All About Glass

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Depictions of Glassmaking in Diderot’s Encyclopédie

All About Glass

Figure 1

Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert published their much acclaimed Encyclopédie in Paris from 1751 to 1765. To illustrate their entries, they commissioned several hundred engraved images depicting artistic crafts and common trades in preindustrial France. Since pictorial representations of workmen and shops are rare and the current understanding of historical techniques and technologies is complicated, the descriptions and explanatory plates in the Encyclopédie remain highly important to scholars of decorative arts and manufacture, and to researchers of social and economic history (Fig. 1).

A spectacular publication by the standards of mid-18th-century Europe, the Encyclopédie provided a body of knowledge of an unprecedented academic depth and comprehensiveness. However, despite the interest scholars have displayed in its texts—and in Diderot’s writing on art in particular—the Encyclopédie’s plates and their visual representation of the described crafts have received little attention.1

It is interesting that Diderot, who as an art critic argued forcefully against unrealistic history painting, painted history in his own manner as editor of the Encyclopédie. Instead of presenting workshops in an objective manner, he promoted domestic glass manufacture, tapestry weaving, and other industries in which the French sought to distinguish themselves, and he glorified their production.2

Figure 2

When Diderot’s oeuvre is discussed, his texts are usually compared only with contemporaneous writings on art, with little connection made between his two professions: encyclopedist and art critic.3 This article will consider his career from both perspectives, and it will examine the Encyclopédie’s plates and their artistic quality with Diderot’s philosophical principles in mind. Judging from Diderot’s art criticism, his biased evaluation of fine artists and their paintings seems to have been based as much on their artistic talent as on his personal inclinations, and his views were influenced by his immediate circle. Therefore, it can be said that he failed to follow his enlightened philosophical principles when criticizing the Salons. He did, however, explain his fundamental interest in meaning and expression, and he demanded a comprehensible narrative, thus indicating an interest in explanatory value.4 As an encyclopedist, Diderot was interested in a more scientific approach, detached from traditional conceptions and personal experience. He advocated tolerance and argued against tradition and prejudice. These principles are reflected, in different ways, in the plates Diderot commissioned for the Encyclopédie. The importance of a broad-based education and nature was fundamental to Diderot and d’Alembert, and this led Diderot to prize clarity and technological accuracy over atmosphere and verisimilitude.5 Although he believed that a patron should never tell an artist what to do, we can be certain that he monitored the draftsmen’s work, and he may have encouraged the production of genre scenes, which were his “greatest enthusiasm.”6 In his search for exemplary models and explicit visual material to further promote an understanding of technology, Diderot actively participated in creating didactic art.

Figure 3

The Encyclopédie’s entries on the manufacture of glass are rather extensive. Glassblowing is illustrated in 54 plates, and the production of sheet glass, plate glass, and mirrors is shown in four plates, 46 plates, and eight figures respectively (Fig. 2). Under individual subtitles, the text discusses the techniques and tools involved, as well as the differences between wood- and coal-fired furnaces and between English and French glasshouses, all of which are illustrated separately (Fig. 3).7

Two characteristics deserve closer examination. First, the text—the authors of which remain anonymous, except for M. Alut le fils, who signed the entry on plate glass—is a straightforward technical description, free from evaluations. The fact that English and French glasshouses are contrasted, with concluding remarks elevating the foreign technology over comparable domestic technology, is most remarkable (Fig. 4). From other entries, such as the description of tapestry weaving, we know that their anonymous authors emphasized the superiority of wares from France over those produced in England and Flanders.8 This competitive element, reminiscent of the mercantilist politics that originally led to the foundation of royal workshops and the adoption of foreign techniques in hopes of surpassing the manufacture of neighboring countries, is missing from the verbal descriptions of glassmaking.

Figure 4

Second, the accompanying illustrations— commissioned by Diderot from Radel, Bourgeois, Goussier, and Lucotte, and engraved by Robert Bernard—are noteworthy for different reasons. Most of these images represent techniques and tools as they had existed both in France and in other countries for generations, and they thereby document a continuous tradition of workmanship rather than the latest technological innovations. Furthermore, these technologies had been adapted and promoted in France since the development of royal manufactories in the 1660s, and they were practiced by skilled artisans, of both French and foreign origin, who were working under royal patronage.

Among the numerous royal workshops was the Manufacture Royale de Glaces de Miroirs. Established in 1665, it was subsidized by Jean- Baptist Colbert, minister of finance and superintendent of the royal household under Louis XIV, in order to encourage and improve domestic production and to minimize foreign imports. Colbert’s mercantilist policies, namely taxation of imports and subsidies for domestic industries, led to the high-quality manufacture of a large variety of decorative objects and art.9 This workshop, like those of the Gobelins and the Louvre, played a major role in the interior decoration of the Château de Versailles and other royal palaces in the Ile-de-France.10 Its mirrors made possible the unparalleled and widely admired interior scheme of the Grande Galerie at Versailles, which, in turn, influenced stately architecture throughout Europe and contributed to the gloireassociated with the reign of Louis XIV.11

Figure 5

Two of the plates depicting the making and finishing of plate glass are clearly labeled as illustrations of the machine that polished mirrors in San Ildefonso, Castile, Spain, although the text refers to a “nouvelle machine à extraire” at the “manufacture royale de S. Gobin” (Fig. 5). In 1720, Juan de Goyeneche had founded a glass manufactory near the summer palace in La Granja San Ildefonso. It received royal privileges from Philip V in 1728, and it produced, among other objects, mirrors and chandeliers for the Spanish royal family.12 The inclusion of these plates and their reference to a foreign workshop, in accordance with the superior evaluation of the English glasshouses, contrasts with the patriotic sentiments expressed in the tapestry entries. Together, they attest to the inconsistent editing of the contents of an encyclopedia written by many authors and published over 15 years, and they indicate the uneven development of various domestic industries.

The carefully observed technical detail shown in the engravings suggests that Radel and his fellow draftsmen visited workshops, where they were probably introduced to the basic techniques of glassmaking and the construction and operation of furnaces. Johann Carl Friedrich Rosenkranz, one of Diderot’s biographers, noted that the encyclopedist was the son of a cutler and that he had inherited his father’s high regard for skill and labor.13 This interest is clearly expressed in Bernard’s engravings, which became more than an educational %%tool%%. However, this romantic description of Diderot’s formative experiences does not mesh with the depictions of anonymous, isolated workers in unfamiliar and perhaps unrealistic workplaces. Instead, the illustrations indicate a distant relationship between Diderot and the artisans with whom he was said to be working. As an avid opponent of history painting, a genre whose staged scenery he criticized as ignorant of nature and reality, Diderot probably turned to the royal workshops for their technical skill and craftsmanship, not for their reputation.14

The engravings in the Encyclopédie helped readers to understand industrial techniques and complex mechanics in the arts and crafts. Many of the images are not technical drawings but genre scenes portraying a small group of workers and their activities (Fig. 6).

Figure 6

According to Roland Barthes, the Encyclopédie “identifies the simple, the elementary, the essential, and the casual. Encyclopaedic technology is simple because it is reduced to a two-term space: the casual trajectory which proceeds from substance to object; hence all the plates which involve some technological operation (of transformation) mobilize an aesthetic of bareness.”15 Other authors, including William Sewell,16 who compared the Encyclopédie’s plates to Abraham Bosse’s and Jan van der Straet’s depictions of workers and their crafts, and Katie Scott,17 who contrasted the plates with Noël Hallé’s lively scene in The Education of the Poor, also indicate the sober, clean, and lifeless character of the plates. In the depictions of the glass workshops, what Barthes called “sacred simplicity” is paired with subtle sophistication because Diderot regularly illustrated the most advanced, the best-trained, and the finest-equipped craftsmen. Here the Encyclopédie represents an upper class of well-dressed gentlemen-artists, not only by staging individual activities in unrealistically spacious and lucid interiors, but also by selecting the most talented artisans and highly glamorous artistic projects. Whether depicting the many technical %%gadgets%% of the royal opera stage, the complex casting and transportation of Bouchardon’s equestrian statue for Place Louis XV, or the idealized workshop spaces of the royal manufactories, Diderot chose the best and most famous examples whenever possible. However, this habit contradicts Diderot’s philosophy of representing nature and reality without prejudice and segregation. Despite his high principles, Diderot’s depictions of glassmaking portray an elite setting while educating the public on technical issues and good practice. It seems plausible to assume that Diderot and d’Alembert’s efforts to present high standards and to teach good practice led to their choice of illustrations, and that the encyclopedists’ bourgeois readers would have identified themselves more easily with the orderly workmen and shops shown in contemporaneous genre paintings.

Florian Knothe
This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 51 (2009), 154–160.


1Diderot on Art, ed. John Goodman, 2 vv., New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995.

2Richard Wrigley, The Origins of French Art Criticism: From the Ancien Régime to the Restoration, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, pp. 235 and 324.

3Ibid., p. 8.

4Ibid., p. 323. See also Denis Diderot, Salons (1765), ed. Jean-François Seznec and Jean Adhémar, 2nd ed., 4 vv., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979, v. 2, pp. 162–163.

5The entry in the Encyclopédie on “goût” describes the taste of Diderot and his fellow philosophers very clearly. M. Landois, author of the discussion on “taste in paintings,” distinguishes between bon goût, grand goût, goût trivial, and mauvais goût (and further separates these from goût de nation and goût particulier). “Le bon goût se forme par l’étude de la belle nature” is a definition that must have agreed very much with Diderot’s own view and with his intentions for the Encyclopédie’s plates. See Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, Paris: Briasson, 1751–1765, v. 7, p. 770.

6“Ne faut rien commander à un artiste.” See Ministère de la Culture, Diderot et l’art de Boucher à David, Paris: Hôtel de La Monnaie, 1984, p. 403; and Wrigley [note 2], p. 235. John Morley (in Diderot and the Encyclopaedists, London: Macmillan & Co., 1914, p. 193) wrote that Diderot gave laborious attention to the production of the plates over the better part of 30 years.

7Diderot and d’Alembert [note 5], v. 17, pp. 102–156.

8Ibid., v. 15, p. 897: “La manufacture des Gobelins est jusqu’à présent la première de cette espèce qu’il y ait au monde; la quantité d’ouvrages qui en sont sortis, & le grand nombre d’excellens ouvriers qui s’y sont formés, sont incroyable.”

9Charles Woolsey Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, p. 363.

10Lettres patentes du roy, portant establissement d’une manufacture de glaces, cristaux et verres . . . , Paris, 1665.

11Madeleine de Scudéry, La Promenade de Versailles, Paris: Claude Barbin au Palais sur le Perron de la Sainte Chapelle, 1669.

12Alice Wilson Frothingham, Hispanic Glass, New York: Hispanic Society of America, 1941, pp. 101–102.

13Johann Carl Friedrich Rosenkranz, Diderot’s Leben und Werke, 2 vv., Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1866, v. 1, p. 219.

14According to Morley ([note 6], pp. 194–195), “Diderot himself used to visit the workshops, to watch the men at work, to put a thousand questions, to sit down at the loom, to have the machine pulled to pieces and set together again before his eyes, to slave like any apprentice, and to do bad work, in order, as he says, to be able to instruct others how to do good work.”

15Roland Barthes, “The Plates of the Encyclopedia,” in Selected Writings, London: Fontana, 1982, pp. 218–235, esp. p. 221.

16William H. Sewell, “Visions of Labour: Illustrations of the Mechanical Arts before, in, and after Diderot’s Encyclopédie,” in Steven L. Kaplan and Cynthia J. Koepp, Work in France: Representations, Meaning, Organisation and Practice, Ithaca (New York) and London: Cornell University Press, 1986, pp. 258–286.

17Katie Scott, The Rococo Interior, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, p. 45.

Published on January 15, 2013