Final Public Oral Exam: Sally Cochrane

"Science at the Nineteenth-Century École Des Beaux-Arts"
Thursday, March 16, 2023, 10:00 am12:00 pm
211 Dickinson Hall


Event Description


Katja Guenther, adviser
D. Graham Burnett, adviser
Michael D. Gordin
David O'Brien, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


“Science at the Nineteenth-Century École des Beaux-Arts” investigates the knowledge and technical skills that artists affiliated with the school of the French Academy used to make realistic drawings and paintings. By examining artists’ treatises, manuals, and memoirs, this dissertation finds concrete links between the history of science and the history of Academic art. Chapter 1 traces artists’ understanding of three optical illusions — simultaneous contrast, irradiation, and size constancy — before and after scientists wrote about these phenomena. This chapter shows how artists developed studio techniques to see the illusions rather than be fooled by them. It discusses why, in some cases, artists and scientists recommended exaggerating the illusions on the canvas, while in others, they recommended discounting them. Chapter 2 investigates how the sine law of photometry, which determines the apparent brightness of a point given the angle of incident light, united fine arts draftsmanship and the technical drawing of the École Polytechnique in the early nineteenth century. It explains how the two groups shared a common goal of precisely rendering a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface using light and shade. Chapter 3 discusses artists’ knowledge about color at the time Albert Henry Munsell, who invented one of the first widely-accepted scientific color systems, trained in the ateliers of Paris. It argues that several novel features of the Munsell Color System were apparent in artists’ writings. Chapters 4 and 5 describe what comprised the science of “artistic anatomy,” how it developed over the course of the century by incorporating information from a variety of other sciences, and how artistic anatomists ultimately promoted their work as its own discipline that would be useful to anthropologists, physicians, and surgeons. These chapters also document how artists used their anatomical knowledge in practice. Throughout, the dissertation argues that artists learned about the sciences of perception, light, and anatomy to overcome the shortcomings of their materials, since pigments cannot reach the same brightness as lights, and a flat canvas cannot represent the living, moving model. It also suggests several ways in which artists may have influenced contemporary sciences in return.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Questions? Please contact Lee Horinko.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Lee Horinko
19th Century
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense