How Did the Ideas of the Enlightenment Influence the Arts?

Theobald von Oer/Other

The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, influenced the arts by gradually replacing the complexity and opulence of the baroque style with the simplicity and clarity of neoclassicism. The Enlightenment also awakened a general interest in the various arts as mediums of expression.

The Enlightenment called on humankind to attempt to understand its place in the natural world based on scientific reason instead of religious belief. One way the arts displayed this was in the naturalistic novels that began to appear in the 17th and 18th centuries. The foremost example is “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, which many scholars consider the first modern English novel. In sculpture and architecture, neoclassicism manifested itself in imitations of Greek and Roman models, exemplified by the porticoes and columns of the country houses of the British nobility and in Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate in colonial America.

In music, the sumptuous baroque music exemplified by the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel gave way to the clarity, structure and technical brilliance of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn. In painting, artists expressed realism through allegory and social criticism. Works that exemplified this trend were the court portraits of the Spaniard Francisco Goya and the English painter William Hogarth’s street scenes of London. Gradually, the realism of the Enlightenment gave way to a period of romanticism in the arts.