Essay on Was Mary Wollstonecraft an Enlightenment Thinker

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Throughout history, art has been heavily influenced by sociopolitical and cultural events which have transpired within society. These events have had a notable influence on the genre and characteristics of art produced. For instance, the emphasis on religious subjects during the medieval era; was used to inspire pious living through religious indoctrination. During the Enlightenment, as scientific discoveries and inventions developed, reason informed man’s thinking rather than religion. This resulted in a contentious debate often represented through complex art subjects and themes. Liberal thought and philosophy emerged as women’s social struggles began to come into question. This was exposed through literary works by women keen on communicating the social pressures imposed in patriarchal societies. Two Enlightenment luminaries, whose works reflect conflicting views, are Jean Jacques Rousseau and Mary Wollstonecraft. Their writings are exceptional guides of the sociopolitical and cultural environment, which defined Enlightenment society. Evidence can be seen in the fine artworks produced during this period. Specifically, their respective works influenced, Richard Wilson’s The Destruction of Niobe’s Children (Fig. 1), Joseph Wright Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (Fig. 2), and Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (Fig. 3).

Rousseau’s philosophical perceptions regarding the disharmony between man and nature and the inferior social status of women are evident in much of his writing. In A Discourse of Arts and Sciences (1755), he determines the affliction of modern society. His philosophy is based on the belief that man is inherently good by nature, however, he has been corrupted by society (Neidleman 15-24). Most philosophers considered advances in art as an improvement for society. However, Rousseau argued the accumulation of knowledge improved human understanding but led to corrupted morals. These corrupt morals can be seen through amour-propre. In The Social Contract (1762), he states “Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they” (Cottingham 498). This corruption created opportunities for luxury and idleness while encouraging comparison and competition. Consequently relegating man to a state of perceptual disharmony within civilization. Rousseau’s philosophy on women’s rights was quite surprising for such a “free thinker.” He believed women were biologically inferior to men; due to their emotional nature and limited capacity for rational thought. Which in turn, caused their roles to be subservient and unworthy of the same virtues men were permitted (Neidleman 193). Due to these philosophies, Wollstonecraft often criticized his works (Bryson 16).

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A major feminist work of the 18th century, A Vindication of Women’s Rights by Wollstonecraft, exhibited her tenacious views while going against mainstream Enlightenment. Seen as an ultra-radicalist, her aggressive writings fought against women’s subjugation. Her writings proved men and women shared equal intellectual abilities and capacity for rational thought; despite being perceived as emotionally and sensually inclined (Taylor 126-30). Below Wollstonecraft described her candid conversations with men:

I have conversed, as man to man, with medical men, on anatomical subjects and compared the proportions of the human body with artists . . . yet . . . was never reminded by word or look of my sex . . . And I am persuaded that in the pursuit of knowledge, women would never be insulted by sensible men . . . if they do not by mock modesty remind them that they are women. (Taylor 141)

Wollstonecraft advocated women were entitled to equal rights to develop properly; with education being the most important of these rights. Referencing Rousseau, she states “If men were confined as women were, they would also develop ‘female’ characteristics” (Bryson 19). For such a radical feminist, it is surprising to learn, she did not support the women’s suffrage movement. She believed as long as a woman was well-educated, she did not need to be self-sufficient or politically active (Tong 13-18). While Rousseau and Wollstonecraft had similar views on liberty and justice, the treatment and rights of women were opposites, causing much tension and animosity between the two (Bryson 17).

Richard Wilson’s, The Destruction of Niobe’s Children (Fig. 1) was based on Ovid’s, Metamorphoses, Book 6. Wilson aptly conveys Rousseau’s philosophies through the horrific actions of Leto’s children against Niobe. Rousseau believed man is inherently good by nature while condemning civilization for his demise. This change is observable in the psychological transformation within society, especially in the consequences of amour-propre (Neidleman 26). In the myth, Leto’s children, Apollo and Artemis, murdered Niobe’s children due to her prideful celebration. Niobe gloated for having fourteen children, thus deserving more praise than the goddess who only had two (Ziff 146). Her boastful declaration represents a violent transgression against the gods. The reflections of the tragic events are evident in the somber atmosphere, tempestuous ocean, and bleak mountain landscape. This approach focuses the viewer's attention on four elements; including the bright white clouds forming a circle, lighting striking the mountain, broken tree trunks, and a distant rider shown suffering the repercussions. The white clouds signify the opening of the sky for the gods, irrespective of the chaos. In contrast to Niobe and her children, who appear between the broken tree trunks. The comparative destruction of these features references the disconnect between man and nature, due to amour-propre. Niobe’s central position supports the disharmony of Rousseau’s philosophies due to her prideful celebration.

Wilson positions Niobe as a member of civilization, whose materialistic focus reflects a tradition of feminist analysis, akin to Wollstonecraft’s works. According to Tauchert (145), Wollstonecraft’s works dramatized the suffering of the female subjects during the Enlightenment. In Mary and The Wrongs of Women, Wollstonecraft’s characters, Mary and Maria, struggle to prove that autonomous, rational, female subjectivity does exist. As well as inform the existence of female reason since many philosophical writings promoted women’s inferiority due to their emotionality (Strommer 96-99). Niobe’s position aligns with Wollstonecraft’s dramatized characters. The suffering and series of unfortunate events which the figures endure are quite aggressive.

Joseph Wright of Derby’s, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (Fig. 2), highlights the significance of the scientific advances during the Enlightenment (Israel 15). Originally a portrait painter, Wright belonged to the Lunar Society. This group attempted to popularize science through art. He painted a dramatization of an experiment demonstrating the effectiveness of the air pump; one of the most innovative technological accomplishments during the 18th century. During the experiment, the air pump sucked the air out of the glass bowl until the cockatoo would collapse. Then using another mechanism the air could be reintroduced (Stokstad 452). The figures form a circle around the device, similar to religious paintings of the past, signifying the momentousness of the occurrence. Through the use of chiaroscuro, the figures are illuminated to enhance their expressions in contrast to the dark background. Wright reflects on the effects of Enlightenment through the contrasting reactions of the characters depicted.

While Rousseau rejected the sciences, his philosophical principles on gender relations can be seen in Wright’s work. Observing the experiment, the female figures are terrified and the male figures are engrossed; as the audience is left to wonder about the bird’s fate. As such, the female subjects are purposely depicted as emotional and less rational, in contrast to the men who seem unconcerned about the wellbeing of the bird. Rousseau’s philosophy is prevalent in the vast distinctions between the figures. Applying his philosophy, the men were very excited because they could rationally comprehend the experiment. While all the women were emotional, due to their lack of understanding (Bryson 19). A prime example of Rousseau’s principles is the father and daughters. The daughters are seen as emotional and irrational due to their fearful expressions. While the father, seen pointing, is “rationally” explaining the experiment to them to ease their fears. Wollstonecraft fought against such illustrations of biological essentialism about women’s roles (Strommer 98). However, women being present at such an important scientific event shows women were being educated. A right that Wollstonecraft fought for. In my opinion, Wright is displaying Rousseau’s philosophies rather than Wollstonecraft's.

Wright emphasizes amour-propre and the corrupt morals of man in the representation of the cockatoo. The scientist demonstrates the air pump holds the power of life and death over the bird; a power previously regarded as exclusively god’s domain. He is delaying the reintroduction of air, which causes suspense. The illuminated glass on the table with a skull plays with the viewer. The dramatic lighting highlights the issue of life and death, with the suggestion of science bringing light into the world. An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump communicates the substitution of religion with science; now giving man all the power. Wright’s infusion of entertainment further conveys Rousseau’s philosophy of corruption stemming from knowledge and amour-propre (Israel 273).

Henry Fuseli’s, The Nightmare (Fig. 3), glorified the irrational side of human nature, which the Enlightenment sought to deny. The Nightmare is deemed as an astute example of romanticism, due to its irrational and morbid elements. Originally presented in 1782, at the Royal Academy exhibition in London; it acquired a reaction of shock and fear (Stokstad 463). This reaction can be attributed to the central figure, a woman, being perceived as similar to the seduced maidens. During the 18th century, the perception of these women had shifted to unfavorable judgment (Staves 117). Fuseli portrays this woman, who appears to be sleeping, draped upon a divan. She is oppressed in an erotic dream by the incubus who is seated on her chest. The asymmetrical position of her body is accentuated by the white light. To the left, a horse appears through the curtains of the murky background, causing a frightening effect. Similar to Wright, Fuseli uses chiaroscuro to heighten the drama (Stokstad 463). However, his application of light is manipulated to explain the darker realms of the unconscious. The shortened foreground ending with a curtain and tassel completes the dramatic effect. The drama of Fuseli's figure is reminiscent of Wollstonecraft’s characters, Mary and Maria. Fuseli's figure is suffering, just as Mary and Maria were, due to female oppression (Strommer 98). With the incubus seated on her chest and the pose of her body, the woman is shown as powerless. Her asymmetrical position and facial expression, present emotional and sensual inclination. These elements also lead to the connection between the woman and the seduced maidens. Wollstonecraft vehemently fought against this perception of women in all her writings (Tong 21).

Fuseli also reflects Rousseau’s ideals regarding man's disconnect with nature. The corruption of society has led the woman to a vulnerable state due to her corrupted morals. She is tormented due to the desires she has learned through society and her biological inferiority (Neidleman 195). The tormenting effect is intensified by the incubus and the horse with glowing eyes. The corruption of society can also be seen in the glowing eyes of the horse; implying he has gone mad. Unfortunately, she cannot escape her frightening dream due to her emotional nature. This further supports Rousseau’s philosophy of women’s limited capacity for rational thought, making them inferior.

Rousseau and Wollstonecraft were significant influences during the Enlightenment period. Rousseau’s philosophy advocated for man’s return to nature or natural harmony with his environment. Wollstonecraft’s literary works criticized the subjugation of women in patriarchal societies. Both their writings have shaped the world today. The discord and reverberations of their writings can be seen through the art produced by Wilson, Wright, and Fuseli. Through these three artworks, viewers can perceive the sociopolitical and cultural influencers of Enlightenment society. Specifically how art was able to interpret and propagate Enlightenment thought.

Works Cited

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    2. Cottingham, John G. Western Philosophy: An Anthology. 1st ed., Wiley-Blackwell. 1996.
    3. Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750. 1st ed., Oxford. 2002.
    4. Neidleman, Jason. Rousseau's Ethics of Truth: The Sublime Science of Simple Souls. book 12, 1st ed., Routledge, 2016.
    5. Staves, Susan. “British Seduced Maidens.” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 1980. pp. 109-134. JSTOR, JSTOR,
    6. Stokstad, Marlyn. Art: A Brief History. 4th ed., Prentice Hall, 2010.
    7. Strommer, Diane W. “Modern Philosophy.” Modern Philosophy, vol 77, no. 1, 1979, pp. 96-99. JSTOR, JSTOR,
    8. Tauchert, Ashley. “Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen: 'Rape' and 'Love' as Feminist Social Realism and Romance”. Oxford, 2003, pp. 144-158.
    9. Taylor, Barbara. “Feminists versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain.” Representations, vol 87, no. 1, 2004, pp. 125-148. JSTOR, JSTOR,
    10. Tong, Rosemarie, and Tina Fernandes Botts. Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction. 5th ed., Routledge, 2017.
    11. Vickery, Amanda. Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present. 1st ed., Stanford University Press, 2002.
    12. Ziff, Jerrold. “'Backgrounds, Introduction of Architecture and Landscape': A Lecture by J. M. W. Turner.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 26, no. 1/2, 1963, pp. 124–147. JSTOR, JSTOR,
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