Of all the “Art Quiz” questions and answers I’ve posted in the blog — all coming from Encyclopedia Britannica, by the way — today’s question is probably the most fascinating. I’ve learned a lot about art history through this feature. I don’t have a strong background in art, so I’m often quite surprised by what I discover.
Case in point: arguments over the relative merits of color versus disegno, that is, drawing.
This “quarrel” as Encyclopedia Britannica calls it, seems to have begun in Paris at the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture back in 1671. Then, after a year of discussion the debate was halted — temporarily, at least — by Charles Le Brun, the chancellor of the Academy. He stated officially that “the function of color is to satisfy the eyes, whereas drawing satisfies the mind.”
Those who advocated in favor of drawing being more important than color were known as “Poussinistes” or followers of Nicolas Poussin. He had painted in a classical style, and incidentally, the chancellor mentioned earlier — Charles Le Brun — had been a student of Poussin. Perhaps we can guess whose side he favored!
Encyclopedia Britannica gives us this information about the Poussinistes:
Color to the Poussinists was temporary, inessential, and only a decorative accessory to form. The Poussinists extolled the virtues of antiquity…and the severe art of Poussin.
You can see paintings by Poussin at The National Gallery site: Nicholas Poussin
They were opposed by the Rubenists. Their colorful masters were artists such as Titian, Correggio, and obviously, Peter Paul Rubens.
Another interesting aspect to this “quarrel” is the political implications involved. Again, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
As Poussin was a Frenchman, sometimes referred to as the “French Raphael,” and Rubens was a Fleming who had been expelled from France when it was suspected that he was spying for the Spanish Netherlands, there was a strong nationalistic stake in the Poussinists’ motivation.
You can see paintings by Rubens at The National Gallery site: Peter Paul Rubens
Despite efforts of Le Brun to put an end to the discussion, the dispute between the Poussinists and the Rubenists continued for years. Who finally won? The Rubenists.
The aim of painting, they maintained, is to deceive the eye by creating an imitation of life or of nature and by manipulating color. — Encyclopedia Britannica
Since reading about this dispute over the relative merits of drawing and color, I find it very hard to choose a side. I’ve always considered drawing as the most important element in art, but more and more I’ve been realizing how important other elements are, especially color. Ultimately I suppose I would side with the Rubenists. My thinking is that I’d rather have color without drawing than drawing without color, if that makes any sense.
What do you think? Color or drawing? Can we really choose one over the other? I’m not sure. I think we can all agree that both are important in art.