What role did drawings and prints play during the Enlightenment era, from roughly 1720 to 1800? Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment explores many nuances of this complex time — when political and cultural revolutions swept across Europe and the Americas, spurring profound shifts in science, philosophy, the arts, social and cultural encounters, and our shared sense of history. Indeed, the Enlightenment itself has been described as a “revolution of the mind.”
Novel concepts in every realm of intellectual inquiry were communicated not only through text and speech, but in prints and drawings that gave these ideas a visual, concrete form. They made new things visible — and familiar things visible in powerful new ways. They wielded the potential to visually articulate, reinforce, or contradict beliefs as well as biases, while also arguing for social action and imagining new realities.
In 1784, in response to a journal article asking “What Is Enlightenment?,” German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that the Enlightenment’s main impulse was to “dare to know!” — to pursue knowledge for oneself, without relying on others to interpret facts and experiences. But is this ever truly possible?
Bringing together 150 prints, drawings, books, and other related objects from Harvard as well as collections in the United States and abroad, this exhibition offers provocative insights into both the achievements and the failures of a period whose complicated legacies still reverberate today. Dare to Know asks new and sometimes uncomfortable questions of the so-called age of reason, inviting visitors to embrace the Enlightenment’s same spirit of inquiry — to investigate, to persuade, and to imagine.
Curated by Elizabeth M. Rudy, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints, Harvard Art Museums; and Kristel Smentek, Associate Professor of Art History, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dare to Know is on view through January 15, 2023, in the Special Exhibitions Gallery at Harvard Art Museums.
For more information, visit harvardartmuseums.org.