Articles

When Two Drunk Artists Fought in the 18th Century

What could be more absurd than two artists fighting over the personification of temperance?

(image by the author for Hyperallergic)

One of my favorite hobbies is to research the Western European art world of the 18th century. My interest in the period was first piqued by a professor at the University of Toronto, William McAllister Johnson, who introduced me to the glory of Enlightenment-era journalism, printing, and publishing. That decadent and tumultuous century witnessed the birth of what we would easily recognize today as art criticism and writing, yet it was a category of literature that was still in a nascent stage. Enlightenment-era darling Denis Diderot may get most of the credit for spawning art criticism but in reality it was the work of dozens of scribes, journalists, and critics who contributed to the development of the literary form.

In 1715, artist and writer Jonathan Richardson coined the term “art criticism” in his An Essay on the Theory of Painting. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that newspapers, like The Morning Chronicle in London, began to write regularly about art exhibitions and happenings. The “modern artist” was beginning to appear regularly in the mass media of the period and became part of daily conversation in various ways. The Morning Post, a conservative London paper, also wrote about art and artists, and in reading their October 18, 1793 edition I recently came across this mention of “two eminent Artists” (notice the capitalization) in a curious brawl over the “personification of temperance.”

Are we to understand this “news” as real? Is it humorous hearsay? It seems too perfect that this quarrelsome pair would turn to violence after an argument about temperance, which, as you probably know, is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint. Many of the stereotypes of the contemporary artist are already evident in this short blurb. A drunk figure who frequents coffee shops and overreacts to an artistic matter could easily translate to our own time (though a string of insults on social media would probably replace the boxing match today).

What’s curious about this item is that we don’t know who won. My guess is they gave up after a few punches and continued drinking.

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