Loutherbourg was a native of Strasbourg and the son of an engraver and miniaturist. His father had intended him to become an engineer, and his mother hoped he would become a Lutheran priest, but as Philippe’s talent for drawing began to assert itself, the family moved to Paris so that the fifteen year old might study with a master. By the age of twenty-three, he worked in the studio of François Joseph Casanova and exhibited his first paintings at the Salon: emotionally charged landscapes of rock and cascading torrents, roiling battle scenes and churning seascapes. The works were championed by the Enlightenment encyclopédiste, Denis Diderot, who praised them for their lively realism and lustrous portrayal of light. Under Diderot’s patronage, fashionable Paris began to pay attention, and Loutherbourg’s ascent was swift: within four years he received the highest honor from the Académie Royale, election to the group as a full member, despite being under its qualifying age of thirty.
The prodigy was not quite ready for success. Ill-disciplined and temperamental, he was a “furious boy who won’t stay put,” complained Diderot, who started to distance himself after Loutherbourg was caught in one scandal after another: having sex with Casanova’s wife in the studio and then disgracing his father by eloping with a beautiful widow and later acting as her pimp.
Young Philippe had also begun to amass a formidable library of grimoires—volumes on hermeticism, astrology, and the Kabbala. Rumor had it that his studies were supplemented by practical magic—orgies and rituals—rumors seemingly confirmed when his wife sued him for separation on the grounds that he had squandered her dowry in the pursuit of sex and alchemy, leaving her and their five children drowning in debt. Scandalized, the Académie withdrew its favor just as it was on the verge of inaugurating him into its ranks. In 1768, Philippe left France forever.
In his extracurricular interests, Loutherbourg was no different from a host of educated, fashionable men in the second half of the eighteenth century who participated in an unprecedented occultist resurgence in the decades prior to the French Revolution. “When has Europe been so inundated and overwhelmed with fanaticism,” asked a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church. “Who has not heard of hobgoblins, sylphs, convulsionaries, magnetists, and cabalists? What is the object of the Freemasons, and those phrenetic societies called the Illuminated, with their plots, their secrets, their invocations, and their ridiculous rites?”
It was a counter-Enlightenment of sorts, one that pushed back against the cultural forces that had shaped the age of reason—the rise of science, empiricism, and the formation of a rational civic sphere. Polite circles across Europe had recoiled from superstitions they saw as plebeian and vulgar; folkloric pursuits such as astrology and divination had been openly derided, their practitioners mocked as relics of a dimly lit past. But reason itself proved inadequate to the task of dislodging longstanding beliefs, however bright its lantern of progress, and it acted instead like a centrifuge that pushed magic into new venues.
In England, the sulfurous rhetoric of John Wesley’s Methodism, for example, drew so heavily on a warring world of invisible spirits that it moved Wesley to declare that “the giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, the giving up of the Bible.” Wesley needed a perpetually warring world of omniscient angels and demons to bring his movement back to the people, and it was a literal fear of ghosts and malignant spirits that drew his followers away from the wheezing sermons of Anglican curates.
The political repression of the ancien régime also played its part by encouraging the growth of secret societies, especially Freemasonry. In 1752 a schism among English Freemasons divided the societies into “ancient” and “modern” lodges under the maladministration of its Grand Master, Lord John Byron, wicked uncle of the famous poet. The ancient lodges advocated a return to “original” rites, along with a commitment to alchemical study and Kabbalistic illumination. Yet their broader agenda was decidedly revolutionary, a Jacobite ideology that opened the brotherhood to tradesmen and merchants, as well as to powerful liberal aristocrats hostile to the suffocating monopolies of their peers.
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