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Title: Painting
Original Title: Peinture
Volume and Page: Vol. 12 (1765), pp. 267–268
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt
Translator: Nelly S. Hoyt; Thomas Cassirer
Subject terms:
History of fine arts
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
Source: Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer, trans., The Encyclopedia: Selections: Diderot, d'Alembert and a Society of Men of Letters (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America.

Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Painting." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Peinture," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 12. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Painting." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2003. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Peinture," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 12:267–268 (Paris, 1765).

In spite of the fact that Diderot was one of the earliest art critics of painting and has left perceptive analyses in his Salons, [1] the articles dealing with painting as such as well as all the ones dealing with the different schools of painting were entrusted to Jaucourt. [Translator note]

Painting. An art which, through the use of line and color, depicts on a smooth and even surface all visible objects. Man's imagination has been searching for the origin of painting; poets have created the most charming tales on this subject. If they are to be believed, this art was invented by a shepherdess who wanted to preserve her lover's traits and who followed with her crook the outline which the shadow of his face was throwing on a wall. Painting, the poets say,

   Splendid painting is the daughter of love.
   It was love who first inspired the maiden
   Who drew her lover's shadow on the wall
   While Phoebus guided her unsure hand.
   The rich variety of color,
   The art that creates the living image on the canvas, thus cheating distance,
   And many other arts owe their birth to love. [2]

These are fables invented to explain the fact that objects placed before men's eyes seem to invite imitation. Nature herself, who by means of light and shadow paints all things either on water or on objects with a polished surface, taught men to satisfy their taste for such imitation.

Whatever it may be, painting should be put among the purely agreeable things, since this art bears no relation whatever to the things called the necessities of life and exists entirely for the pleasures of the eye and the mind. Poetry, daughter of Delight, seemingly has only pleasure as its goal. If with the passage of time virtue has borrowed the charm of the one as well as the other in order to make a greater impression on man, just as Homer's Juno borrowed Venus' belt in order to appear more attractive in the eyes of Jupiter, if, as I say, virtue thus has undertaken to ennoble and to render more worthy poetry as well as painting, this is a gift to both which neither of them possesses otherwise. These arts did not arise from any need; necessity is not their origin.

These arts are two sisters who have the same intentions; the means they use to arrive at their ends are similar, they differ only in object: where one uses the eyes to touch the mind, the other speaks directly to the spirit. But painting captures the soul through the senses and this is perhaps the surest way. This art beguiles our eyes by the magic that makes us enjoy objects too far removed or no longer in existence. Its attractions lure and reach everyone, the ignorant, the knowledgeable, and even the artist himself. No one can indifferently pass by an excellent painting, without being surprised, without stopping, and without enjoying the pleasure of surprise. Painting affects us by the choice of what is beautiful, by the variety, by the novelty of the subject it portrays. Through history and through fable it refreshes our memory; it gives pleasure either by means of ingenious invention or by allegories, whether we understand their meaning or criticize their obscurity.

One of the advantages of painting is that men need no riches to become great painters. This queen of the world can only rarely deprive them of the assistance necessary to show their talent. Everything becomes a palette or a brush in the hands of a young man endowed with talent. Others become aware of his genius before he even knows it himself. To this can be added that painting is more prone to call attention to those who excel in it than any of the other arts that flatter the senses. Painting has qualities that are in no way inherent in the objects it imitates.

Monsters, men dead or dying, which we would fear to contemplate or which we would see only with horror, these we look at with pleasure when they are imitated in the works of our painters. The better they are imitated, the more avidly we gaze upon them. The Massacre of the Innocents must have left distressing thoughts in the minds of those who really saw frenzied soldiers killing children at their mothers' loving breasts. Le Brun's painting, where we see the imitation of this tragic event, moves us and affects us but leaves no lasting painful impression in our minds. We know that the painter only saddens us to the extent that we want to respond, and our sorrow, which is really superficial, will disappear with the painting; whereas, had we experienced the event, we could not have been masters over the intensity or the extent of our feelings. It is by means of the powers of nature that the real object acts upon us. This is the cause of the pleasure men derive from painting. This is why we view with satisfaction paintings whose merit is to put before our eyes distressing adventures that would have horrified us in real life.

Those who, in all times, have ruled over people have always used paintings and statues in order better to inspire in their subjects the sentiments they wanted them to have, either in religion or in politics. Quintilian sometimes witnessed accusers show the tribunal a painting depicting the crime for which they were seeking retribution, in order to arouse more thoroughly the indignation of the judges.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus relates the story of a courtesan who saw the portrait of Palemon in a place to which she had not come for serious reflection. This philosopher was famous for the seemingly miraculous change in his way of life. The sight of his portrait made the courtesan commune with herself. Other painters are no less capable of corrupting the heart and inflaming unfortunate passions by the alluring spectacles they represent.

Good and bad paintings make a greater impression on those people who live in regions where feelings run high, such as the regions of Europe closest to the sun which face the coasts of Asia and Africa. It should be recalled that the law tablets of the Jews prohibited the representation of the human figure in painting or sculpture. It made too great an impression on a people whose character was prone to espouse passionately anything that roused their emotions.

It even seems that the power of painting is greater than the power of poetry, because painting acts upon us through the sense of sight, which usually has greater influence on the soul than the other senses; this is because in painting, nature herself is put before our eyes. The ancients maintained that their divinities had been better served by painters than by poets.

Besides, one can easily realize how the imitations that painting presents to us can move us when one stops to think how a shell, or perhaps a medal where time has left only ghosts of letters and figures, excite restless passions and arouse the desire to see them and to possess them. A great passion inflamed by the smallest object is a common thing. Passions are only surprising, says the Abbé Dubos, [3] if they endure.

After having insisted on the charms of painting I should like to be able to discover its origin, describe its progress and revolutions. But all the writings of the ancients that dealt with this history have been lost. To console us for this loss we have only the works of Pliny, which have to be read in their entirety. Therefore we shall not attempt to give extracts here. It is sufficient to note with him that researches into the beginnings of painting bring us only uncertainty.

The Egyptians, he says, assure us that the art originated with them six thousand years before it came to Greece. This is frivolous ostentation. He does not contest that the Egyptians have the oldest painters. He even considers Gyges the Lydian the inventor of Egyptian painting, either because nothing remains from that early period or because the monuments are mediocre. According to Plato this is due to the fact that Egyptian politics kept painting always in the same state of mediocrity, without change or progress, while the Greeks carried it to the greatest point of grandeur and perfection. From Greece, painting spread to Rome, however without producing great artists. It died out with the Empire and reappeared worthily in Europe only with the century of Julius II and Leo X.

This last revolution gave rise to the distinction between ancient and modern painting. The first is subdivided into Greek and Roman painting, the second has formed several schools each of which has had its own merits and its own character. If, therefore, you should be curious to follow the whole history of painting, see Ancient painting, Greek Painting, Greek Painters, Roman Painting, Modern Art, School, etc.

We have collected our research from a great many works in order to write all these articles with care and if we have not been successful, the fault lies with us.


1. [For a recent edition of Diderot's Salons , see Jean Seznec and Jean Adhémar (eds.), Salons , 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957–1963).]

2. [A great many legends existed about this supposed origin of painting, all well known in the eighteenth century and adapted by many a poet of the period. For a recent discussion of this, see: Robert Rosenblum, "The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism," The Art Bulletin , XXXIX (1957), 279–290.]

3. [Jean Baptiste Dubos. Among his many works was the Réflexions critiques sur la poésie et la peinture , first published in 1719 and one of the most important eighteenth-century works on aesthetics.]