Classical Blog Exhibit-Art and Scientific Discovery in the 1700s​

Scientific Discovery during the 1700s had a profound effect on the arts during the Classical era. Not only were influential scientists and inventors such as Sir Isaac Newton commonly portraited during this time, but new inventions and discoveries were also featured. We see examples of these portraited intellectuals and discoveries in the following three examples. Artists during this time were very successful in furthering these scientific discoveries. Through their art, they were able to spread these enlightenment ideas to more people. In turn, these artists caused more people to think rationally about the world.

Now let us look more closely into the influence scientific discoveries had on art during this era…

1958-132-1-CXPhoto of the painting above used from

The painting above is known as Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky. It was created by Benjamin West in 1816 somewhere in England. Before looking into the backstory of this painting, I had no idea that Benjamin Franklin was an inventor and scientist. According to Charley Parker, the author of a Lines and Colors blog post, “Franklin was responsible for numerous innovations, including bifocals, the Franklin stove and the lightning rod. The latter came from his design for an experiment (that he never conducted) in which a kite flown in an electrical storm might prove his theory that lightning was… a form of electricity.” Therefore West’s painting depicts Franklin’s discovery that lightning is a form of electricity.

When first looking at this oil painting, Benjamin Franklin looks extremely heroic. He appears as though he is being very brave and courageous in the center of a major storm so as to further his knowledge. Personally, I am unsure exactly what West meant through depicting the angels and could not find any ideas from various websites. However, since the angels seem to be anchoring the kite in the strong storm and conducting research behind Franklin, I am alluding that the angels might represent God’s help and support in conducting this scientific finding. There are several elements of art depicted in this wonderful painting. For example, when looking at the storm with the dark clouds and flashes of lightning, there are a plethora of jagged lines. As we learned in the Elements of Art assigned readings, jagged lines tend to depict turmoil which emphasizes how bad of a storm West was intending to capture. Even though this is an amazing piece, I do not see myself owning it since science is not my strong suit.


cc95037eb04ca209fa6a6f1f59095dd96ad3553a.jpgPhoto of the painting above used from

The second painting shown is created by Joseph Wright of Derby during 1763 through 1765. This oil work is titled, A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in Place of the Sun. I was unable to find a credible source which shared where this painting was created, however, after reading his biography, I conclude that this painting was created in Derby, England. As for understanding the backstory and what is depicted, we should first know the drive behind this piece of work. According to Khan Academy, “Wright’s painting encapsulates in one moment the Enlightenment, a philosophical shift in the eighteenth century away from traditional religious models of the universe and toward an empirical, scientific approach.” By knowing that Wright was trying to shift towards more scientific knowledge, this painting makes much more sense. We see a small group of people learning from an intellect (believed to resemble Sir Isaac Newton) about orbiting planets. By using the orrery, we see the shift to intellects learning about scientific discoveries rather than just religious teachings.

Personally, I am amazed at how proficient Wright was at using art elements to further enhance his painting. As we have learned in the context of the Elements of Art lesson, color can be used as a symbol. Although it is obvious from the title of this painting that the light is used to represent the sun, there is much more meaning behind it. As Abram Fox shared in the Khan Academy website, “Wright mimics Baroque artists like Caravaggio, who inserted strong light sources in otherwise dark compositions to create a dramatic effect. Most of these earlier works were Christian subjects, and the light sources were often simple candles. Wright flips the script with his scientific subject matter.” Instead of using typical candles, he illustrates the light as having come from a gas lamp. These gas lamps were just beginning to appear with the new era of enlightenment and scientific discoveries which really emphasized how big a difference science discoveries were making. Another thing that this color did was emphasize the discovery of the planets orbiting around the sun. Some people believe that the shading of the participants in the picture reference the light hitting the moon as it travels around the sun in perspective from the Earth. For instance, some of the people’s entire faces are fully lit up (referencing the Full Moon) while others are only partially lit or not lit at all. For the same reasons as in the first painting, I do not see myself owning this piece.


Photo of the painting above used from

This third painting known as The Dentist by Pietro Longhi was created around the 1750s. Although not directly found, it is believed that this painting was depicted in Venice, Italy. Before the Classical Era, dental work tended to be done by barbers. Thankfully, some of these barbers began to specialize more in dentistry. During the 1700s, we see significant scientific advancement in dentistry. Tim Lambert states on his website, “In 1728 a French dentist called Pierre Fauchard published a book called The Surgeon Dentist. In 1771 an Englishman called John Hunter published a book called The Natural History of the Human Teeth. Porcelain false teeth were invented in 1770. In 1790 Josiah Flagg invented the dentist’s chair.” Even toothbrushes were introduced to England during the mid-1700s. Aside from the fact that there was an influence of science on teeth, Longhi was also influenced by science. Before 1734, Longhi’s art tended to have religious themes. However, by the mid-1700s, he began to take on a different role that was more reflective on the middle class and things which were occurring during that current time. Therefore, he began to no longer depict religious teachings but rather scientific discoveries such as in this portrait when depicting the current way of removing teeth.

I had a much harder time analyzing these art elements in this piece when compared to the previous two paintings. Nonetheless, I began to detect the visual element of shape, especially the shape of triangles. When looking at the overall painting and the location of each individual, I began to notice the formation of a triangle. Another triangle was present when looking at the attire of the dentist. As we learned in the content associated with the Element of Art lesson, triangles can lead the eye in an upward movement. This element was also detected by Nicholas Calcaterra DDS in his/her work when she hinted that the doctor was at the top of the triangle and appears to be a magician-like figure with the individuals (especially the three children to the left of the portrait) looking up at him. This causes the audience to “look up” to the dentist and the new discoveries about dental work. This triangle also centered the focus of the dentist rather than on the other individuals. I would not like to own this piece since it gives me a stomach ache just thinking about what surgeries and operations were like during this time. I also feel terrible for the poor kid who must be in extreme pain after having had his tooth ripped out of his mouth.

Works Cited

“A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery.” National Museum of American History,

“Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky.” Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art,

Calcaterra, Nicholas. “Dentistry and Art: The Dentist by Pietro Longhi.” Directions in Dentistry, 12 June 2014,

Fox, Abram. “Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy,

“Joseph Wright of Derby.” The J. Paul Getty Museum, J. Paul Getty Trust,

Lambert, Tim. “Early Dentistry/ Modern Dentistry.” A Brief History of Dentistry,

Parker, Charley. “Benjamin West’s Ben Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky.” Lines and Colors, Lines and Colors, 4 July 2014,

“Pietro Longhi Paintings.” Pietro Longhi Paintings – Pietro Longhi Art Painting, Painter, Biography, Toperfect Group,

“Primary Source of the Month.” Primary Source: A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,

“The Visual Elements.” The Visual Elements of Art,,


4 thoughts on “Classical Blog Exhibit-Art and Scientific Discovery in the 1700s​

  1. I think these paintings fit wonderfully with the theme of scientific enlightenment. As you stated in your blog, the painting of Benjamin Franklin portrays his experimentation with electricity. I wanted to assure you that I too thought the angels in the piece were a bit odd. However, I think your interpretation of their presence is spot on. I would add that perhaps they were added to convey the message that God would always be just as important as new discoveries like electricity. In effect, their presence reminds viewers that God would not be pushed aside by new ways of thinking.
    I enjoy the next two paintings more so than the first primarily because of their content. There are no cherubs and the scenes are much more realistic. I believe that both paintings capture the essence of scientific achievement, but especially the second one. While looking at the glowing center of the orrery, the characters are obviously filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. This is how I feel when looking at the image. I would own “A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in Place of the Sun” simply because it reflects my love for science and learning.


  2. I like how all three of your picks for this week seem to embody how science was taking over at this time and moving from religion being the one and only ruler of everything. Your third choice The Dentist really stood out to me. I agree there are a lot of triangles in this painting and they do shift the attention to the dentist. I would say that this is a very linear piece, but most of the faces are round and the dentist and the little girls face are the exact same shape I couldn’t help but notice that and I am still trying to figure out if that was on purpose and if so why. I found it really interesting that most dental work was done by barbers before this time. This painting makes me feel almost as the dentist is becoming respected more or maybe just more sought after since more people believe in science now and don’t just rely on religion. I had no idea before reading your blog that porcelain teeth were available back then. It also made me remember that when I was a kid I was told that George Washington had false teeth made of wood around this same time. That turned out to be completely false but this article explains to why some people would have believed has teeth were wooden.


  3. I like that even though you could not find why the angels were in the painting with Benjamin Franklin, you still included what you thought the artist might have meant. That is exactly what this blog is for, and I enjoy reading about others interpretation of the art they choose to write about.
    I also wrote about how science influenced the arts, and like you, mine portray individual with enlightened minds. Between your post and my post I found that most artists would portray their subject as heroic. Heroism and enlightened minds seem to go hand-in-hand during the Classical Era. I think these paintings you chose to include capture the connection between art and science during the time period very nicely. The second photo is very pleasing in terms of the lighting the artist chose. Great post!


  4. As someone who is entering the field of Electrical Engineering, I really appreciate “Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky.” by Benjamin West. it’s nice to see one of the founders of the concept of electricity fleshed out in a painting. It’s really intriguing how West used color to depict the lighting on the lightning.

    One of the first things that stood out to in the painting “A Philosopher giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in Place of the Sun” was the incredible amount of detail put into the people in this painting. It’s almost like a photo.

    As for the last painting, “The Dentist”, I see that the children are holding up something to the man in the middle. I’m curious as to if they are supposed to be teeth, given the title of the painting, unfortunately, the lack of detail makes it impossible to discern what they are supposed to be holding.

    You’ve really constructed a wonderful piece to the scientific achievements that we have accomplished over time. Keep up the great work.



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