Denis Diderot’s “Salons” as Art Conservation in Eighteenth-Century France

Delanie Linden

Within existing literature, scholars have most often examined Denis Diderot’s Salons in the contexts of art exhibitions and discourse. While the art world is an apt place to examine his works, this essay intends to broaden the scope of historical inquiry by situating his writing in the context of natural disasters. By approaching his Salons from outside the artistic milieu, I do not intend to imply that the circumstances of the eighteenth-century Parisian art world did not play a major role in Diderot’s work. It did, perhaps first and foremost. I am merely offering the idea that art criticism in France—and especially Diderot’s Salons—developed alongside a cultural consciousness of material durability. Writing about art offered a supplementary type of sustainability. It could conserve not only a literary description of the artwork but also the author’s distinctive experience of it. Diderot’s Salons make for an interesting case study, because his descriptions of art on display at the salon exhibitions are lengthier than any other art critical text written at the time and may lend insight, more broadly, into the power of writing as a tool for art conservation.

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DELANIE LINDEN is a PhD candidate in art history at MIT. She researches the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art and has long been fascinated by the historical intersections of art, science, and colonialism. Her dissertation, “Other Colors: Chroma, Chemistry, and the Orient,” examines the relationship between imported colorant technologies and textiles and French Orientalist painting techniques during a period of French innovations in colorant chemistry between c. 1770 to 1858. She argues that the broader world of color—from colorant chemistry and global trade to textile production and color theory—permits a more expansive view of color’s meaning and reception in early nineteenth-century French painting. Linden holds a BA in art history and neuroscience from the University of Michigan and an MA in art history from SMU. She has worked as a curatorial intern at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the DeGolyer Library, and has spent many years training and teaching oil painting and portraiture. She intends to become a professor of art history.

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