Art and Scientific Discovery in the 1700’s

The Classical period coincides, in large part, with the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. During this time there was a huge interest in intellectual pursuits such as the sciences—“particularly chemistry, physics, and Astronomy”—philosophy, and dissemination of knowledge such as the completion and publication of the Encyclopedia (Duro 664). The interest in discovery and exploration via science was shared by both the upper and middle classes, and had a definite impact on the Arts (Duro 664).

 A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, 1776 – Joseph Wright of Derby


For many in the 1700s science was a “source of aesthetic” (Duro 665). Science is apparent in A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, the figures in the painting are gathered around an orrery—a model of the solar system—while listening to a lecture on the topic. It has been “plausibly argued” that the lecturer—the figure in red—is actually Sir Isaac Newton (Duro 667), who’s Laws of Motion contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe.

Derby, where Wright was from, was on the scientific lecture circuit; so it is quite probable that Wright witnessed a lecture by James Ferguson—astronomer and instrument maker—that demonstrated an Orrery, among other apparatuses, in 1762 (Duro 664). A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery was bought by an amateur astronomer, Washington Shirley, 5th Earl Ferrers, who also coincidentally owned an orrery (Duro 664).

Derby is known for his works that illustrate the industrial revolution and the spirit of scientific discovery. This can be seen in his paintings An Iron Forge, The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus, and Vesuvius in Eruption among others.

An Optician with His Attendant, 1772 – Johan Zoffany

Optician with His Attendant

The influence of the interest in science in art came from other directions as well. The wealthy had money to spend on toys; luxury goods, such as scientific instruments, were fashionable curiosities (Hanson 422). Not to mention being imperative equipment for scientific institutions (Hanson 422, 424).

Tradesmen who created these instruments were valued by English society, and were a curiosity of their own, after a fashion (Hanson 423). Zoffany was a German born artist, but mostly worked in England—he was one of the first members of the Royal Academy of Arts. The optician portrayed in Zoffany’s painting has been variously identified as Dollands and Cuff—both important, well known instrument makers that worked on Fleet Street (413-8). However, the Royal Collection Trust identifies the seated figure as John Cuff. The painting was commissioned by King George III of England—the king bought his microscopes from Cuff—and is still part of the Royal Collection (RCT).

To Paraphrase Newton: For Every Action there is a Reaction

The wide spread popularity of Enlightenment thinking, and interest in the scientific was not absolute, however. Some artist chaffed under the aesthetics associated with rationalism, and instead sought to create art that was emotionally provocative (EB-Sturm). This counter movement was called Sturm und Drang—not to be confused with the Finish band—and is usually translated as storm and stress (EB-Sturm).

Sturm und Drang was influential in literature, art, music, and theater. One of the most quintessential works of Sturm Und Drang theater was Friedrich Schiller’s Die Räuber (The Robbers) 1781 (EB-Leisewitz). The play revolves around two aristocratic bothers, Karl and Franz, and has themes of masculinity, nature of evil, revolutionary anarchy, and hypocrisy of religion (EB-Robbers). All of which are controversial and emotional topics, not surprising in a genre that wanted to evoke reactions.

Sturm und Drang was influential in literature, art, and music as well as theater. Composers such as Mozart and Haydn used sudden variation in volume to catch their audiences’ attention. This can be heard in Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 and Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 (Surprise Symphony). Painters of the style used evocative subjects, such as shipwrecks and storms, in much the same way, harking back to the very meaning of Sturm und Drang—the power of nature and the role of emotions.

Aesthetic Appreciation

I was really drawn to A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, in part by the color. The red of the lecturer’s jacket is eye-catching. Additionally the tenebrism used by Wright creates such stark contrast that you are drawn in by the warm glow of the lamp.

There is also something inviting about the way that the figures are arranged. There is a space, just left of center, open for the viewer. The illusion is that you could step forward and peak at the orrery display yourself. I’ll admit to being a bit of a science geek, so the thought of joining in listening to the lecture is appealing.

I also like that there are a range of figures there—male, female, young, and old—it adds a nice depth and shows just a bit of the social context into which such a lecture would have fit.

I was similarly drawn to the painting of John Cuff (An Optician with His Attendant) because the paint was a glimpse at the inner-workings of an optics shop. The manual creation of lens and instruments is interesting to me—especially having struggled to make a rudimentary telescope in Intro to Astronomy (Phys 175). I can see why it would have been an intriguing topic at the time.

Like Wright, Zoffany painted with realism in his figures. In fact the painting is almost too real; the glass on the wall, and even the wood grain in focus. He doesn’t use much tenebrism or heavy shadowing in the painting. The even light brings everything into focus, an interesting echo of Cuff’s profession. The level of detail makes it seem like you could pick up the tools, or peer in the pots.

I chose the play Die Räuber by Shiller because of all the underlying themes in the play. The tangled circumstances draw the viewer in, particularly the dynamics between Karl, the bandits, and Amalia. The thing I liked about the production I linked the trailer to, is the minimal staging. The play is really carried by the actors, and when there are set pieces it creates interesting changes. I also liked the use of the filmed bits that were played on the back drop at certain points. Again, it’s minimal, but allows them to create a depth and visual history to the actions on stage.

I was also really interested in how Sturm und Drang was a reaction against the Enlightenment aesthetic that fueled the paintings; the tension between the different threads of thinking is fascinating.

Works Cited

Duro, Paul. “‘Great And Noble Ideas Of The Moral Kind’: Wright Of Derby And The Scientific Sublime.” Art History 33.4 (2010): 660-679. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Hanson, Craig Ashley. “How To Portray A Trade? Identity And Interpretation In Johan Zoffany’s An Optician With His Attendant.” Eighteenth Century Fiction 23.2 (2011): 409-424. Academic Search Premier. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

“Johann Anton Leisewitz”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015 < >.

“The Robbers”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015 < >.

“Sturm und Drang”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015 < >.

Original Image Sources

Wright, Joseph. “A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. < >

Zoffany, Johan. John Cuff (An Optician with His Attendant). Digital Image. The Royal Collection Trust. n.d. Web 3 March 2015. < >

One Comment on “Art and Scientific Discovery in the 1700’s

  1. I find your focus on the aspect of science in the classical era to be refreshing and informative. I like how you paired the scientific discoveries of the times with that of the paintings portraying them. The painting of Vesuvius in Eruption also compares, for me, to what you described as your aesthetic feeling of A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery .The way you describe the color of the jacket as a way for Derby to draw in the eye of the viewer. The same thin occurred to me as I viewed Vesuvius in Eruption . The eruption is the light, a circle of red that draws the eye straight to it.
    I enjoyed the Sturm und Drang example, it was great to actually see what you were talking about describing how the inflections of the voice showcased the emotional heights of the plays. At first I thought the bandits were some kind of narrators when watching Amelia’s interaction with the older gentleman, but it was a surprise when she started to position her body and interact with them. Great job.

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