Religion in the Age of Enlightenment


Clare Haynes


Jonathan Richardson, Enlightenment, European Tradition


It is only relatively recently that the significance of Jonathan Richardson's writings has been properly recognized. Carol Gibson-Wood, in a number of articles and a book, identified two main keys to Richardson's importance: first, Richardson adapted European art theory and "Englished" it for a British audience using a methodology heavily dependent on Locke. In doing so, he developed an approach to art that was distinctive in the European tradition. Second, Richardson, as both a writer and connoisseur, was more influential at home and abroad than was previously recognized. Indeed, Richardson was rightly acclaimed by Gibson-Wood as the "art theorist of the English Enlightenment" (plate 1). However, although Gibson-Wood recognized and attended to Richardson's religious beliefs, her arguments underplayed the directing influence of religious concerns on the formation of his writings and the field more generally. Richardson's position was not idiosyncratic: religious questions played a role in all English writing about art after the Reformation. This article does not challenge but rather underscores Gibson-Wood's assessment of Richardson by demonstrating how his writings display the concern for religion that has been recognized as characteristic of the English Enlightenment. In addition, through a new reading of Richardson's theoretical writings, this article reveals how fundamental to Richardson's thinking was the conviction that art could bring man to a closer knowledge of God. Recognition of this principle not only gives us a fuller understanding of these influential works but also shows some of the ways in which, in the early English Enlightenment, art, like science, addressed, and was policed by, religion.