Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Temporality of Sculptural Viewing in Hemsterhuis's Lettre Sur la Sculpture

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Temporality of Sculptural Viewing in Hemsterhuis's Lettre Sur la Sculpture

Article excerpt

According to Goethe's own account of his participation in the disastrous Prussian military campaign of 1792 against revolutionary France, despite witnessing at first-hand the effects of injury, appalling weather and spreading dysentery on the retreating troops, his thoughts turned to the Lettre sur ¡a sculpture by the Dutch philosopher Frans Hemsterhuis (1721-90), published over twenty years earlier in 1769.1 Observing that he could not fully assimilate Hemsterhuis's ideas without recasting them in his own terms, he sought to capture the central argument of the Lettre in the following way:

The beautiful and the pleasure to which it gives rise is - as he expressed it - experienced when we perceive and comprehend the greatest number of ideas effortlessly in a single moment of time. I have to put this differently: we experience the beautiful when we apprehend something living in accordance with the lawfulness of nature in its highest activity and perfection, and we are thereby stimulated to recreate, becoming aware of ourselves too as alive and supremely active.2

That Hemsterhuis's conception of beauty as the maximum number of ideas apprehended in the minimum period of time still resonated with Goethe so many years later testifies to the remarkable reception accorded to his work, which was read and discussed beyond his native Holland by many of the leading figures of the European Enlightenment. While Hemsterhuis's main contribution was to the domain of moral philosophy, his short Lettre sur la sculpture attracted considerable attention not only for its concise articulation of an original theory of aesthetic experience but for the unusual methods the author employed to substantiate his views.

In many respects Hemsterhuis is a representative figure of the eighteenthcentury 'republic of letters'. Born into an academic family - his father Tiberius was a renowned philologist - he nonetheless never held a university post. Having been passed over for a professorship at Franeker University in 1755, he instead took up a position with the State Council of the Netherlands at the Hague, rising to the rank of First Secretary in 1769.3 His writings were the result of private study, personal friendships and extensive correspondence, which he carried out alongside his official duties for the state. It is not coincidental that his first published works, including the Lettre sur la sculpture (1769), the Lettre sur les désirs (1770) and the Lettre sur ¡'bomme et ses rapports (1772), were composed in response to requests from specific correspondents, or that he subsequently adopted the discursive structure of the Platonic dialogue in works such as Sophyle (1778), Aristée (1779) and Simon ou les facultes de l'âme (1787), which allowed him to present his ideas as arising from a critical exchange of views.4

Most of Hemsterhuis's life was spent in the Netherlands, but he did travel to Germany, where he met figures such as Jacobi, Goethe, Wieland and, perhaps most significantly, Herder, who played an important role in disseminating knowledge of his writings. Herder does not directly refer to Hemsterhuis in his book Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion's Creative Dream (1778), which both develops and contradicts some of the central claims of the Lettre sur la sculpture, but we know that he had sought to arrange for the Lettre to be translated into German soon after its original publication.5 Herder himself translated the Lettre sur les désirs for the journal Der Teutsche Merkur in 1781, and his essay 'Liebe und Selbstheit', published in the same journal, was presented as a response to its 'richness of ideas' and the 'beauty and rarity' of their expression.6 In France, Diderot wrote an extensive commentary in a special large-format exemplar of the Lettre sur l'homme that had been given to him personally by Hemsterhuis, returning it to the philosopher in 1774.7 All of Hemsterhuis's published work was written in French, and the first complete edition of his Oeuvres philosophiques appeared posthumously in Paris in 1792, edited by Hendrick J. …

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