Terry F. Robinson
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.