Charles-Alphonse DUFRESNOY (Paris, 1611 - Villiers-le-Bel, 1668)


69 x 87 cm. (27 3/16 x 34 ¼ in.)
c. 1660. Oil on canvas

France, Private Collection.

The Artist’s Education from Paris to Rome
Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy or Du Fresnoy is known more for his theoretical writings and his tables of ancient measurements than for his pictures which have not been studied much. Son of an apothecary, he abandoned his medical studies in order to devote himself to his two passions, poetry and painting. First a student of François Perrier, he then entered Simon Vouet’s studio where he became friends with Pierre Mignard: their friendship lasted until the artist’s death.

In 1634, Dufresnoy went to Italy where he remained for twenty years and was joined in 1636 by Mignard. Félibien, who had known the two artists in Italy, later remembered that “These two friends never left each other, and that is why they were called “The Inseparables” in Rome.” Mignard and Dufresnoy lived in the same lodgings, frequented the academies together to draw after the model, and copied the same works by Raphael. Both held Titian’s works and antiquities conserved in the pontifical city in especially high esteem.

Dufresnoy and Poussin
Dufresnoy’s lively erudite mind led him first towards Poussin whose broad knowledge and sense of composition he admired so much, that in his drawings he wished to approach his style. Some of the paintings from his Roman period are derived directly from the master’s sketches and were engraved under Poussin’s name. It is only recently that Jacques Thuillier, Pierre Rosenberg, and Louis-Antoine Prat succeeded in isolating Dufresnoy’s drawings from the mass of graphic oeuvres attributed to Poussin. In a variety of techniques, his rapid sketches affirmed his taste for poetry and fables in a relaxed elegant hand. They also reveal a delicate perpetually unsatisfied temperament which engaged in multiple studies and quests in the preparation of pictures. Two paintings signed and dated 1647 also belong to the artist’s Italian period: The Arrival of Venus on Cythera and The Coloring of the Rose (La Teinture de la Rose or Vénus aux Amours), formerly conserved in Sans Souci, Potsdam. While these pictures owe much to Poussin, they have a refinement and classicism which evokes Albani.

First Commissions
After a sojourn in Venice, Dufresnoy returned to Paris via Bologna in 1656 and received his first commissions, including several paintings for the Château de Raincy, built by Jacques Bordier, supervisor of the Regent Anne of Austria’s finances. Dufresnoy’s Saint Marguerite, dated 1656, painted for the church of the same name in Paris, indicates a distancing from Poussinesque models (Evreux, Museum of Fine Arts). Here the artist reinterprets Raphael’s Saint Marguerite (Paris, Louvre Museum) in a style that owes as much to Domenichino as to Mignard. The latter returned to France in 1658 and associated Dufresnoy into a few grand decoration projects, such as the Cupola of the Val-de-Grâce. It is not possible now for us to determine the extent of the collaboration. On the pretext of a commission from Val-de-Grâce, in 1663, the two friends indicated in a letter addressed to Le Brun that they refused to take on duties at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

Dufresnoy Theoretician
Deliberately staying outside Academy circles, Dufresnoy made friends with Molière and especially with Roger De Piles. It was primarily as an art theoretician that he became known in the Parisian art world, mainly on account of his Latin poem in fifty-five verses entitled, De Arte graphica. Begun between 1640 and 1645 when the artist was still in Rome. It was published by Mignard in only a few examples in the year of his death. A translation into French by Roger de Piles appeared the same year and was supplemented with another of Dufresnoy’s texts, the Sentiments sur les Ouvrages des principaux & meilleurs Peintres des derniers Siècles. (Feelings about the Works of the Principle and Best Painters of the Last Centuries.)

His Oeuvre
Dufresnoy’s painted oeuvre was reconstituted by Jacques Thuillier and especially Sylvain Laveissière who, including autograph versions, attributed more than twenty pictures, to him. The three that were already cited figure amongst them and are the only ones signed. A few other paintings have since augmented this modest corpus which is nonetheless representative, because Dufresnoy, who was quite an exacting perfectionist, painted very little and slowly. Roger de Piles estimated that his “history pictures” only numbered about fifty:

“The time he devoted to reading and discussing Painting to enlightened people whom he found willing to listen left him little time for working; he seemed, for that matter, to have difficulty painting, either because his profound Theory held him back, or because never having learned from anyone how to handle the brush, he had contracted a style which was not very expeditious.”

Dufresnoy, Allegory, and Ripa
Our painting follows the rediscovery of the first known allegorical painting by Dufresnoy, Allegory of Painting, which entered the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon in 2006, and depicts a young woman painting a winged spirit. One of his more ambitious known pictures, the Allegory of Painting is surprising for its refined iconography which is entirely liberated from Cesare Ripa’s tutelage. The latter’s famous Iconologia, published in Rome in 1593 and re-edited many times, was otherwise followed very closely in 17th century painting, particularly in France.

Interpreting our Allegory
Our canvas is characterized by the same independent scholarly invention as the Allegory of Painting, but with even more complexity. Together the works show that Roger de Piles was absolutely correct when he said that Dufresnoy had a mind and memory filled with “a lot of knowledge" and that his conversation was "full of digressions.” Their attritubes are so numerous that the three protagonists in our painting resist any attempts at interpretation using Ripa’s Iconologia. The young imperious half-nude woman draped in white and holding a sun in her hand is surely Truth, but her brilliant star bears a Hebrew word: religion or faith (דתה). This word determines the angle under which it is appropriate to interpret Dufresnoy’s composition.

Beside Truth stands a helmeted Minerva or Pallas, symbol of Wisdom and Reason, while the serpent wrapped around her left arm is the most eloquent attribute of Prudence. Under Truth’s throne is stretched an old man with a fish tail who cannot be Triton, but rather Falsehood, even though in Ripa he is endowed with two entwined serpent tails. The artist no doubt wished to avoid all confusion with Minerva’s serpent. In place of Falsehood’s other attributes (a bouquet of flowers with a common snake and hooks), the artist depicts a mask that has fallen on the ground and a burning smoking torch. This, in Ripa, is one of the attributes of Calumny, Discord, and Impiety, the vices which Faith combats: Truth sets her feet on the monster, ready to crush it.

Leaning towards her, Minerva points to a child who is standing at the foot of the platform. The Goddess of Wisdom seems to wish to entrust him to Faith. The boy puts his index finger to his lips in a gesture of silence, signum harpocraticum, a reminder that only silence makes it possible to unveil mysteries which are inaccessible through knowledge. The almost nude child reproduces almost exactly Harpocrates’ iconography and pose in antique statuary which Dufresnoy knew perfectly. As for the fish held in his left hand, it is the attribute of the Power of Love and of Penitence in Iconologia. An allegory of the Vita breve who holds a dried fish can also be found in Ripa. The hourglass seems to have similar significance: the sand has run out entirely. Finally, the fish also has strong Christian connotations: time consumed announces the hour of Judgment.

This erudite allegorical painting is also characterized by equally studied organization of space, which is delimited by the stone steps, an empty pedestal on the left, a red curtain, and a parapet behind which opens a vast magisterial landscape. The distribution of figures in a supple diagonal is balanced. They are bound together by their gestures and gazes, while the child’s eyes interrogate the viewer. The artist admirably combines Poussin’s rigor, Albani’s delicacy, the gravity of de La Hyre’s Parisian Atticism, and Mignard’s refinement. The sweetness emanating from the young boy’s figure where the light accents on the fingers extend across the back of the hand is, nonetheless, Dufresnoy’s own characteristic touch. Truth bears the gracious forms of the goddess of love in Venus at Cythera, and the servant’s perfect Greek profile in The Abduction of Europa (Lille, Palace of Fine Arts).

The pictorial substance is quite varied, going from a smooth surface in the flesh to stumped contours and architectural details, to discreet impastos of light hues in the reflections, not to mention a broad visible brushstroke in the supple gently falling drapery folds. The vibration of the coloring in warm chords highlighted by the sparkle of brighter notes, – yellow ochre, lapis blue, lake red - the rays of sunshine which caress the flesh and are reflected in Truth’s fabrics and hair, the attentive rendering of details, constitute a multitude of elements which reveal the delicacy of a painter who was both erudite and sensitive.

General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Jacques THUILLIER, “Propositions pour : II. Charles-Alphonse Du Fresnoy, peintre,” Revue de l’Art, no 61, 1983, p. 29-52.
Jacques THUILLIER, “À propos de Charles-Alphonse Du Fresnoy : du “Maître de Stockholm” au “Maître de Cassel,” Revue de l’Art, no 111, 1996, pp. 51-65.
Sylvain LAVEISSIERE, “Les tableaux d’histoires retrouvés de Charles-Alphonse Du Fresnoy,” Revue de l’Art, no 112, 1996, pp. 38-58.
Sylvain LAVEISSIERE, “Un alter ego de Mignard : le peintre Charles-Alphonse Dufresnoy (1611-1668),” J.-C. Boyer (dir.), Pierre Mignard « le Romain », Colloquium Acts, Paris, 1997, pp. 93-115.
Sylvain LAVEISSIERE, “Dufresnoy (Charles-Alphonse),” Saur, Allgemeines Kunstlerlexikon, vol. XXX, Munich-Leipzig, 2001, pp. 375-378.

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