotheby’s recently marketed the painting in a London, July 6, 2011 “Old Master and British Paintings Evening Sale” as “almost certainly Nell Gwyn.” See <http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.42.html/2011/old-master-british-paintings-evening-l11033>.

(104.) Here, I draw upon language from Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 1989, 2nd ed. (Houndsmill, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Also informing my reading is Barbara Freedman’s conception of “theatricality” in which “someone or something is … aware that she is seen, reflects that awareness, and so deflects our look”; see Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 1.

(105.) Adrian Hamilton, “Carry on, your majesty: Charles II and his court ladies,” Independent (April 15, 2012) Accessed online January 28, 2017.

(106.) Joseph Roach, “Nell Gwyn and Covent Garden Goddesses,” The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, intro. Gill Perry (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2011), 64–75, pp. 64, 67.

(107.) Julia H. Fawcett, Spectacular Disappearances: Celebrity and Privacy, 1696–1801 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), p. 3.

(108.) Shawe-Taylor, 24.

(109.) Qtd. Shawe-Taylor, 25.

(110.) According to Cindy McCreery, “The late eighteenth century spawned both increased demand for portraits, and an intensely competitive industry, with over 100 painters competing for work in London in the 1780s…. Money was evidently to be made in painting portraits. Demand for portraits was stimulated by the desire to emulate the practices of fashionable society.” See Cindy McCreery, The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 14–15.

(111.) Shawe-Taylor, 25.

(112.) Kimberly Crouch, “The public life of actresses: prostitutes or ladies?,” Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities, ed. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (London: Longman, 1997), pp. 58–78, p. 73.

(113.) John Hughes expresses an early version of this sentiment when he states, “It is, methinks, a low and degrading Idea of that Sex, which was created to refine the Joys, and soften the Cares of Humanity, by the most agreeable Participation, to consider them merely as Objects of Sight. This is abridging them of their natural Extent of Power, to put them upon a Level with their Pictures at Kneller’s. How much nobler is the contemplation of Beauty heighten’d by Virtue, and commanding our Esteem and Love, while it draws our Observation.” John Hughes, qtd. in Richard Steele, “Characters of Laetitia and Daphne—Art of Improving Beauty,” The Spectator, no. 33 (April 7, 1711), in The Works of Joseph Addison, vol. 1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1837), pp. 61–63, p. 63. “Kneller’s” refers to the Kneller Academy of Painting and Drawing in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, founded in 1711 by the portraitist Sir Godfrey Kneller.

(114.) Martin Postle, “‘Painted Women’: Reynolds and the Cult of the Courtesan,” in Notorious Muse: The Actress in British Art and Culture, 1776–1812, ed. Robyn Asleson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 23–55, p. 23.

(115.) Perry, pp. 107–108.

(116.) Thomas Davies, Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq. Interspersed with Characters and Anecdotes of His Theatrical Contemporaries. The Whole Forming a History of the Stage Which Includes a Period of Thirty-Six Years, 2 vols. (Boston: Wells and Lily, 1818), Vol. 2, p. 128; Anon. Life of Mrs. Abington (formerly Mrs Barton), Celebrated Comic Actress, by the editor of ‘The Life of Quin (London: Reader, 1888), p. 104, qtd. in Perry, 108.

(117.) Perry, 196.

(118.) Perry, 116; Nicholas Penny, ed. Reynolds (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 1986), p. 247. Ellis K. Waterhouse was the first to suggest that Reynolds’s painting of Abington was an advertisement; David Mannings cites Waterhouse on this matter in his book Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of His Paintings, 2 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), vol. 2, p. 55. The image also gained viewers in the form of a mezzotint by James Watson, published in 1769, and in Richard Cosway’s variation on its theme in his miniature portrait of the actress in 1783; see Perry, 116. Nussbaum, in her study of the actress, writes that “Abington … turned fashion and its instruments into a means to negotiate toward a modern feminism by energizing that commodification into a potential source of agency” (244). For more on Abington’s reputation as a trendsetter, see Nussbaum, 227–244.

(119.) The Rambler’s Magazine (April 1783), p. 158.

(120.) Claire Tomalin, Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Actress and he Prince (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 70.

(121.) Anca Munteanu, “Confessional Texts versus Visual Representation: The Portraits of Mary Darby Robinson,” The Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 9 no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2009): 124–152, p. 128. Cindy McCreery also argues that Robinson “used portraits to boost [her] reputation”; see McCreery, 16.

(122.) The oft-repeated claim that Robinson returned to the stage in 1783 is incorrect and is based on connected reports in the February 24, 1783 Morning Herald, the first concerning a “Mrs. Robinson” in the role of Victoria in Hannah Cowley’s new comedy, A Bold Stroke for a Husband, at Covent Garden Theatre, and the second concerning the visual appearance of Mary Robinson’s opera box. The first “Mrs. Robinson” referred to is, however, not Mary Robinson but Hannah Henrietta Robinson, a different actress altogether. For more information on this matter, including a discussion of Robinson’s whereabouts in 1783, and an investigation into how contemporary newspapers suggestively and intentionally juxtaposed reports about public figures, see Michael Gamer and Terry F. Robinson, “Mary Robinson and the Dramatic Art of the Comeback,” Studies in Romanticism 48 (Summer 2009): 219–256.

(123.) Eleanor Ty, “Engendering a Female Subject: Mary Robinson’s (Re)Presentations of the Self,” English Studies in Canada 21, no. 4 (1995): 407–431, p. 412.

(124.) Anne K. Mellor, “Making an Exhibition of Her Self: Mary ‘Perdita’ Robinson and Nineteenth-Century Scripts of Female Sexuality,” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 22, no. 3 (2000): 271–304, p. 278.

(125.) Munteanu, 138.

(126.) “Commentary.” Joshua Reynolds, Mrs Mary Robinson (1783–1784). The Wallace Collection. Accessed online, April 30, 2016. <http://wallacelive.wallacecollection.org:8080/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module= collection&objectId=63447&viewType=detailView>.

(127.) See Claire Brock, The Feminization of Fame, 1750–1830 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 96; Munteanu, 127, 130–131, 135; and Eleanor Ty, who observes that “in agreeing to sit to Romney, Reynolds, and Gainsborough in 1781–1782, Robinson participated in the production of her representation, perhaps recognizing … ‘the self as art and the self in art’” (p. 411).

(128.) Mary Robinson, “To Sir Joshua Reynolds,” in Mary Robinson: Selected Poems, ed. Judith Pascoe (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2000), p. 289.

(129.) “Review of the Royal Academy Exhibition (continued.),” Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (5 May 1784), Issue 3506, p. 3.

(130.) Sarah Siddons, The Reminiscences of Sarah Kemble Siddons, 1773–1785, ed. and fwd. William Van Lennep (Cambridge: Widener Library, 1942), p. 17.

(131.) Ibid., p. 19.

(132.) James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs Siddons, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), vol. 2, p. 62. West reveals that if “acting was to be seen to be an equal, if not superior, skill to painting or writing poetry[,] … actresses … had also to be seen as artists themselves”; West, “Body,” 164.

(133.) For more on Siddons as a sculptor, see Heather McPherson, “Sculpting Her Image: Sarah Siddons and the Art of Self-Fashioning,” Women and Portraits in Early Modern Europe, ed. Andrea Pearson (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 183–202.

(134.) In the words of Heather McPherson, “Siddons was not merely an artistic commodity … but rather an … artist who fashioned her image and laid the foundation for her enduring legend” (McPherson, 194). West also adopts this view: “In criticism, Siddons was frequently said to ‘paint’ her characters, and her well-known hobby of sculpting perhaps deliberately created an impression of a woman who was a creator as well as an object of the gaze” (“Body,” 163).

(135.) Thomas Campbell, Life of Mrs. Siddons, 2 vols. (London: Effingham Wilson, 1834), Vol. 2, pp. 380–381.

(136.) Benjamin Robert Haydon pronounced her “a Ceres or a Juno,” James Northcote said that “She was like a preternatural being descended to earth,” Thomas De Quincey proclaimed her a “transcendent creature,” and Cambpell insists that her acting “made you feel as if you were witnessing some god-like soul from the heroic world pouring forth its sensibility,” and yet it was “a true and perfect picture of a human being in pathetic or terrific situations.” See Benjamin Robert Haydon, Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter: From His Autobiography and Journals, ed. Tom Taylor, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Bros., 1859), vol. 1, p. 356; William Hazlitt, “Mr. Northcote’s Conversations. Conversation the Twentieth,” 1830, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1930–1934), vol. 11, p. 307; Thomas De Quincey, The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, ed. David Masson, 14 vols. (London: A. & C. Black, 1896), vol. 2, p. 454; and Campbell, vol. 2, p. 382.

(137.) Robert W. Jones, p. 122.

(139.) I by no means want to suggest that the debate over the relationship of the senses to the intellectual appreciation of beauty was ever a settled one. This article has shown that for artists such as Hogarth, the sensual was bound up with the intelletual. Lord Byron, musing on the Venus de’ Medici in Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818), contends similarly in favor of a relationship between physical arousal and aesthetic insight:

  • There, too, the Goddess loves in stone, and fills
  • The air around with beauty; we inhale
  • The ambrosial aspect, which, beheld, instils
  • Part of its immortality; the veil
  •   Of heaven is half undrawn; within the pale
  •   We stand, and in that form and face behold
  •  What mind can make, when Nature’s self would fail;
  •   . . . . .
  •   We stand as captives, and would not depart.
  •   Away! there need no words, nor terms precise,
  •   The paltry jargon of the marble mart,
  •   Where Pedantry gulls Folly—we have eyes:
  •  Blood—pulse—and breast, confirm the Dardan Shepherd’s prize. (ll. 433–439,  446–450)

Sight blends synasthetically with smell, taste, and touch: “we inhale / the ambrosial aspect, which beheld intills / Part of its immortality.” Sensory experience, “Blood—pulse—and breast,” rather than detract from aesthetic knowledge, facilitates and “confirms” it. Conversely, the disinterested language of connoisseurship, “The paltry jargon of the marble mart, / Where pedantry gulls folly,” fails to articulate the Venus’s ethereal beauty, which, Byron argues, cannot be articulated; language can only ever fall short. See Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, in Byron’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Alice Levine (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010), pp. 295–348, p. 311.

(140.) James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Viking, 1964), p. 205; qtd. in Cox, 182.

(141.) See Carolee Schneemann, “Interior Scroll,” in Imaging Her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. pp. 150–161.