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Roger de Piles


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(b Clamecy, 7 Oct. 1635; d Paris, 5 Apr. 1709).

French writer on art, amateur painter, and diplomat. De Piles was employed by Louis XIV on various confidential missions (he was imprisoned as a spy in Holland, 1692–7) and his travels enabled him to study the arts at first hand in various European countries. His best-known book is Cours de peinture par principes avec une balance des peintres (1708), which has become notorious for the section (the ‘balance des peintres’) in which he awarded marks to great artists of the past for their skill at composition, drawing, colour, and expression, then added up the scores to form a sort of league table of genius (his criticism, however, is usually much less crude than this). Raphael and Rubens come out with the joint highest marks in his scheme, and his admiration for the latter was shown in the famous controversy of the ‘Rubénistes’ against the ‘Poussinistes’ (see Poussin) that split the Académie Royale (see academy) in the second half of the 17th century. De Piles took the side of the Rubénistes, who believed that colour is of prime importance in painting, in opposition to those who upheld the academic emphasis on drawing. He also recognized the value of genius, imagination, and ‘enthusiasm’, as opposed to skills that can be learnt.

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