Theses Doctoral

Before the Reality Effect: Wax Representations in Eighteenth-Century France

Kang, Changduk Charles

This dissertation investigates the evolving notions of verisimilitude and pictorial objectivity in eighteenth-century France through wax-based objects. I identify three case studies and examine the truth claims that were made about them: polychrome wax sculpture by Antoine Benoist (1632-1717) and Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (c.1656-1701) at the turn of the century; an attempt by the Comte de Caylus (1692-1765) to resurrect ancient encaustic painting in the early 1750s; anatomical models by Honoré Fragonard (1732-1799) and André Pierre Pinson (1746- 1828) during the latter decades of the century. In all cases, wax objects and associated truth claims addressed specific domains of specialized knowledge and practice. Benoist and Zumbo’s sculpture took part of period debates about pictorial verisimilitude, while Caylus proposed encaustic painting as an alternative method of accessing historical past. By contrast, Fragonard and Pinson’s work challenged the evidentiary and pedagogical value of anatomical models.

My dissertation identifies potential origins of modern dependency on, as well as skepticism towards, what counts as reliable or legitimate visual information. By addressing objects and their makers that have not received substantial scholarly attention, I demonstrate how they resisted increasingly rigid Enlightenment categories, even when their ostensible purposes were in line with the broader Enlightenment project. By extension, my project offers an opportunity to think more broadly about the viability of a medium as a conduit of information, whether in the rise of photography in the nineteenth century or in today’s debates about post-truth politics.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Higonnet, Anne
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 17, 2020