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Piles, Roger de

Date born: October 7, 1635

Place Born: Clamecy (Nièvre), France

Date died: April 5, 1709

Place died: Paris, France

Writer of art theory and painters’ biographies; art critic. De Piles was born in a noble family. His father Adrien de Piles (1594-1668) was tax controller at the Grenier de Sel (salt storehouse) of Clamecy, his mother was Barbe Grasset (1596-1650). The young De Piles attended the Collège de Clamecy, and he subsequently studied in Nevers and Auxerre. In Paris he continued studying philosophy at the Collège de Plessy, and theology at the Sorbonne. He also trained in painting. In 1662 Charles Amelot (1613-1671), member of the king’s Great Council, appointed him as the tutor of his seven-year old son, Michel Amelot de Gournay (1655-1724). With the publication, in 1668, of the French translation of Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy’s treatise, De arte graphica, which had appeared earlier that year, De Piles became well known in the official art scene in Paris. In 1673 De Piles accompanied Michel Amelot de Gournay on his grand tour in Italy. De Piles greatly admired the Venice painters. In his 1673 art critical work, Dialogue sur le coloris (Dialogue on Color) he ranks them above Raphael. He strongly defended the significance of color and claire-obscure above design in painting. His favorite painter was Rubens, whose biography he published in 1677 in his Conversations sur la connoissance de la peinture et sur le jugement qu’on doit faire des tableaux, où par occasion il est parlé de la vie de Rubens, … (Conversation on the knowledge of painting and on the judgment of paintings, the Life of Rubens, …). De Piles played a major role in the debate between the Rubenistes and the Poussinistes. In 1681 he published his Dissertation sur les ouvrages des plus fameux peintres and La vie de Rubens (Dissertation on the most famous painters, and the Life of Rubens). When Michel Amelot was appointed Ambassador in Venice, in 1682, De Piles served as his personal secretary. He later followed him to Portugal and Switzerland and in 1705 to Spain. De Piles occasionally was charged with secret missions. Acting as a spy in the Dutch Republic, during the war with France, he was imprisoned in Loevestein Castle, near Zaltbommel, where he spent four years from 1693 to 1697. In 1699 Jules Hardouin-Mansart, superintendent of the royal buildings, appointed De Piles honorary advisor (Conseiller honoraire) at the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In the same year De Piles published his Abregé de la vie des peintres, avec des reflexions sur leurs ouvrages, et un traité du peintre parfait, … (The abridged lives of painters with reflections on their works and a treatise on the perfect painter, …). He partly wrote it during his confinement in the Netherlands. His last work, Cours de peinture par principes (Course on the principles of painting) appeared a year before he died.

In his Abregé de la vie des peintres de Piles gives short historical accounts on selected painters, from Greek Antiquity up to the present, drawn from various sources, including the Teutsche Academie of Joachim von Sandrart, the first part of which was published in 1675. De Piles focused primarily on those painters who in his view had contributed to the renewal of painting. The principal goal of his Abregé, which interestingly begins with a treatise on the perfect painter, was to publish separate reflections on the oeuvre of the most famous painters, in addition to their life. Regarding Poussin, De Piles stated that he generally neglected the use of natural colors, and that he did not master the artifice of claire-obscure in painting. De Piles’ book was well received in France.  As adviser to painters at the Académie royale, his ideas on the use of color in painting influenced French art, and art collecting. In his 1708 work, Cours de peinture par principes, he ranked famous painters on their skills in composition, drawing, color, and expression, grading them on a point scale. de Piles work was examined extensively in the twentieth century by Thomas Puttfarken. MD

Home Country:  France

Sources:  Teyssèdre, Bernard. Roger de Piles et les débats sur le coloris au siècle de Louis XIV. Paris: Bibliothèque des arts, 1957; Teyssèdre, Bernard. L’histoire de l’art vue du grand siècle: recherches sur l’Abregé de la vie des peintres par Roger de Piles, 1699, et ses sources. Paris: Julliard, 1964; Puttfarken, Thomas. Roger de Piles’ Theory of Art. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1985; Thuillier, Jacques. Préface au ‘Cours de peinture par principes’ par Roger de Piles. Paris: Gallimard, 1989, pp. iiixxix; Skliar-Piguet, Alexandra. "de Piles, Roger." Dictionary of Art 24: 805-806; Heck, Michèle-Caroline. “Sandrart’s ‘Teutsche Academie’ and the diffusion of a new style.” Simiolus 34 (2009/2010): 183-193; Korthals Altes, Everhard. “Félibien, de Piles and Dutch Seventeenth-century Paintings in France.” Simiolus 34, (2009/2010): 194-211.

Bibliography: L’art de peinture de Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy, traduit en français, avec des remarques nécessaires et très amples. Paris: N. Langlois, 1668;  Dialogue sur le coloris. Paris: N. Langlois, 1673, English, Dialogue upon Colouring. London: Daniel Brown and Bernard Lintott, 1711; Conversations sur la connoissance de la peinture et sur le jugement qu’on doit faire des tableaux. Où par occasion il est parlé de la vie de Rubens, et de quelques-uns de ses plus beaux ouvrages. Paris: Nicolas Langlois, 1677; Dissertation sur les ouvrages des plus fameux peintres. (La Vie de Rubens.) Paris: N. Langlois, 1681; Abregé de la vie des peintres, avec des reflexions sur leurs ouvrages, et un traité du peintre parfait, de la connoissance des desseins, & de l’utilité des estampes. Paris: François Muguet, 1699, English, The Art of Painting and the Lives of the Painters. London: J. Nutt, 1706; Cours de peinture par principes. Paris: Jacques Estienne, 1708, English, The Principles of Painting. London: J. Osborn, 1743.

Subject's name: Roger de Piles