ART, SCIENCE, AND THE BODY IN EARLY ROMANTICISM by Stephanie O'Rourke, Reviewed by Andrei Pop

By Stephanie O'Rourke
(Cambridge, 2021) 205 pp.
Reviewed by Andrei Pop on 2022-10-01.

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The bearing of science on Romantic art and literature has not always drawn the attention that it receives in this accomplished study. In the early postwar years, art history took the lead in drawing intellectual and procedural connections between meteorology and plein-air painting (Kurt Badt, John Constable's Clouds, 1950) or more broadly between experiment and artistic observation (Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 1960), but questions of political commitment, gender identity and colonial culpability have dominated recent art history, occluding Romantic intellectual commitments. That makes all the more conspicuous exceptions like Barbara Maria Stafford, who is an impetus to this book but has long ago abandoned the period for broader speculation on scientific imaging.

In this light, Stephanie O'Rourke's multi-artist, multi-national, multi­-science study does a lot to catch us up. Whereas other fine recent books on Romantic art and science--like Nina Amstutz's Caspar David Friedrich: Nature and Self (2020) and Matthew Hunter's Painting with Fire (2019)--apply monographic lenses to single artists and their worlds, O'Rourke pairs the sublime painting of Philippe de Loutherbourg with the sensational séances of Mesmerism, Henry Fuseli's renegade classicism with the cranial study of character in Lavater's physiognomy, and Anne-Louis Girodet's twitchy nudes with the discovery of bioelectricity and the first, erratic studies of (biological) electrical circuits. A concluding chapter gathers all three artists alongside popular printmakers in the shadow of the guillotine, a medical device of terror that threw out as many physiological questions (why, for instance, does Charlotte Corday's severed head blush?) as aesthetic ones. The book's strengths as well as the risks of such a sweeping approach are announced in ringing tones: "On the revolutionary scaffold, subjected to the cleaving operations of the guillotine's blade, was not just a body but a whole set of ideas about the body" (178).

That set of ideas about and around the body is summed up in the hyphenated noun "self-evidence." The body of the scientist reporting an experiment, like that of a witness reporting a wonder or a murder, had served the Enlightenment as a reliable public transmitter of experience. The appeal of this formula in explaining the disorienting panoply of artistic fads, which art historians still uneasily gather under the rubric "neoclassicism," is undeniable. O'Rourke is aware of the valuable inroads made in terms of republican political commitment, masculinist fantasies of virtue, and antiquarian or relativizing appeals to antiquity. But the appeal of bodily self-evidence, ably laid out in the introduction (1-21), is that it binds together what might seem like loose threads: nudes or at any rate legible bodies in neoclassical art communicate in ways thought to be parallel to the bodies of artists and spectators, so that all--imaginary or real able-bodied European men, for such was the presumed status of the aesthetic and the scientific subject--experience the same sort of sensations, emotions, thoughts, on confronting the same evidence. Self-evidence, here, means not introspection but a lack of interiority: the conviction, well-founded or not, that commonsense, or public feeling, or the a priori ensures enough constancy of perception and expression to make art as well as more evidentiary practices tick (medicine and criminology would belong here too).

To make a long story short, the assumption of self-evidence proved ill-founded. Nineteenth-century science moved on from spectacular sympathetic occurrences (and the quacks who exploited them) to finer quantitative concepts and "industrial experimental procedures" (181), banishing the alchemical Faust to a historicist fantasy.  

The book's artists, visually flamboyant and personally eccentric as they were, might be thought to be fighting a desperate rearguard action, not unlike the rebels in Girodet's Revolt of Cairo (1810), against what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison call "mechanical objectivity" (Objectivity [2007], 115 ff.). To some extent O'Rourke is amenable to such a view, since she follows Lissa Roberts and Jonathan Crary in deploring the scientific revolution for its subjection of the body to mechanisms of control and surveillance. But to regard this as the book's message is to miss O'Rourke's subtlety. As her wide reading and close looking show, these artists' attempts to make the body legible hit at every juncture upon instability of the self, invisibility of the causes of action, and other sources of error and indeterminacy in scientific method and Enlightenment efforts to apply it to modern life. The results have not always been appreciated as art. To reveal them as vibrant applications of--and challenges to--the most iconoclastic science of their time is the task O'Rourke sets herself. We can feel the degree to which she succeeds by considering each of the quite self-contained essays in turn.

The opening chapter devoted to Loutherbourg swings into the larger historical claim of the decline of an evidentiary regime resting on the perceptual powers of the body. Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician who claimed to cure nervous ailments in Vienna and Paris through the influence of undetectable "animal magnetism" between the patient and himself, has long been associated with the end of an era (e.g., in Robert Darnton's classic Mesmerism and the Decline of Enlightenment in France, 1968). Loutherbourg--an Alsatian settling in London as a marine and animal painter, stage designer, and inventor of that immersive multimedia diorama, the Eidophusikon--has been associated mainly with the period's turn to the obscure, the sublime, the "gothick." The painter never met Mesmer, nor did he seek academic respectability, as did the latter, but dabbled in Mesmerism mixed with spiritism at the instigation of his friend Count Cagliostro, the notorious adventurer. If that seems a link as tenuous as the magnetic fluid, it is strengthened by both anti-heroes' mastery of stagecraft, a tendency that bound other showmen across the arts and quack medicine. O'Rourke analyzes several atmospheric paintings of Alpine falls and avalanches and a bombastic marine striving to convey the English navy's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 as a function of favorable winds:

Philippe James De Loutherberg, The Defeat of the Spanish Armada 8 August 1588 (1796).

London: National Maritime Museum.

Like animal magnetism, these paintings assume "a world whose material and immaterial forces interpenetrate one another" to disorienting effect (49). If the fine details of Loutherbourg's anatomical education, and the period practice of conducting experiments on aristocratic volunteers, don't make these paintings more mesmeric, they more than set the stage for a world ripe for evidentiary revolution.

The role of art-science revolutionary falls to the Swiss-born, Rome-trained, London-based painter, academic theorist and all-around literary gadfly Henry Fuseli. Fuseli has always been read in part through his childhood friendship and tense epistolary exchange with the apostle of physiognomy, Johann Caspar Lavater, whose masterwork, the Physiognomische Fragmente (1775-81, translated into English as Essays in Physiognomy, 1789-98), Fuseli helped illustrate. This timeworn topic gets its best short treatment here. Starting with a sympathetic and fair presentation of Lavater's project, which did much more than just "read" the body, O'Rourke writes: "at its core, his model of physiognomy was about the terms according to which man can produce knowledge about the natural world more broadly" (93). The squabbles over the reproductions of Fuseli's drawings in the Essays are consequently more than a clash of theorist and practitioner: they indicate Fuseli's dissatisfaction with any model of bodily legibility, however carefully hedged methodologically. The chapter abounds in vivid visual analysis, from the body-like articulation of "blue veins" on Patroclus's pyre in the spectacular wash drawing of Achilles in mourning in Kunsthaus Zürich, to the slipper-like feet of Fuseli's Homeric nudes. O'Rourke says interesting things about the Lavater-related material, but also about paintings like The Nightmare (1781) and Mad Kate (1806/7), which are essentially committed to imaging the invisible, rather than pinning it down allegorically to the body on display.

It might seem ungenerous to ask for more when this chapter does so much, but perhaps a narrow range of examples would have allowed trickier case studies to stick more decisively. Take Milton's Satan, whose portrait, according to Fuseli, had been botched by the engraver and misread by Lavater as expressing fear. The artist modified the image to clarify that the lips lift in a sneer of contempt:

Thomas Holloway, engraving after Fuseli's illustration to Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy (1790).

London, British Museum.

Though Fuseli disagreed with Lavater about the meaning of Satan's lips, he did not--O'Rourke observes--dispute Lavater's conviction that "subtle variations in how a face is represented do convey meaningfully different things" (71). True, but what Fuseli insisted upon is the face in action, what Lichtenberg called pathognomy, rather than the stable architectonic features that Lavater thought more telling. And the sneer of this particular Satan, like his Hellenic profile, is taken from the Apollo Belvedere as interpreted by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who in his History of Ancient Art (1764) imagined the god, with his bow-shooting posture, as having just vanquished his foe, the serpent Python (Winckelmann, History of Ancient Art, trans. Mallgrave [2006], 205). This isn't just an antiquarian quibble, for Fuseli had translated Winckelmann's programmatic Gedanken (1755, English 1765) and had embarked on an abortive translation of the History. Physiognomy was intimately tied to the birth of the discipline O'Rourke and I call our own, which takes Winckelmann, but not Lavater, as a founding figure. That is ironic, since the latter combined a scientific pretension to close looking with an ambition (voiced but never achieved by Winckelmann) that the text be accompanied by careful and copious illustration.

One might wish, then, that O'Rourke had engaged Lavater's contributions not only to natural science, but to the humanities. The ambivalent Fuseli is said to have defended physiognomy "as a genuine science that required detailed explication" (66). But Fuseli's defense of Lavater in his critique of an abridged edition of the Physiognomy is devastating to any claims of systematicity: its data are "individual, mere aperçus, incapable of settled rules, and recommended only by the ingenuity that perceived them" (Analytic Review 5, [Dec. 1789], 456). In other words, they are the fruit of Geisteswissenschaften, "moral sciences" as Mill called them, capable of judicious development but not of axiomatization. After all, the Essays were originally called Fragments in German. Acknowledging this scruple on Lavater's part, to say nothing of Fuseli's anticipation of the two-cultures debate, would only confirm O'Rourke's nuanced view of the artist and writer.

In dwelling on these criticisms, I don't wish to detract from O'Rourke's originality in taking Lavater seriously. The chapter is exemplary in zeroing in on the physiological novelty of Lavater's system, its vision of the cranium and the brain shaping each other mutually in early childhood development like a sculptor's mold and the malleable sculpture within (74-75). In showing how the incremental nature of aesthetic choices, which I noted in Fuseli, comports with Lavater's laborious attempt to make face-reading scientific, O'Rourke reinvigorates Lavater studies and redefines his relation to his artist friend.

The chapter on Girodet, who unlike the conceptual revolutionary Fuseli, actually was involved in the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath, is perhaps the book's most assured, building as it does on a 2018 article in Art History. Girodet, a star student of the great French classicist Jacques-Louis David, looks superficially like a French Fuseli, with mannerist-looking distorted nudes that appear almost caricatural in their expressive grimaces. Casting again a wide net, from Benjamin Franklin's stay in France to various treatises on electricity and their illustrations, O'Rourke's readings of Girodet's canvases highlight not so much their most sensational characteristics (the eroticism of the sleeping Endymion, the nuclear family scrabbling over each other as floodwaters rise) as the subtle connections between bodies and the unpredictable effects they had on viewers. Arms extended, hands clasped, innervated and enervated limbs--the language of painting, as of the nascent study of electricity, "hinges on the physical connectivity of the individual figures" (137), a connectivity somewhat predictably but justifiably held to be in crisis during and after the French Revolution.

A cast not quite of thousands, but large enough--including Heinrich von Kleist and Thomas Carlyle--is drafted skillfully to make the reader understand how strongly, and yet unpredictably, audiences could react in this formative moment of both Romanticism and industrial modernity. Girodet's propagandistic fantasy, Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes (1802), or the more intimate late work Pygmalion and Galatea (1819) could alternately electrify audiences and put them to sleep. The same might be said of E.T.A. Hoffman's tales of uncanny automatons, to say nothing of today's autotuned vocalists and the wearable devices by which we monitor our bodies and turn their fluctuations into data. What emerges, from the last chapters and the book as a whole, is not so much the one-one collaboration or mutual critique of scientist and artist that concerned us in the first two case studies, but a panorama of artistic culture in the throes of new ideas, some of them belonging to a nascent science yet to be routinely embraced under the familiar name "physics." For better or worse, the world glimpsed by the elderly Fuseli, Girodet, and Loutherbourg is our electrified future, with all its brilliant light and attendant patches of darkness.

Andrei Pop is Allan and Jean Frumkin Professor in the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago.

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