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Art Theory Leading into the Eighteenth Century Essay

The argument of color verses design originated in the Baroque, but extended much further into the eighteenth century in terms of theory. Roger de Piles was the father of this argument based on coloris versus disegno and the Poussinists versus the Rubenists and so on. He joined the Academy in 1699, right on the verge of the Rococo and basically formed the argument for color, rather than classical design in his Cours de Peinture par Principes in 1708. Up until Rubens artwork, the classical style of painting was preferred with a focus mainly on “straight lines, right angles, triangular arrangement of forms, balance, symmetry, and so on” (Minor 367). De Piles believed that color appealed more to human’s emotions and that was what truly great art was meant to do.

He therefore obviously chose Ruben’s work as superior to Poussin’s. This was known as the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, with the Moderns prevailing in the eighteenth century . Ruben’s work was monumental in shaping the painting style during the next century. His paintings inspired artist’s styles such as Watteau, Gainsborough, and Boucher. Through de Piles arguments within the academy and Ruben’s rejection of the classical style the eighteenth century painting theory was born. This essay will attempt to follow this movement from the classical style that dominated the baroque with Poussin to the shift towards Rubens at the end of the century and end with its influence on art theory in the eighteenth century.

Throughout most of the Baroque the classical was preferred in painting. Poussin’s paintings are usually used as perfect examples of baroque classicism, but the idea of painting in the classic mode goes much further than this. “Literary theory on ideas of painting went back at least to Alberti” (Puttfarken, Roger de Piles’ Theory of Art 2). The Academy wished to move painting into a more serious and advanced form of art comparable with poetry and writings of the greats from antiquity.

The themes chosen for these paintings were usually in the history category and followed strict visual rules. The entire composition would be the core of the painting with an emphasis on drawing. These paintings have clear lines defining each object and are placed in an orderly manor. This order can be read as very complex with an exact sequence like literature and is only one of the many characteristics of classical baroque painting. Sequence is used not only in the visual, but also in thought and leads into the idea of episodes, still connecting back to the fine art of writing. Modes were also used in art theory by both Poussin and Felibien.

These were based on “what musicians called modes or dessins” (Puttfarken, Roger de Piles’ Theory of Art 30). Basically modes are determined by the subject matter of the painting. If the subject were happy or sad or strong and so on, there would be a specific mode to follow. These modes would determine the viewer’s emotional reaction to the work and were based around the ideas of the ancients, like Plato . Poussin’s own words describe the idea of modes best by saying “as the Modes of the ancients were composed of several things put together, the variety produced certain differences of Mode whereby one could understand that each of them retained in itself a subtle distinction, particularly when all the things that pertain to the composition were put together in proportions that had the power to arouse the soul of the spectator to divers emotions” (Puttfarken, The Discovery of Pictorial Composition 215).

Poussin’s “A Dance to the Music of Time,” done between 1639 and 1640, clearly represents these ideas. The overall picture invokes “the mood of calm contemplation” and is based on the “triple groupings with which Poussin was so obsessed” and has a very defined symmetry (Merot 95). Time is shown on the right of the picture space playing a lyre and four figures, one male and the other three female, dance in the middle of the painting. It is possible that the four figures represent “poverty, work, riches, and pleasure” (Merot 95). Meanwhile, in the sky Apollo flies by accompanied by the seasons . This painting can be compared with Ruben’s “The Kermis,” done between 1635 and 1638. It is not arranged at all like Poussin’s. The objects are strung across the painting at a diagonal going back into the distance.

There are a number of figures not really grouped at all, but rather scatter throughout the composition freely . “The couples feast, dance tempestuously, and rush off toward the trees for love-making” (Minor 369). The scene is more casual and not allegorical at all when compared to the Poussin. The colors are more vibrant too and the use of paint in the Rubens is much looser and seems to reflect the overall mood of the people frolicking in the painting. It is a much more relaxed scene and probably one that people could more closely relate to in their daily lives. The comparison between these two paintings leads into the de Piles discussion of color versus design with his favor being for Rubens.

De Piles was not an artist, but more of a freelance critique of art who focused mainly on the l’unite d’object in contrast to Felibien’s unite de sujet. He mainly focused on the works of the Dutch painters, specifically the works of Rubens and argued his works against Poussin’s. This wasn’t a debate that was de Piles alone. He was more like the official spokesperson in the Academy for the debate that was more a universal one. What was better, line or color, design or the emotion evokes by an overall mood? It was an argument that was fought throughout the artistic community and marked a shift in the general idea of what painting should be. The shift towards looser brushstrokes and an overall loosening of subject matter and design wasn’t met without opposition. Even the Academy itself, under Lebrun, fought against this change, but eventually accepted it as a possibility with the induction of de Piles.

The definition of painting was the general preface that was under attack. De Piles definition of painting “remained the most popular treatise on painting for most of the eighteenth century” (Puttfarken, Roger de Piles’ Theory of Art 39). He basically felt that painting was to be looked at and understood as an emotion at the first basic glance and then the viewers understanding of the overall subject would interpret the meaning from there on. This is in the same vain as the theory on Modes, but goes beyond that in a more abstract manor. His way of viewing a painting was more for an overall sensory experience rather than in broken up themes and pictorial spaces that must be understood in order to view the painting as a whole. This is different than looking at a picture in Modes.

The total composition is determined by the subject matter, but the reaction of the viewer is based on a less calculated overall understanding. De Piles found that the Modes did go along with the subject matter, but much more was needed to evoke an emotional reaction. Emotions could not be determined on a cookie-cutter definition of what happy or sad and so on were supposed to look like and how these emotions were to be depicted. De Piles looked to move the definition of painting into its own realm. He felt that it should be appreciated as an art of its own and not involved with any of the other arts, such as literature. To him painting was a visual art and couldn’t be categorized differently .

The very definition of what de Piles felt to be the visual arts was based around color, not to totally ignore design though. There were generally two different definitions of design. The first being the overall picture design that is in the artist’s mind prior to the painting of a picture. This would include the composition, color, shading, and so on. These are basically all of the elements that will go into the work. The second definition of design would be the outline and such that defines each individual element of the painting. This is the only definition that de Piles excepted because he felt that the other definition was too broad and all the elements that went into a painting couldn’t go under one huge label. This left him with the second definition of design and when one takes the second definition of design it is impossible to see this as the defining element of a painting without the use of color.

Design, to de Piles, was “as insufficient for the final end of the painting – for illusion or tromperie – as grammar is for the purpose of rhetoric” (Puttfarken, Roger de Piles’ Theory of Art 64). Grammar is involved in rhetoric, but it isn’t what defines it as such. It is basically just the mechanics of what is a whole lot more. Without persuasive choices in words put together in a persuasive order the grammar means nothing in the overall effect, just as lines of a painting mean nothing without color to give those lines meaning. He isn’t rejecting design however. Design is the backbone of a picture that must be learned first just as one cannot produce rhetoric without first knowing the laws of proper grammar.

Color does have different aspects and isn’t as cut and dry as it may appear. De Piles has many definitions of color in the imitation of nature. There are several different categories of color in this respect. There are natural colors that occur in nature and then there are imitation colors that are put on a canvas by painters and these two shouldn’t be confused. He also believed that there is a difference in the colors that are part of an artist’s pallet and the colors that end up representing an object on the canvas. The simple means of transferring a color directly from the pallet onto the canvas wouldn’t be an accurate representation of nature and the colors in nature.

It takes skill and color beyond the simple pallet to reproduce colors that exist naturally. There doesn’t just exist one color, but there is the actual color of the object, the color that is reflected by the object, and finally the color of the light that lets the object be seen. It is more complex then just a simple reapplication of color. Therefore, the application of color surpasses design in its many dimensions and is the true element that makes up an object in nature, so it has to also be the true element that forms the definition of a painting.

Rubens was again the main influence in de Piles studies and he “praised Rubens as a learned man, an accomplished painter of allegories, one steeped in ancient sculpture” (Alpers 72). As an artist, Rubens embodied all that de Piles used to define art. Ruben’s fine, loose brushwork and use of light and composition was what de Piles’ whole argument of color was based around. Rubens was an influential painter for de Piles, but was also one for the next generation of painters working in the eighteenth century.

His works toward the end of the baroque clearly show the theory behind the art that would dominate the eighteenth century. Many artists used and continued his style changing the face of painting theory. Watteau was one of the first to really pick up the color approach towards painting, but many others followed. Both de Piles work and Rubens turned out to be extremely influential, but not all of de Piles arguments stuck. His rejection of the hierarchy of painting genres didn’t prove to hold true among critics like Diderot, but for the most part his ideas were widely excepted and expounded upon.

Specifically, Watteau was greatly influenced by the works of Rubens and by the idea of color in contrast to design. He first started studying Rubens by looking at his “Kermis” and taking a couple from the left side of the painting and recopying them in a chalk drawing. The drawing is similar, but not an exact replica. Later, the subjects were transposed into an engraving entitled “The Surprise” by Audran.

All of Watteau’s paintings had a Rubenesque quality to them, but in some cases he took it steps further. “The Garden of Love” is an excellent example of one of Watteau’s works that is very reminiscent of Rubens. Watteau also did paintings after Ruben’s Medici pictures and used her in his “Fetes Venitiennes.” His brushstrokes mimic Ruben’s and the general movement of his paintings are clearly born out of the de Piles argument for color.

Watteau was one of the first painters of the eighteenth century to continue the Ruben’s movement, but there were several after him. Many of these artists went even further until the beginning if the neoclassical movement that started to look back towards the classics and a push away from the free, colorful, emotional paintings of the Rubenist movement occurred. Artists like Boucher, Fragonard, and Gainsborough followed in Ruben’s footsteps, but as the tides turned toward the classics again, paintings like those of Reynolds and David were the preferred choice among patrons. “In the second half of the eighteenth century, to invoke a Poussin rather than a Rubens style signaled to the viewer that the painter was engaged in a male world of significant actions rather than one concerned with the female dalliance of love” (Alpers 93).

This quote ties into the neoclassic movement, but also raises a new question and makes one wonder about the seriousness in painting quality given to the works siding with the color end of the argument. Is the Ruben’s style of painting considered feminine and does this lessen the quality of the painting in comparison to a masculine painting like the “Oath of the Horatii” by David? Where would de Piles stand on this argument? It is hard to say, but towards the end of the eighteenth century there was a definite switch back to Poussin’s style and these paintings are seen as more masculine in comparison to paintings like Boucher’s “Marquise de Pompadour at the Toilet-Table.”

There becomes a sense of what is a masculine and what is a feminine painting. The Poussin inspired paintings tend to lean toward harsher, historical subjects usually involving a hard, intense scene and the Rubens inspired paintings are more lighthearted, usually depicting flirtatious love scenes. Even though the Poussin inspired scenes are more in his classical style there are still some elements that come from the colorist school. The paintings focus on design, but have an aspect of color that more closely relate to Rubens than the paintings in Poussin’s time in the disegno style, so de Piles argument still has a tiny thread running through the end of the century.

The argument of color and design basically set the stage for eighteenth-century artwork and through de Piles arguments and the tracing of the elements of design and color one can see a clear path from the Baroque to the Rococo and beyond. The classic paintings of Poussin mark a period when classic history paintings were the norm. In this paper just Poussin has been mentioned, but the design mode of working was the norm for most of the seventeenth century. It wasn’t until Ruben’s groundbreaking work that the color movement started to get recognition, but was still regarded as inferior to the classic style by men like Lebrun and the Academy.

Not until de Piles started making headway with his arguments after finally being allowed into the Academy’s doors that the movement really caught on. His push for the color mode helped make way for the paintings of the eighteenth century, even though all aspects of art seemed to be going in that direction anyway. Even the architecture and house decoration started to head in a more relaxed, whimsical style that would later be criticized. The rococo’s feminine aspects seem to mimic those of the colorist movement, but the colorists had more staying power throughout the century and aspects of the Ruben’s school continued even into the nineteenth century, taking this theory of art beyond even neoclassicism.

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Art Theory Leading into the Eighteenth Century Essay. (2021, Jan 18). Retrieved September 17, 2021, from