Envisioning Blindness in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Barker, Emma (2020). Envisioning Blindness in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Oxford Art Journal, 43(1) pp. 91–116.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/oxartj/kcaa003


Diderot’s Letter on the Blind (1749) is widely held to have inaugurated a new, rational and humane approach to visual impairment, which, so it has further been argued, helped to shape the way that the blind were represented by eighteenth-century French artists. By contrast, this essay contends that such images are heavily indebted to iconographic convention and other established tropes of blindness, as well as to the professional and personal concerns of the artists. Most of these works depict a blind beggar from the Hôpital des Quinze-Vingts, which was located in the heart of Paris; a quintessentially Parisian figure, the ‘quinze-vingt’ embodied the city’s street life. Such insights as the artists offer into blindness as a condition can be attributed as much to the familiarity of this figure as to the enlightened ideas of philosophers such as Diderot. Nor did works of art challenge the outsider status of the blind man, since it was in his isolation and vulnerability that the significance and appeal of this figure very largely lay. Works discussed include etchings by Abraham Bosse and Sébastien Le Clerc, a drawing by (and print after) Edme Bouchardon, paintings by Jean-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Jacques-Louis David’s Belisarius.

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