10 The Smile of Reason


Houdon, Voltaire - Smiles the smile of reason.

"By 1700 people had begun to feel that a little calm an detachment wouldn't come amiss. The smile of reason may seem to betray a certain incomprehension of deeper human emotions; but it didn't preclude some strongly held beliefs - belief in natural law, belief in justice, belief in toleration. Up to the 1930's people were supposed not to burn witches and other members of minority groups, or extract confessions by torture or pervert the course of justice or go to prison for speaking the truth. This we owe to the Enlightenment, and above all to Voltaire." p 245.

Clark begins with "the age of great country houses" such a Blenheim Palace and Chiswick House then segues to the solons of France with hostesses like Madame du Deffand and Madame Geoffrin, who were the centers of European civilization for several decades. As neither English country houses or salons much interest me, I will skip on the Chardin.  But I will include a link to one fine house, Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington's place in London because it contains a war trophy - a nude sculpture of Napoleon as Mars the god of War...complete with  fig leaf.

No one has ever had surer taste in color and design. Every area, every interval, every tone, gives on the feeling of perfect rightness. He found his subjects in the gentle bourgeoisie, the working class, and with every day objects.

soap bubbles chardin

Jean Siméon Chardin,  Soap Bubbles, c 1733, Met, NY
Jean Siméon Chardin, Glass of Water and Coffee Pot, 1760. The scene has neat geometrical order among household objects. Their sides have the same angle of slope. The right edge of the glass and the left edge of the pot are parallel.


still life

Jean-Siméon Chardin, Still Life, c.1732 oil on panel, 17.1 x 20.96 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts

Clark, as a Scot, is proud of  his country. What he has to say may not  be entirely an overstatement. "Let me name some eighteenth-century  Scots in the world of ideas and science: Adam Smith, David Hume, Joseph Black and James Watt. It is a matter of historical fact that these were the men who, soon after the year 1760, changed  the whole current of European thought and life." p 259 Then he moves on to the new world and to Thomas Jefferson.

"He was the typical universal man of the eighteenth century, linguist, scientist, agriculturist, educator, town-planner and architect : almost a reincarnation of Leon Battista Alberti, even down to a love of music, the  management of horses, and what, in a lesser man, one might have called a touch of self-righteousness. Jefferson wasn't as good an architect as Alberti, but then he was also President of the United States; and as an architect he was by no means bad. Monticello was the beginning of that simple, almost rustic, classicism that stretches right up the eastern seaboard of America, and lasted for one hundred years,  producing a body of civilised, domestic architecture equal to any in the world." p 265


Jefferson's design of the University of Virginia left the fourth side of the courtyard open, so that the young scholars could look across the mountains in the west and to the future of the nation.


george w. Houdon, George Washington, Capital at Richmond, VA.  

"This chapter began with Houdon's statue of Voltaire, smiling the smile of reason; it could end with Houdon's statue of Washington. No more smiles.  Houdon saw his subject as the fovourite Roman republican hero, the decent country gentleman, called away from his farm to defend his neighbors' liberties; and, in moments of optimism, one may feel that, through all the vulgarity and corruption of American politics, some vestige of this first ideal has survived." p 266

[A piece in the NY Times on February 17, 2015 "George Washington, Slave Catcher ", maybe there will be a call by the terminally silly to remove his statue from the Virginia capital.]

On the wall of the Jefferson Memorial are quotations from his writing. The familiar words from the Declaration of Independence : 'We hold........", but on the other wall,  'I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.'

"But beyond it what problems - almost insoluble, or at  least not soluble by the smile of reason." p 268

11 The Worship of Nature           Contents