Extract from The Principles of Painting (1743) by Roger de Piles

OF THE ORDER Which ought to be Observed in the Study of PAINTING.

MOST of the skilful painters have taken great pains, and spent many years in the search of knowledges, which they might have attained in a little time, had they hit at first upon the right path. This truth, of which all ages have been convinced by experience, principally concerns youth; and it is youth especially, who, while they are greedily pursuing knowledge, have need of light to conduct them orderly to the point they aim at.

PAINTING may be considered as a fine parterre, genius as the ground or soil, principles as the seeds, and good understanding as the gardener who prepares the earth for receiving the seeds in their seasons, and raises all sorts of flowers both for profit and delight.

‘TIS certain that the genius, which gives birth to the fine arts, cannot lead them to perfection without culture; that culture is impracticable without the direction of the judgment; and that judgment is of no use, unless grounded on true principles. We must therefore suppose a genius in all our undertakings, which would otherwise be lame and imperfect. It must be owned, that all ages are not equally rich in producing real geniuses, and that art grows weak for want of skilful men: But this ought not to discourage such as endeavour to be as good as they can. The earth yields according to its strength, and the seed sown: Genius, in the same manner, by cultivating, will always produce something, more or less, in proportion to its elevation and extent. Thus genius has its degrees, and nature has fixed one for some things, and others for others, as may be observable, not only in the several professions, but even in the several parts of the same art or science. In painting, for instance, one may have a genius for portraiture or landskip, for beasts or flowers; but as all these parts meet in a genius proper for history, it is certain, that such a genius ought to preside over all the kinds of painting; and the rather, because, if it should succeed better than others, this is the common effect of its being more employ'd in this part of painting; and because, feeling a talent for history, it has embraced this part with pleasure, and had more frequent occasions to examine and practise it. But let this be said, without derogating from those geniuses, which, after being inlarged enough to succeed in history, have applied themselves, either occasionally, or through taste, to one part of painting, rather than another: For painting ought to be considered a long pilgrimage, where, in the course of the journey, we discover several things capable of diverting the mind agreeably for a while: We consider the several parts of the art, and stop in the way to it, as a traveller bates at an inn; but if we make our abode at that inn, because we find beauties there agreeable to our taste, or suiting our interest, and therefore are satisfied to view, at a distance, or rather to hear talk of our journey's end, we must never expect to finish our pilgrimage, and come up to the perfection of painting.

THIS is certainly the case of those, who intend to be painters, and yet, passing thro' the parts of the art, are stopped by the charms of some of them, without considering that perfect painting arises only from the perfection and union of them all. What is therefore of the greatest importance, is the cultivation of that genius which ought to preside over all the parts of painting. History demands its whole application and attachment, and forbids it to engage in any disputes that may delay its progress, or in any affair that may divert or encumber it.

BUT a pupil's disposition for instruction may possibly cause an aversion in a master, through fear of losing, in a small time, the fruits of his long experience; for, by imparting his lights, he may be either equalled or surpassed by his pupil. To this I answer, That to bury one's knowledge in this manner, is neither natural, christian-like, nor politick. 'Tis not natural, because nature's property is to beget her like; nor christian-like, since 'tis the part of charity to instruct the ignorant; I mean, such as have talents to learn; and 'tis impolitick, because the master's reputation spreads, and is preserved, by that of his disciples, who transmit to posterity the glory of their instructors.

IF, among the skilful painters, some of the youngest plead interest against communicating their lights and secrets, and it be thought a sufficient reason, yet we cannot excuse the more advanced in age, nor those whose reputation is fixed; because, far from running any risque, their good intentions will be a satisfaction to themselves, and procure them the praise of others; for, What do such masters? They only find methods for removing difficulties, shortening time, and putting their disciples in a way to perfect their taste and genius.


// [Biography of Roger de Piles by Dr C G Barlow. Copyright © 2020 C. G. Barlow.:

Roger de Piles (1635-1709) was born into the lower ranks of the French provincial nobility. He studied philosophy at the Collège du Plessis between 1651-1653 and then theology at the Sorbonne. He also studied painting with Frère Luc (Claude François). French universities were one of the last bastions of Aristotelian-Thomism until Cartesianism entered them in the 1690s. In several places in his treatise, De Piles opposes Cartesian and Newtonian theories, especially in the area of colour and secondary qualities. He worked as an agent for Louis XIV, often in the guise of an art expert and portraitist. Indeed, the Dutch Republic, during its war with France, imprisoned him in Loevestein Castle between 1693-1697. From the 1660s, he was leader of the rubénistes in the Querelle du coloris, a controversy between rubénistes and poussinistes over the supremacy of colouring and drawing. Amongst his writings, he published a French translation of Charles Alphonse Du Fresnoy’s De arte graphica (1668), followed by his own Dialogue sur le coloris (1673), La vie de rubens (1681), and Abrégé de la vie des peintres (1699). With the death of Charles Le Brun in 1690, and the appointment of Jules Hardouin-Mansart (1646-1708) as surveyor of the royal works, De Piles was made an amateur honoraire of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1699, becoming its chief theorist. In 1708, he published his lectures, Cours de peinture par principles avec un balance de peintres. This was translated into English as The principles of painting (1743). It is this translation that forms the present edition. Indeed, although most of De Piles’ literary output was republished during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Britain, France, and the rest of the Continent, this is the first re-edition in English since the mid-eighteenth century.

It should be clear to readers that De Piles’ treatise is not at first-hand. It is also the work of a British translator writing in the 1740s. As was common during the period, the name of the translator does not appear on the title-page or anywhere in the book. However, we are informed on the title-page that they were a painter. Further to this, and apart from bilingualism, they reveal clues in the preface and footnotes as to their identity. Firstly, they discuss the purity of tints relative to Van Dyck and Rembrandt, a topic not found in De Piles’ treatise. They are knowledgeable concerning what “alters and fouls the teint” and know that “postures of most of our portraits are at rest, and at best taken from the layman” (p. ix). Secondly, they state that Van Dyck is “ours” (p. v), which suggests a painter born in Britain, rather than a resident foreign national. Having lived and worked in Britain under Charles I, Van Dyck was considered a de facto member of the British school of painting at this time. Thirdly, the translator does not rectify De Piles’ incorrect, or partly fabricated, quotation from Vasari (see endnote 229). Yet, they insert a footnote (not in De Piles’ original French edition) about the predicables, differentia and genus. This demonstrates a level of interpretative detail that makes the absence of correcting Vasari somewhat conspicuous (see endnote 243). Lastly, the translator does not correct what must have seemed outdated theories of colour realism. De Piles refers to secondary qualities in terms of Aristotelianism. But by the 1740s, Newtonian theories of colour and light were accepted in Britain and France (see footnote 232). Equally, the translator is silent regarding Catholic doctrines throughout the treatise. The outward observance of Roman Catholicism was illegal in Britain. The Test and Corporation Acts made it difficult for Catholics to hold public office, and they could not own or inherit property. Severe rioting broke out against the Catholic minority as late as the 1780s. Given the Jacobite risings, by supporters of the exiled Stuart family, and the invasion of England in 1745, finally ending with the defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1746, it is surprising that a treatise with overt Catholicism was published at this time. It is possible that those involved with its publication were Jacobites, Non-Juror sympathisers (those who supported high churchmen who had believed in the divine right of kings and refused the oath of allegiance to William and Mary in 1688), or a combination of both. Nevertheless, the Aristotelianism and Catholicism may explain why the treatise was published only once during the period in Britain. As to the publisher of the translation, this was J. Osborn (fl. 1704-1743) at the Golden Bull in Paternoster Row. Osborn is known to have worked on some projects with the French translator, John Baptist de Freval. But the latter was not a painter. However, Thomas Bardwell (1704-1767), a copyist and portraitist, is a possible candidate for the translator. Rembrandt and Van Dyck, in the technical context of tint purity, were central to his treatise, The practice of painting and perspective made easy (1756). He also tells us in the introduction that his treatise was a “Result of much Study, and long Experience”. This suggests a period of gestation, which could have stretched back to the early 1740s. However, until further research is carried out, the translator remains unknown.

We have reproduced the 1743 English translation in full and modernised the ligatures and long “s”. Original spellings are maintained but footnoted where these may be confusing for modern readers. We have corrected eighteenth-century typeset errors and footnoted them. The original 1743 pagination is enclosed in square brackets. Roger de Piles and the English translator sometimes inserted their own footnotes. We have included these in our footnotes, indicating whether it is by De Piles or the translator, and, therefore, distinguishing them from our own footnotes. For clarity, we have placed all footnotes at the end of a clause or sentence, unless more than one footnote appears in either. It should be added that we have not maintained an abbreviated footnoting system, a deficient method in electronic texts. Instead, references are given in full each time they are used, regardless of when they first appeared, unless they are within the same footnote. It should be noted that all footnoting systems in electronic texts are endnotes. De Piles included a Latin manuscript by Rubens in his original work. He displayed the Latin and its French translation side by side in two columns, a layout repeated by the English translator, replacing French for English. It is impossible to recreate this layout in an electronic text. Instead, we have included the English translation and footnoted each paragraph with the original Latin.]

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