2. Art and design in eighteenth-century France: from dessein to dessin

Emma Barker (The Open University)


This essay seeks to trace the origins of the modern notion of design in eighteenth-century France, with reference to the theory and practice of drawing. It explores the particularity of French terminology in this area, showing how the language evolved so as to distinguish the theoretical term, dessein, from the practical one, dessin, in contrast to English, in which one word, design, covers the entire spectrum from conception to realisation. It also examines how drawing was theorised and illustrated in the pages of the great monument of Enlightenment thinking, the Encyclopédie. The suggestion here is that, while the Encyclopédie distinguished between an academic model of drawing centred on the human figure and its technical uses by manufacturers in the textile trades, it also hints at a conception of design that bridges the gap between theory and practice, art and industry. This essay further explores how a new concern with teaching drawing to artisans led to the establishment of drawing schools across France. Although these schools have been criticised for failing to equip their students with the skills demanded by manufacturers, their teaching was intended to serve the needs of the luxury trades that constituted the great strength of the French economy and may have succeeded in doing so, at least in the case of the Royal Free Drawing School in Paris. In conclusion, while eighteenth-century France is more usually associated with the decorative arts, as distinct from design, it nevertheless  produced highly successful designers, such as Philippe de Lasalle, a leading figure in the Lyons silk industry.

Keywords: art, design, drawing, training, eighteenth-century France, decorative arts

Full text: OAJ_Issue9_Barker_Final (PDF 6.4 MB).

DOI:  http://dx.doi.org/10.5456/issn.2050-3679/2020w02

Biographical note 

Emma Barker is Senior Lecturer in Art History at The Open University. She is the author of Greuze and the Painting of Sentiment (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and has published numerous essays on eighteenth-century French art. She is the editor of Contemporary Cultures of Display (Yale University Press, 1999), Art and Visual Culture 1600-1850: Academy to Avant-Garde (Tate Publishing, 2012) and Art, Commerce and Colonialism 1600-1800 (Manchester University Press, 2017).