BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE
Fréart de Chambray, Roland
Idée de la perfection de la peinture...
||Le Mans, J. Ysambart, 1662
||Ghent, Universiteits Bibliotheek, BIB.ACC.028378
Poussin, close to the Fréart brothers, in particular the youngest, Chantelou, to whom we owe the invaluable correspondence with the “philosopher painter”, thanked Roland Fréart de Chambray in a letter in 1665 for having sent his Idée de la perfection de la peinture: “I am delighted that you were the first one in France to have opened the eyes of those who until then had only seen through the eyes of others”. Since then, the Idée has often been considered the first theoretical treatise strictly speaking on painting in France, since the preceding or contemporary writings such as those by Hilaire Pader, Abraham Bosse, Abbot de Marolles, Félibien or even Dufresnoy do not present its systematic and doctrinal qualities. It is true that noone before Chambray had pushed so far the project of planting the intellectual foundations of painting, to establish what is permanent and universal in the vagueness of pictural creation and thereby to forge effective tools for criticizing works.
Fifty-six years old when he wrote his treatise, Fréart de Chambray was not at his first try. He had already published translations of Palladio (1650) and of the Traité de la Peinture by Vinci (1651). The following year he published La perspective d’Euclide. Nor was he unknown in the art world, even if, when he was writing in 1652, it had been a long time since he had withdrawn to Le Mans, the family birthplace, where he had found refuge in 1645 after Richelieu’s death and Sublet de Noyer’s disgrace. Sublet had been the most powerful minister of the great cardinal and was related to the three Fréart brothers whom he had employed as civil servants. Their greatest success was to have brought Poussin back to Paris. He stayed there from December, 1640 to September, 1642, certainly an important sojourn, but a short one thwarted by countless difficulties and intrigues; Poussin did not succeed in laying the foundations of a new school of painting in France, of which he would have been the head, as the Fréart brothers hoped.
The historical context in which Fréart composed and published his treatise is highly significant. The art world was in the midst of changing after Mazarin’s death (March 9, 1661). His hold over the arts had been heavily influenced by his liking for luxury which was devoid of “true knowledge” according to Chambray, who moreover had participated in the Fronde in Le Mans and had published his books on architecture during that period. With Louis XIV’s personal takeover of power, with the return of peace, the fall of Fouquet and the arrival of Colbert in the government, the art world was set in motion: the Académie de peinture took advantage of an occasion which appeared during the summer of 1661 to take in Colbert as vice-protector. At the same time, Le Brun, whom the minister greatly appreciated, rejoined the Académie. It was precisely that year, full of promising events, that Chambray worked on his Idée, addressing the “true lovers of painting”, with probably the secret desire to find them or train them among the nobility at court: at the beginning of the Avertissement au lecteur, before explaining some terms of art in order to instruct “those who love painting and would like to speak like experts with those of the profession”, Chambray reveals that his “intention was to present his treatise principally to the eyes of the court”.
Although the period seemed favorable- Vaux’s team was transferred to the royal construction sites after Fouquet’s fall (September, 1661) and the Académie royale de peinture was reformed, and starting in February, 1663, Colbert reassembled the Petite académie, whose main task was to strive to develop everything concerning the glory of Louis XIV - the theoretician of Le Mans was not called upon. Colbert appointed Charles Perrault to be his administrative aide and promoted him to be secretary of the Petite académie. At the Académie royale, it was Félibien who was introduced, supported by Le Brun (who had just won over the king by painting Les Reines de Perse aux pieds d’Alexandre in 1661-1662).
In fact Colbert, Le Brun and Félibien were thirteen years younger than Chambray; Charles Perrault was twenty-two years younger. A similar gap existed in ideas about art and the society that was supposed to receive it: Chambray’s was a punctilious and quibbling theory, written with bitterness and smacking of the provincial moralist who is always telling people what to do, and it could have had trouble pleasing the refined milieux of the court and city. It would have pleased even less the power which expected encomiastic discourse from its artistic groups. Now the first accusation leveled by Chambray was directed at the arts of his period that the flattering environment surrounding them would have corrupted. The artists’ flairs were apparently diverted from their true aims, since they had been transformed into sycophants themselves. Thus the two sides, the artists and their following would have needed to come to a realization of and a reflection on the essence of the art of painting. “Apelles’ time is past”, observes Chambray; painting has apparently been separated from its antique grandeur by centuries of constant degeneration – which he calls elsewhere “gothic” –, a degeneration explained either by “negligence” or by oppression “under the tyranny of bad rulers”. Nevertheless, what Chambray seems to ignore, was that painting was rarely as brilliant in the Grand Siècle: La Hyre, Stella, Bourdon and Le Sueur were creating their major works during the 1650s...
Moreover Chambray’s program of restoration recalls Descartes’ program, with his reference to “natural judgment” and to “common sense”, with his search for fundamental principles, founded on reason and on “experimental science”, “in the manner of geometers” and claiming universality, with his fight against errors and exceeding the plain data of visible nature. However, Chambray would not be able to tolerate the shadow of a doubt, even a systematic one, and he did not shrink from begging indulgence from the authorities, especially that of Franciscus Junius whose De Pictura veterum (1637) provided him with the main categories for his demonstrations. It was rather the Ancients who provided them, since Junius’ De Pictura was an almost complete compendium of antique sources on art. In fact, during that period, the discourse on art by a non-artist, in France which did not have its own tradition, needed to find a justification proportional to the claim that its principles were universal ones. Chambray first appealed to the artists’ authority when he summoned Poussin and Leonardo da Vinci, when he edited da Vinci’s Traité, intending it to become “the rule of art” and “guide of all true painters”. The Idée placed its justification on the authority of Antiquity, the absolute reference, essentially literary, and it was Pliny who provided him with the material to describe works, anecdotes and legends of artists, which were lessons and ethical and aesthetic precepts. Having to do with abstract and timeless values- selflessness, submission to the public’s judgment, the constant concern for technical and intellectual perfection, observance of the rules of geometry and perspective, the constant search for the spiritual in art- in all this Chambray could do without concrete examples of antique painting. What he did retain except for the morality of the antique artist, was above all the strictness with which the artist would have observed the rules and the laws of painting and his ingenious representation of abstract concepts. Throughout the Idée Chambray is forever reminding the reader that painting is “completely spiritual” and that it is open to reason alone and to “true scholars”. Thus, the favored example is that of the Greek painter Timanthus, who, needing to represent various degrees of psychological pain in his Sacrifice d’Iphigénie, and in order to paint the person who had to express the worst degree of pain, he refrained from painting the face, covering it with a veil. Everything can be represented without grotesque or indecent exaggerations, if the mind takes over and speaks “to the eyes of understanding”, after art has found its limits in appealing to “the eyes of the body”. In this the Apelles and the Timanthuses will never be surpassed by the Moderns, for from the technical point of view, of the coloring, of regularity of perspective, of correct proportions, “nor of all the rest that is mechanical in art”, they would have no advantage. It is the moral and intellectual superiority of the Greek painters, proved by the writings of Pliny, Quintilian and Philostratus which conferred authority to Chambray’s theoretical account. Concerned to reveal the fundamental principles of antique painting and justified by that authority, he applied these same principles to modern paintings, in order to distinguish the good from the bad.
The five fundamental principles that the Ancients apparently observed, and that Chambray finds in Junius’ De pictura are as follows: the invention, the proportion, the couleur, the mouvements and the collocation. The invention is defined as “the inspiration to observe everything regarding the subject and conceive a fine idea of it”; the proportion, as “symmetry and the correspondence between the whole and its parts”. The couleur was quickly disconnected from its inherent nature, to become “the science of shading, and of light”, where “science” would be a branch of perspective. The mouvements, or “expression of movements of the mind”, give life to the figures. Taking up again the old adage “Every painter paints himself in his paintings” considering the works to be “mirrors of the temperament […] and of the genius” of the artist, Chambray makes the mouvements the linchpin of his attacks against licentious artists. This is where the criticism of Michelangelo appears, “rustic and unpleasant”, who apparently had “no regard for propriety”, an extremely violent criticism which was developed further, opposed to Raphaël’s “modest” nature. The shift from an objective consideration of the observation of principles, here the expression of passions, towards a moral judgment ad hominem is so immediate that it is almost imperceptible. This shift is above all fundamental for the spirit and the method of Chambray’s criticism. His principles, going from a rule to its application, from a variable to its values, shift in nature: formal provisions become ethical imperatives.
The last of Chambray’s five principles is called collocation or position régulière des figures in the painting. All the preceding principles are called upon: the well thought-out subject, rendered by expressive figures placed accurately according to the rules of perspective and proportions. According to the author, the collocation could be defined as a general order of the work, “father of beauty”, which gives the painting a “rank among the sciences”. Order is above all the accuracy of the placement, the proportions and the expressions of the figures, corresponding to their roles in the story represented in the work. Thus, the work is a whole, in which everything fits together and where everything can be judged based on the purpose of the composition, i.e. the precise and adequate link to the subject. It is less a matter of a technique, of an artistic practice, than of a composite in which the intellectual part prevails insofar as each element must be able to justify its form and its place from the point of view of the central idea of the work. Hence Chambray’s long and stinging abuse of Vasari for his interpretation of Raphael’s School of Athens. How is it possible to analyze and judge Raphaël’s work fairly, when one is so mistaken on its subject as to identify it as a scene taken from the Acts of the Apostles?
But the most astonishing part, unprecedented in French artistic literature, is the part devoted to the critical analyses of the works by contemporary masters. Four paintings by Raphaël are among them: The Judgment of Pâris, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Descent from the Cross and the School of Athens, as well as Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. In fact he is referring to engravings of the masters’ paintings, or after their inventions. Chambray recommends that his reader procure reproductions in order to follow his line of argument. The engraving enters into the horizon of the theoretician’s demonstrative reasoning, an element Chambray considered infinitely superior to any ecphrastic description, even that made by a Philostratus. It is obvious that this dependence on linear composition favors the intellectualist preferences, which Chambray strengthens further by associating a new category to it, costume. He says it is the “center of the painting’s perfection” and devotes almost half of his treatise to it, explaining it and dealing with its correct or incorrect applications. Costume, resembling the propriety and decorum of antique origin, just as important to Italian theoreticians and rhetoricians since the Renaissance, is made up for Chambray of invention and expression, the two most spiritual elements of his five principles. The most authentically intellectual dimension of painting, costume can be understood firstly as perfect adaptation of a work to its emplacement, and secondly, as the adaptation of each part of the work to the subject represented. Allowing no lapse regarding the laws of decorum, costume “is strictly speaking a learned style, a judicious expression, particularly and specifically suitable for each figure of the subject it treats”.
Thus Raphaël’s paintings are sifted through costume; except for a few details in his work, everything is “extraordinarily well thought-out” and “reasonable”. On the other hand, important lapses are pointed out in Dürer’s work: a Saint Joseph with a rosary, and next to the Virgin Mary, a monkey, the most ridiculous and vicious of animals. The criticism becomes extremely violent, even when compared with preceeding criticisms, notably Italian ones on the side of the Catholic reform, with Michelangelo “this antagonist of the ancient painters, and the coryphée of all the Moderns”, whom he apparently corrupted, this reckless and very ridiculous competitor, who has not the least talent as a painter”. One would not be surprised to learn that if what Roger de Piles (1669) reported on the destruction of Michelangelo’s Leda by Sublet de Noyers because of indecency (the painting was at Fontainebleau during Richelieu’s ministry) was true, Sublet’s decision might have been inspired by his secretary and relative Chambray.
Lastly costume also helps Chambray to establish Nicolas Poussin as the paragon of living artists. Poussin is “the most complete and the most perfect of all the Moderns”, another “Timanthus”, to whom only Domenichino could have been compared. Presented by means of the series of the Seven Sacrements, belonging to Chambray’s brother Chantelou, Poussin is admired in the Idée, not eulogized but as the object of a demonstration founded on reason.
The Idée de la perfection de la peinture was conceived as a manual aimed at those who would look for solid criteria suitable for distinguishing “true” from “false” painting. Chambray also mentions, significantly, those artists who hide behind “the mask of appearance” instead of “taking the trouble to acquire and possess […] the very thing”. Putting these artists to the test of his principles, unmasking them, is an objective of the Idée, which gives quite a few examples. In addition to Michelangelo, their ancestor, Chambray aims at “libertine” artists, i.e. those who reject being subjected to the rules and a study of the foundations of art, i.e. the “rebellious party of the cabalists”. They pursue a sort of painting which pleases the spectator naturally, but superficially and temporarily, attracting the senses with “rouge” and “colors”. Artists as different as Primatice and Veronese, Parmigianino and Tintoretto, Cavaliere d’Arpino and Lanfranco, “and other similar Mannerists” are reproached together.
An essential task which Chambray imposed on himself in the Idée was to take painting away from any subjective approach, whether it was on the side of its production or that of taste. In its place he set up the ideal of systematic study of principles and of the analysis aspiring to objectivity, methodical and strict. His Idée would almost do without real paintings altogether, insofar as they always present an appreciable obstacle to conceptual analysis. Introducing the engraving as a basis for knowing the painting, to the detriment of the ecphrastic description, coexists in Chambray as he criticizes the jargon of the dilettantes, whose terms like “ghoulishness of the complexions”, “drawing fury”, “brush freedom”, “bold strokes”, “master strokes” and other “wild beauties” relate to feelings. Chambray’s categories were inherited from Antiquity and from the rationalist tradition of the Italian Renaissance and are rejoined to form a militant critical theory, to be operational in a public artistic space, conceived, not as a salon for refined amateurs, but as an assembly of philosophers and learned scholars.
Artistic literature contains traces of the reception of the Idée until the beginning of the 19th century. Félibien, more moderate, knew the treatise very well, as did Roger de Piles, even if his ideas on the “essence” of painting are the opposite of Chambray’s. If one puts aside La Réforme de la peinture by Jacques Restout (Caen, 1681), which is dedicated to him, most of Chambray’s readers approach it carefully. Even with Poussin, though the model of the perfect painter with the Ancients, Chambray could not find frank approval. In his letter of thanks after receiving the Idée (March 1, 1665), the “modern Timanthus” insisted on specifying that most of the theoretician’s principles- decorum, judgment, plausibility, costume above all- were “parts belonging to the painter and cannot be taught”. Clearly, Poussin was not ready to be dispossessed of the “parts” he considered his own, coming from his artistic genius, not coming from the theory of a pedantic critic.
The book had considerable success; an English translation came out as early as 1668, and an Italian translation in 1809, in Florence. It insisted on reassuring its reader that Italy, from whom the French theoretician apparently borrowed everything, needed no Oltramontani to conceptualize art. A substantial defense is attached to it, of Michelangelo, the artist who was badly mistreated in the Idée. He was also severely criticized by a few other Italians contemporaneous with the translation, Milizia and d’Azara, who, as the apologist Onofrio Boni specified, “believed exaggeratedly in the influence of a cold philosophy more than the arts of genius”. Therefore what was at stake in Chambray’s treatise was still very present in people’s minds around 1800: the elaboration of an independent theory of painting in France, founded on reason, likely to formulate a conclusive criticism of modern paragons, notably Italian, in theory as in practice.
Milovan Stanic (Université de Paris Sorbonne, Paris IV) – 2012
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J. Thuillier, "Polémiques autour de Michel-Ange au XVIIe siècle", Bulletin de la Société d’Étude du XVIIe siècle, 36-37, 1957, pp. 358-368.
J. Thuillier, "Académie et classicisme en France: les débuts de l’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (1648-1663)", Il mito del classicismo nel Seicento, Messina/Florence, D’Anna, 1964, pp. 181-209.
J. Thuillier, "Doctrines et querelles artistiques en France au XVIIe siècle: quelques textes oubliés ou inédits", Archives de l’art français, 23, 1968, pp. 125-217.
J. Thuillier, "Les débuts de l’histoire de l’art en France et Vasari", Il Vasari, Storiografo e Artista Florence, Grafistampa, 1976, pp. 675-677.
M. Weyl, Passion for Reason and Reason for Passion. Seventeeth Century Art and Theory in France 1648-1683, New York, Peter Lang, 1989.
J. Wood, "Cannibalised Prints and Early Art History. Vasari, Bellori and Fréart de Chambray on Raphaël", Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 51, 1988, pp. 210-220.