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Ev'n then I deem it but a venal crime : Perish alone that selfish sordid rhyme, Which flatters lawless sway, or tinsel pride ; Let black Oblivion plunge it in her tide.
From fate like this my truth-supported lays,
Oct. 10, 1782.
The poem of M. Du Fresnoy, when considered as a treatise on Painting, may unquestionably claim the merit of giving the leading principles of the art with more precision, conciseness, and accuracy, than any work of the kind that has either preceded or followed it; yet as it was published about the middle of the seventeenth century, many of the precepts it contains have been so frequently repeated by later writers, that they have lost the air of novelty, and will, consequently, now be held common; some of them too may, perhaps, not be so generally true as to claim the authority of absolute rules: yet the reader of taste will always be pleased to see a Frenchman holding out to his countrymen the study of nature, and the chaste models of antiquity, when (if we except Le Sueur and Nicolo Poussin, who were Fresnoy's contemporaries) so few painters of that nation have regarded either of these archetypes. The modern artist also will be proud to emulate that simplicity of style, which this work has for more than a century recommended ; and which, having only very lately got the better of fluttering drapery and theatrical attitude, is become one of the principal tests of picturesque excellence.
But if the text may have lost somewhat of its original merit, the notes of M. du Piles, which have hitherto accompanied it, have lost much more. Indeed it may be doubted whether they ever had merit in any considerable degree. Certain it is that they contain such a parade of common-place quotation, with so small a degree of illustrative science, that I have thought proper to expel them from this edition, in order to make room for their betters.
As to the poetical powers of my author, I do not suppose that these alone would ever have given him a place in the numerous libraries which he now holds; and I have, therefore, often wondered that M. de Voltaire, when he gave an account of the authors who appeared in the age of Louis XIV. should dismiss Fresnoy, with saying, in his decisive manner, that “ his poem has succeeded with such persons as could bear to read Latin verse," not of the Augustan* age.
* Du Fresnoi (Charles) né à Paris 1611, peintre et poête. Son poême de la peinture a réussi auprès de ceux qui peuvent lire d'autres vers Latins que ceux du siècle d'Auguste.
Siècle de Louis XIV. Tom. I.
This is the criticism of a mere poet. Nobody, I should suppose, ever read Fresnoy to admire, or even criticise his versification, but either to be instructed by him as a painter, or improved as a virtuoso.
It was this latter motive only, I confess, that led me to attempt the following translation; which was begun in very early youth, with a double view of implanting in my own memory the principles of a favourite art, and of acquiring a habit of versification; for which purpose the close and condensed style of the original seemed peculiarly calculated, especially when considered as a sort of school exercise. However, the task proved so difficult, that when I had gone through a part of it I remitted of my diligence, and proceeded at such separate intervals, that I had passed many posterior productions through the press before this was brought to any conclusion in manuscript; and after it was so, it lay long neglected, and would certainly have never been made public, had not Sir Joshua Reynolds requested a sight of it, and made an obliging offer of illustrating it by a series of his own notes. This prompted me to revise it with all possible accuracy; and as I had preserved the strictures which my late excellent friend Mr. Gray had made many years before on the version, as it then stood, I attended to each of them in their order with that deference which every criticism of his