Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting (2 vols.)

Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James O. Young and Margaret Cameron


Jean-Baptiste Du Bos’ Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting, first published in French in 1719, is one of the seminal works of modern aesthetics. Du Bos rejected the seventeenth-century view that works of art are assessed by reason. Instead, he believed, audience members have sentiments in response to artworks. Their sentiments are fainter versions of those they would feel in response to actually seeing what the work of art imitates. Du Bos was influenced by John Locke’s empiricism and, in turn, had a major impact on virtually every major eighteenth-century contributor to philosophy of art, including Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, Herder, Lessing, Mendelssohn, Kames, Gerard, and Hume. This is the first modern, annotated and scholarly edition of the Critical Reflections in any language.

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James O. Young, FRSC, is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria and author of Art and Knowledge (2001), Cultural Appropriation and the Arts (2008), Critique of Pure Music (2014), Radically Rethinking Copyright in the Arts (2020) and other works.

Margaret Cameron is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. Previously she was Canada Research Chair in the Aristotelian Tradition at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Translators’ Introduction

Volume 1


Part One

1 Of the necessity of being occupied in order to avoid ennui, and of the attraction that movements of the passions have for people.

2 Of the attraction of spectacles that are capable of exciting profound emotions in us. Of Gladiators.

3 That the principal merit of poems and pictures consists in imitating the objects that would have excited real passions in us. The passions that these imitations have aroused in us are only superficial.

4 Of the power that imitations have over us, and of the ease with which they move the heart.

5 That Plato banished the poets from the Republic because of the great impression that their imitations are capable of making.

6 Of the nature of the subjects that painters and poets treat. That they should not choose subjects that are too engaging.

7 That tragedy affects us more than comedy because of the nature of the subjects that it treats.

8 Different genres of poetry and their characters.

9 How to render didactic subjects engaging.

10 Objection drawn from paintings to show that the art of imitation is more engaging than the subject imitated.

11 That the beauty of execution does not alone render a poem a good work, as it makes a picture a precious work.

12 That a work engages us in two ways: as a person in general and as a certain person in particular.

13 That there are subjects especially suitable for poetry, and others especially suitable for painting. The means of recognizing them.

14 Some subjects are particularly appropriate to certain genres of poetry and painting. The subjects appropriate for tragedy.

15 On villainous characters that can be introduced into tragedies.

16 Of some tragedies whose subjects are poorly chosen.

17 Whether it is appropriate to treat of love in tragedies.

18 Our neighbours say that our poets put too much love in their tragedies.

19 Of the chivalry that is in our poems.

20 Of some principles that must be observed in treating tragic subjects.

21 Of the choice of subject for comedies. Where we should set the scene. On Roman comedies.

22 Some remarks on pastoral poetry and the shepherds of eclogues.

23 Some remarks on epic poetry. Observations concerning the place and time from which its subjects must be drawn.

24 Of allegorical actions and characters in relation to painting.

25 On allegorical characters and actions with regard to poetry.

26 That painters’ subjects are not exhausted. Examples drawn from pictures of the crucifixion.

27 That subjects are not exhausted for poets. That one can still find new characters in comedy.

28 On vraisemblance in poetry.

29 Whether the tragic poets are obliged to conform to geography, history, and the chronology that we know with certainty. Remarks on this subject on some tragedies by Corneille and Racine.

30 Of vraisemblance in painting and of the regard that painters owe to received tradition.

31 The disposition of the plan. That the arrangement of pictures must be divided into poetic and pictorial composition.

32 Of the significance of the offences painters and poets can commit against their rules.

33 Of poetic style, in which words are regarded as signs of our ideas. That poetic style determines the fate of poems.

34 Of the motive for reading the poets; that we do seek instruction as in other books.

35 On poetic technique that only regards words as simple sounds. Advantages of poets who wrote in Latin over those who wrote in French.

36 Of Rhyme.

37 That the words of our native language make a greater impression on us than the words of a foreign language.

38 That the painters of Raphael’s time had no advantage over those of today. Of the painters of antiquity.

39 The sense in which nature is enriched since Raphael.

40 Whether the power painting has over people is greater than the power of poetry.

41 On simple recitation and oratory.

42 Of our manner of reciting tragedy and comedy.

43 That the pleasure that we take in theatre is not produced by illusion.

44 That dramatic poems purge the passions.

45 Of music properly speaking.

46 Some reflections on the music of the Italians. That the Italians only cultivated this art after the French and Flemish.

47 Which poetic verses are best for setting to music.

48 Of prints and prose stories.

49 That it is useless to dispute if the elements of design and expression are preferable to that of colour.

50 Of sculpture, of the talent that it requires and of the art of bas-relief.

Volume 2

1 Of genius in general.

2 Of the genius that makes painters and poets.

3 That the impulse of genius determines the being of a painter or poet; what they have had since birth.

4 An objection to the preceding proposition and a response to the objection.

5 Studies and progress of painters and poets.

6 Of artists without genius.

7 Geniuses are limited.

8 Of plagiarists. How they differ from those who put their studies to good use.

9 Obstacles that slow progress in young artists.

10 Of the time it takes people of genius to reach the eminence of which they are capable.

11 On works suitable to men of genius, and of artists who counterfeit others’ style.

12 Of illustrious eras and of the role that human causes play in the progress of the arts.

13 That it is probable that physical causes play a role in the surprising progress of the arts and letters.

14 How physical causes can play a part in determining famous eras. Of the influence of air on the human body.

15 The influence of air on the human body proved by national character.

16 Objection drawn from the characters of the Romans and the Dutch. Response to the objection.

17 On the range of climates more appropriate to arts and sciences than others. On the changes that survive in these climates.

18 That differences between the airs of different countries must be attributed to the nature of emanations from the earth which are different in various regions.

19 That we must attribute to variations in the air in the same country the difference noted between the geniuses of inhabitants of different eras.

20 Of the differences in the customs and inclinations of the very same people in different eras.

21 The manner by which the reputation of poets and painters is established.

22 That the public is, in general, a good judge of poems and pictures. Of the sentiment that we have for recognizing the value of these works.

23 That way of argument is not as good for knowing the merit of poems and paintings as sentiment.

24 Objection to the reliability of the public’s judgements and a response to this objection.

25 The judgement of people in the trade.

26 That the judgements of the public prevail in the end over the judgements of people of the trade.

27 That we should give greater regard to the judgements of painters than to those of poets. Of the art of recognizing the hand of painters.

28 Of times when the values of poems and paintings are correctly appreciated.

29 That there are countries where works are more quickly appreciated for their value than others.

30 Objection based on good works that the public appeared to disapprove, as well as bad ones that they praise; and the response to this objection.

31 That public judgement is never retracted, and that it always perfects itself.

32 That, despite the critics, the reputation of poets that we admire will always grow.

33 That veneration for good authors of antiquity will last forever. Whether it is true that we reason better than the ancients.

34 That the reputation of a philosophical system can be destroyed. That the reputation of a poem cannot be.

35 Of the idea men should have of the writings of the ancients when they do not understand the originals.

36 Of the errors into which those who judge a poem on the basis of a translation or the remarks of critics fall.

37 On the defects we believe we see in ancient poems.

38 That the remarks of critics do not make us leave off reading poems, and we stop reading only in order to read better poems.

39 That there are professions whose success depends more on genius than on the assistance that art can give; and others, whose success depends more on the assistance drawn from art than on genius. We should not infer that one era surpasses another in professions of the first type because it surpasses it in professions of the second type.

Volume 3


1 The general concept of ancient music, and of the musical arts embraced under this discipline.

2 Of rhythmic music.

3 On organical or instrumental music.

4 Of the art of poetical music. Of melopoeia. That there was a melopoeia that was not musical song, though it was notated.

5 Explanation of several passages from Aristotle’s Poetics, Chapter 6. On the chanting of Latin verses or Carmen.

6 That in ancient writers, the words ‘to sing’ often mean ‘to declaim’ and sometimes even ‘to speak.’

7 New proofs that ancient theatrical declamation was composed and written in notes. Proof taken from the fact that the actor reciting it was accompanied by instruments.

8 Of the wind and string instruments used in the accompaniments.

9 On the difference between tragic and comic declamation. On composers of declamation. Reflections concerning the art of notating.

10 Continuation of the proofs that show that the ancients notated declamation. Some changes to Roman declamation that occurred around the time of Augustus. Comparison of this change with what happened to our music and dance under Louis XIV.

11 The Romans often staged theatrical declamation between two actors, during which one spoke and the other made gestures.

12 Of the masks of ancient actors.

13 On acting, or the art of gesture, called ‘hypocritical music’ by many authors.

14 Of dance, or theatrical saltation. How the actor who gestured could coordinate with the actor who spoke. Of the dance of choruses.

15 Observations concerning the manner in which dramatic works were produced in ancient theatres. On the passion that Greeks and Romans had for theatre, and on the study actors made of their art, and the pay that they were given.

16 Of pantomimes, or actors who performed without speaking.

17 When the sumptuous performances of the ancients ceased. Of the excellence of their chanting.

18 Reflections on the advantages and disadvantages that result from the notated declamation of the ancients.

Bibliography—Primary and Secondary Sources
All readers interested in aesthetics, history of aesthetics, history of ideas, French philosophy, Enlightenment thought and empiricism. Keywords: Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, aesthetics, history of aesthetics, Enlightenment, history of ideas, art criticism.