Painting against Time: The Decaying Image in the French Enlightenment


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships


History of Art and Architecture


In eighteenth-century France, a conflict emerged over art’s material decay. On one side of the divide were artists who produced increasingly ephemeral objects using experimental techniques, exploring unstable methods of oil painting and trying fragile materials like pastel. On the other side were those who sought to create enduring pictures, reviving ancient techniques and testing new chemical processes in the hopes of discovering a permanent medium. This project traces the emergence of these divergent practices, arguing that they reveal a broader conflict over art’s meaning and purpose. The historical sensibility of the Enlightenment, defined by both a faith in progress and a secular awareness of uncertainty, left artists unsure about the role that their work played in history. Some clung to the idea that great work transcended time, but others embraced impermanence, redefining art as something whose meaning and materiality were specific to their moment.