Unreason and imagination in European Art in the Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment is that of the reason, but also that of "the invention of freedom" (J. Starobinski). Illustrators of famous tales recounting the adventures of Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe and Baron Munchhausen, painters representing the legends of Pygmalion and Dibutades, artists such as Boucher, Fragonard, Hogarth, Cozens, Gillray, Fussli, Goya, Piranesi , and architects like Boullée and Ledoux, all gave to see a plurality of worlds made possible by an unbridled imagination. The development of reason and rationalization in the Enlightenment should not, therefore, overshadow the essential role of the imagination and the "dreams of reason". For, according to the moralists of the eighteenth century, the reason of the Enlightenment can not go without unreason, just as taste can not go without disgust.

  • Jean Starobinski, L’invention de la liberté, 1700-1789, suivi de : 1789, Les emblèmes de la raison, nouv. éd. Paris, Gallimard, 2006.
  • Daniel Arasse, Le siècle des Lumières, Paris, Ed. du Regard, 2016 (à paraître).


Arnaud Maillet is a Senior Lecturer in the history of contemporary art at Faculty of Arts & Humanities Sorbonne Université, and a member of the André Chastel Center, Research Laboratory in art history. His work intersects with the history of art and the history of seeing.


In addition to a number of articles published in French and foreign academic publications, he is also the author of several books including Le miroir noir. Enquête sur le côté obscur du reflet, Paris, Kargo/L’Eclat, 2004 (éd. en langue anglaise (US) : The Claude Glass. Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art, New York, Zone Books, 2003) and whimsical prostheses.Prothèses lunatiques. Les lunettes, de la science aux fantasmes, Paris, Kargo/Amsterdam, 2007 (published in Italian: Gli Occhiali, Scienza, arte, illusioni, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 2010).