Art Theory Leading Into the 18th Century

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Art Theory leading into the 18th Century

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...
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