Roger de Piles

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Roger de Piles, Frontispiece to History and life of the famous European Painters, Hamburg, Benj. Schiller, 1710

Roger de Piles (7 October 1635 – 5 April 1709) was a French painter, engraver, art critic and diplomat.


Born in Clamecy, Roger de Piles studied philosophy and theology, and devoted himself to painting.

In 1662 he became tutor to Michel Amelot de Gournay, whom he was to follow throughout his life, acting as secretary to his various missions as French ambassador to Venice, Portugal, Spain.

De Piles went to Italy twice, first in 1673–1674 as tutor of Amelot on the latter's Grand Tour; and then again in 1682–1685, as his secretary when Amelot was appointed the French Ambassador to the Republic of Venice. On the latter occasion, De Piles was made a member of the Bolognese literary Academy dei Gelati, most probably thanks to a motion promoted by his friend Carlo Cesare Malvasia, whom he had already met on the earlier occasion, as the Bolognese records in his Felsina Pittrice.[1]

In Venice (1682–1685) he started a famous collection of prints, drawings and paintings of Giorgione, Correggio, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, Rubens, Antoine Coypel, Jean-Baptiste Forest.

He also acquired a taste for political intrigue using his travels ostensibly undertaken to study the European collections, as a buyer for Louis XIV, as cover for confidential missions - for example in Germany and Austria (1685) on behalf of Louis' minister, the marquis de Louvois.

He was not always fortunate as a spy. In 1692, during the War of the League of Augsburg, he was arrested in the Hague carrying a false passport and imprisoned for the next five years. He spent his time writing L'Abrégé de la vie des peintres ...avec un traité du peintre parfait.[2] published in 1699 following his appointment as Conseiller Honoraire to the Académie de peinture et de sculpture.

In 1705 he followed Amelot de Gournay to Spain but illness forced him to return to Paris, where he died in 1709.

Art critic[edit]

His important contribution to aesthetic theory rests on his Dialogue sur le coloris ("Dialogue on colours"), in which he initiated his famous defence of Rubens in the argument started in 1671 by Philippe de Champaigne on the relative merits of drawing and color in the work of Titian (in a lecture to the Académie de peinture et de sculpture on Titian's Virgin and Child with St John.)[3]

The argument is most fascinating as an early debate on classic vs modern in painting; in essence on the mathematics of proportion and perspective in drawing—the classic approach— as opposed to the colored brush stroke—the approach of the moderns. In his detailed study of the argument, Roger de Piles et les débats sur le coloris au siècle de Louis XIV (1965), B. Teyssèdre gives a touching account of the bohème of the "modern" réfusés in seventeenth century Paris, a history that was to repeat itself with the Impressionists.

In the course of the argument Roger de Piles introduced the term "clair-obscur" (Chiaroscuro) to highlight the effect of color in accentuating the tension between light and dark in a painting.

The way Roger de Piles documented his argument with Venetian and northern European examples was of influence to Antoine Coypel, Hyacinthe Rigaud, Nicolas de Largillière and François de Troy.

Balance of painters[edit]

To his last published work: Cours de peinture par principes avec un balance de peintres (1708) de Piles appended a list of fifty-six major painters with whose work he had acquainted himself as a connoisseur during his travels.

To each painter in the list he gave marks from 0 to 18 for composition, drawing, color and expression. This gave an overview of aesthetic appreciation hinging on the balance between color and design. The highest marks went to Raffaello Sanzio and Rubens, with a slight bias on color for Rubens, a slight bias on drawing for Raphaël. Painters who scored very badly in anything but color were Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione and remarkably Michelangelo Caravaggio with 16 on color and 0 (zero) on expression. Painters who fell far behind Rubens and Raphaël but whose balance between color and design was perfect were Lucas van Leyden, Sebastian Bourdon, Albrecht Dürer.

De Piles's Balance de peintres was much discussed among art critics in the eighteenth century and ridiculed by William Hogarth in his print, Enthusiasm Delineated.[4][5]


The complete list is transcribed here from Manlio Brusatin:Histoire des couleurs (Paris: Flammarion, 1986, pp. 103–104), reproduced in Elisabeth G. Holt Literary Sources of Art History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), pp. 415–416

Painter Composition Drawing Color Expression
Andrea del Sarto 12 16 9 8
Federico Barocci 14 15 6 10
Jacopo Bassano 6 8 17 0
Giovanni Bellini 4 6 14 0
Sebastian Bourdon 10 8 8 4
Charles Le Brun 16 16 8 16
I Carracci 15 17 13 13
Cavalier D'Arpino 10 10 6 2
Correggio 13 13 15 12
Daniele da Volterra 12 15 5 8
Abraham van Diepenbeeck 11 10 14 6
Il Domenichino 15 17 9 17
Albrecht Dürer 8 10 10 8
Giorgione 8 9 18 4
Giovanni da Udine 10 8 16 3
Giulio Romano 15 16 4 14
Guercino 18 10 10 4
Guido Reni x 13 9 12
Holbein 9 10 16 3
Jacob Jordaens 10 8 16 6
Lucas Jordaens 13 12 9 6
Giovanni Lanfranco 14 13 10 5
Leonardo da Vinci 15 16 4 14
Lucas van Leyden 8 6 6 4
Michelangelo 8 17 4 8
Caravaggio 6 6 16 0
Murillo 6 8 15 4
Otho Venius 13 14 10 10
Palma il Vecchio 5 6 16 0
Palma il Giovane 12 9 14 6
Il Parmigianino 10 15 6 6
Gianfrancesco Penni 0 15 8 0
Perin del Vaga 15 16 7 6
Sebastiano del Piombo 8 13 16 7
Primaticcio 15 14 7 10
Raphael 17 18 12 18
Rembrandt 15 6 17 12
Rubens 18 13 17 17
Francesco Salviati 13 15 8 8
Eustache Le Sueur 15 15 4 15
Teniers 15 12 13 6
Pietro Testa 11 15 0 6
Tintoretto 15 14 16 4
Titian 12 15 18 6
Van Dyck 15 10 17 13
Vanius 15 15 12 13
Veronese 15 10 16 3
Taddeo Zuccari 13 14 10 9
Federico Zuccari 10 10 8 8



  1. ^ Giovanna Perini, 'Central issues and peripheral debates in seventeenth-century art literature: Carlo Cesare Malvasia's Felsina Pittrice'. In World art: themes of unity in diversity, Irving Lavin (ed.), University Park, 1989, 139.
  2. ^ "Epitome of the life of the painters... with a treaty on the perfect painter".
  3. ^ Thomas Puttfarken, Roger de Piles' Theory of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985).
  4. ^ Upsetting the Balance: William Hogarth and Roger de Piles.
  5. ^ Bernd Krysmanski, "We see a Ghost: Hogarth's Satire on Methodists and Connoisseurs", Art Bulletin, 80, no. 2 (1998), pp. 292-310.
  6. ^ English translation in 1707 The Art of Painting and the Lives of the Painters on Google books


  • Puttfarken, Thomas (1985), Roger de Piles' Theory of Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Skliar-Piguet, Alexandra (1996). "Roger de Piles". In Jane Turner (ed.). The Dictionary of Art. London, New York: Grove-Macmillan Publishers.
  • Teyssèdre, Bernard (1957). Roger de Piles et les débats sur le coloris au siècle de Louis XIV. Paris: Bibliothèque des Arts.
  • Weissert, Caecilie (2020), "Roger de Piles and the Secret of Grace." In Ralph Dekoninck, Agnès Guiderdoni and Walter S. Melion (eds.), Quid est secretum? Visual Representation of Secrets in Early Modern Europe, 1500–1700. Leiden and Boston: Brill, pp. 397–426.

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