Diderot and Eros  

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This page features notes on Denis Diderot and his attitude towards erotica. While Diderot published two risqué novels, Les Bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse, he displayed a hypocrite reaction towards the work of Boucher and Greuze, see below.


Diderot on Boucher and Greuze

Denis Diderot disliked François Boucher and went as far to remark with regards to the Odalisque brune in his review of the Salon de 1767 that he prostituted his wife for that painting.

In his review of the Paris Salon of 1765 he had already noted:

"I don’t know what to say about this man. Degradation of taste, color, composition, character, expression and drawing have kept pace with moral depravity. What can we expect this artist to throw onto the canvas? What he has in his imagination. And what can be in the imagination of a man who spends his life with prostitutes of the basest kind?" [Peter Gay notes in The Enlightenment: The Science of Freedom (NY: Norton, 1995, p. 277) that this is “a daring rhetorical question, since the prostituées du plus bas étage Diderot had in mind were not merely Boucher’s models but Louis XV’s mistresses”] The grace of his shepherdesses is the grace of Madame Favart in Rose and Colas; that of his goddesses is borrowed from La Deschamps. I defy you to find a single blade of grass in any of his landscapes. And then there’s such a confusion of objects piled one on top of the other, so poorly disposed, so motley, that we’re dealing not so much with the pictures of a rational being as with the dreams of a madman." --translator unidentified, possibly Diderot on Art, ed. and trans. John Goodman (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1995),
Je ne sais que dire de cet homme-ci. La dégradation du goût, de la couleur, de la composition des caractères, de l'expression, du dessin, a suivi pas à pas la dépravation des mœurs. Que voulez-vous que cet artiste jette sur la toile ? ce qu'il a dans l'imagination. Et que peut avoir dans l'imagination un homme qui passe sa vie avec les prostituées du plus bas étage ? La grâce de ses Bergères est la grâce de la Favart dans Rose et Colas ; celle de ses Déesses est empruntée de la Deschamps. (Deschamps was a "Célèbre courtisane morte depuis un an dans la plus austère pénitence.") Je vous défie de trouver dans toute une campagne un brin d'herbe de ses paysages. Et puis une confusion d'objets entassés les uns sur les autres, si déplacés, si disparates, que c'est moins le tableau d'un homme sensé que le rêve d'un fou. C'est de lui qu'il a été écrit :
... velut aegri somnia, vanae
Fingentur species : ut nec pes, nec caput... ("like the dreams of a sick person, senseless images are fashioned in such a way that neither head nor foot can be associated in a single shape." Horatio)

We may call this comment strangely and comically hypocrite, since Diderot is the author of Les Bijoux indiscrets, a novel about talking vaginas which had been published 13 years earlier.

Even more short-sighted is his love of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Maybe it is the love of one hypocrite for another? For was it not Greuze who presented us base eroticism under a thin veneer of academic respectability? Did he not give us moralizing paintings in defense of virginity such as The Broken Pitcher while at the same time exploit our basest appetites in works such as Ariadne, The Sisters (1788) with the ripening breast of prepubscent girls.

Boucher is the greatest hypocrite

Boucher is the greatest hypocrite I know; there is not a single one of his figures to whom one could not say, 'You want to be real but you aren't.'"
Boucher est le plus grand hypocrite que je connaisse ; il n'y a pas une de ses figures à laquelle on ne pût dire : Tu veux être vraie, mais tu ne l'es pas.--Pensées détachées sur la peinture

Diderot's thoughts on the difference between decency and indecency

Peeking into Art/Porn: A History of Seeing and Touching (mentioned in previous post[1]) come Diderot's thoughts on the difference between decency and indecency, or, by extension, the difference between erotica and pornography. According to Diderot, "it is the difference between a woman who is seen and a woman who exhibits herself."

Here are Diderot's thoughts in full from an unidentified translation:

"A nude woman isn’t indecent. It’s the lavishly decked out woman who is. Imagine the Medici Venus is standing in front of you, and tell me if her nudity offends you. But shoe this Venus’ feet with two little embroidered slippers. Dress her in tight white stockings secured at the knee with rose-colored garters. Place a chic little hat on her head, and you’ll feel the difference between decent and indecent quite vividly. It’s the difference between a woman seen and a woman displaying herself. (Translator unidentified[2])

French original:

"Une femme nue n’est point indécente. C’est une femme troussée qui l’est. Supposez devant vous la Vénus de Médicis, et dites-moi si sa nudité vous offensera. Mais chaussez les pieds de cette Vénus de deux petites mules brodées. Attachez sur son genou avec des jarretières couleur de rose un bas blanc bien tiré. Ajustez sur sa tête un bout de cornette, et vous sentirez fortement la différence du décent et de l’indécent. C’est la différence d’une femme qu’on voit et d’une femme qui se montre."

Please do not take Diderot too seriously when it comes to eroticism, I've previously written on Diderot's hypocrisy. In my view, if it isn't indecent, it isn't erotic. That is why I do not consider many pieces of erotic art, erotic at all, shame is the most powerful aphrodisiac.

This weblog was illustrated by Susanna and the Elders (1555) by Tintoretto in the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria.

See also

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