52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations, Week 51: the plates of Diderot & d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1751-1772)
This final rare book entry for our Inspiring Illustrations thread has inspired generations of artists, merchants, craftsmen and businessmen. We have chosen the 11 volumes of plates which accompany Denis Diderot & Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (or, Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts) which were published from 1762-1772.
Often called one of the greatest works of the Enlightenment and the 18th century, Diderot & d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie was as much a political work as an academic exercise. Inspired by the Cyclopaedia of Ephraim Chambers (first published 1728), they set out to create the first Encyclopaedia for France and in the French language. The resulting effort was a magnum opus of 17 volumes of text published over 15 years with a total of over 71,000 articles. Diderot & d’Alembert contributed to many of the articles, but they also surrounded themselves with many of the philosophers and luminaries of the time. The work was revolutionary in scope and political as well. The publication of the Encyclopédie survived several attempts of stoppage via censorship attempts by the Catholic church, plagiarism complaints and even the removal of Royal license at one point.
Labelled as the “war machine of the Enlightenment,” Diderot knew that his Encyclopédie was a game-changer:
“Cet ouvrage produira sûrement avec le temps une révolution dans les esprits, et j’espère que les tyrans, les oppresseurs, les fanatiques et les intolérants n’y gagneront pas. Nous aurons servi l’humanité” (“This work will surely produce in time a revolution of the spirit, and I hope that the tyrants, the oppressors, the fanatics and the intolerants will not win. We have served humanity.”)
The plates, released under the title Receueil de planches, sure les sciences, les arts libéraux, et les arts méchaniques, avec leur explication, these 11 volumes provided the illustrative matter needed to complete Diderot & d’Alembert’s magnum opus. Originally intended to be released alongside the text volumes, the plates were designed to elaborate further on the topics within the Encyclopédie and also provide quick visual reference for interested readers. The Preliminary Discourse of the Encyclopédie, found in the first volume (1751), described the potential for around 600 plates total. By the time the project was finished over 2500 illustrations were contributed.
The quality of the plates, meant to “correspond to the perfection of the designs,” is largely due to Louis-Jacques Goussier. Goussier was enlisted in 1747 by d’Alembert initially to redesign plates, but the group quickly decided to create all new plates for the Encyclopédie (due mostly to a plagiarism suit brought against them for redesign work). He designed over 900 plates to this work from 1747-1760, and is also the only artist to contribute articles to the work.
The first volume of plates wasn’t released until 1762, due to subscription and legal issues, the final volume was published 10 years later. Like the Encyclopédie, these plates were quite political in depiction as well. A craft or trade was introduced with one or more plates depicting a workshop or warehouse where everything is ordered and clean. The plates following detail the elements of a craft or the steps for production. Instead of presenting workshops in an objective manner, the Encyclopédie promoted domestic glass manufacture, tapestry weaving, and other industries in which the French sought to distinguish themselves, and glorified their production.
These amazing volumes of plates make up one of the most valuable parts of the Encyclopédie. They are the best representations of the crafts and techniques that we have from the 18th century and of all parts of the economy and daily life of the Old Régime. St Andrews hold a complete set of both the Encyclopédie and accompanying plates, found at classmark =sf AE25.D5.