Art Theory

The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics) BY Jacqueline Lichtenstein. University of California Press. Hardcover, 282 pages. $60.

Jacqueline Lichtenstein’s The Eloquence of Color: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age (1993) is the best theoretical art history I have ever read. It is meticulously argued and so elegantly translated by Emily McVarish that it feels transparent—as if you were reading French in English. More to the point, like Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality, Lichtenstein’s speculations constitute a critique à clef—a calm look into the past with an eye to the present. Reading the book, one is gradually introduced to the quarrel between painting and drawing, color and line, object and idea, from Plato until yesterday. The thesis of the book is in the preface: “What was originally a confrontation between discourse and image soon became an affront that forced painting to assume a strangely theoretical role to which it was not inherently destined. But the contest was unequal, for it took place on the territory of language; language invented the game, set the rules and played according to its own stakes.” One might say that Lichtenstein has come to painting’s assistance under the rubric of “eloquence,” a term that figures in the rhetorical speculations of both Quintilian and Cicero as the aspect of the orator’s skill that outstrips language, and the attribute that leads Cicero to define the ideal orator as one who need not speak at all but only stand before his peers to make his case. With an argument nearly as beguiling as its outcome, Lichtenstein’s study is adventurous, finding and giving full pleasure in the sharing of its ideas—a rarity among theoretical books.

Dave Hickey’s most recent book is Pirates and Farmers: Essays on Taste (Ram, 2013).