Conversation was was extremely important both as an activity and an ideal in the age of Neoclassicism. As Bruce Redford points out in The Converse of the Pen: Acts of Intimacy in the Eighteenth-Century Familiar Letter (1986), conversation and its written form, the personal letter, exemplified the perfect combination of nature and art, individual and society. Samuel Johnson "reminds us that face-to-face exchange among the elite was not random utterance but virtuouso exercise." Johnson . . ., Swift, Addison, Steele, Shaftesbury, Chesterfield, Fielding, and a host of anonymous courtesy-writers — -all exalted 'the Art of Conversation.' Every writer on the subject emphasized the importance of following rules designed to achieve an ideal of 'Civility,' an ideal finely poised between impertinent 'Freedom' on the one hand and undue 'Ceremony' on the other. (How does this ideal appear in the audience, tone, technique, and emphasis on clarity of the poetry of Pope, Swift, and Johnson?)

According to E. D. H. Johnson, the same ideal informed the visual arts of the age: "The term 'conversation' is akin in meaning to the Italian conversazione. According to the New English Dictionary it referred in the eighteenth century to 'The action of living and having one's being in a place or among persons'; 'The action of consorting or having dealings with others'; 'Circle of acquaintance, company, society'; 'An "At Home".'

[The form of painting called] the conversation piece is first and foremost a group portrayal of two or more persons, based on certain assumptions about the make-up of polite society. The sitters, whether relations or close associates, are presented in a familiar setting, demonstrating their shared interests and activities. In contrast to formal portraiture, the emphasis is less on the being as an individualized and self-directing personality than on his presence within the social order of which he is a representative. As with genre painting, there is often a muted narrative element present, since conversations present their sitters engaged in communal pursuits and interacting with each other. The occasion may be a musical assembly, a card party or other game, a tea party, a drinking bout (such as Hogarth's satirically entitled A Midnight Modern Conversation), or any other festivity which brings men and women together in circumstances that display them at ease and enjoying favourite diversions. Conversations, however, are distinguishable from pure genre, since they present identifiable people rather than low types, and record the genteel pursuits of the middle and upper classes rather than low life. — Paintings of the British Social Scene from Hogarth to Sickert.


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Originally created 1987; last updated July 2000