Published: November 5, 2007
gifted draftsman, able painter and keen observer of human behavior in Eighteenth Century Paris, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin was one of the most prolific, insightful and talented artists of his day, yet he remains little known today. His unmatched ability to capture and convey events and moments in time made him an embodiment of contemporary Parisian life †essentially a history painter of his time.
In this context, “Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724‱780),” the first major retrospective of the artist in more than 80 years, is an introduction to a singular figure about whom more should be known. It was organized for The Frick Collection, where it will be on view through January 27, by chief curator Colin B. Bailey and guest curator Kim de Beaumont. Collaborating colleagues at the Musee du Louvre, where it will be seen February 27⁍ay 26, are president-director emeritus Pierre Rosenberg and chief curator of drawings Christophe Leribault. The show comprises some 50 drawings and a few paintings from Saint-Aubin’s large and varied oeuvre.
Explaining the organizers’ mission, Rosenberg observes that “Of all the great Eighteenth Century French artists, Saint-Aubin is still the most underrated, one of the least famous, one of the least understood.” Concurring, Bailey notes that in spite of Saint-Aubin’s keen observations, artistic gifts and prolific output, “this engaging and truly original artist is hardly known today.” In introducing him to a larger audience, Bailey calls Saint-Aubin “a draftsman of genius; a brilliant, if idiosyncratic engraver; and an engaging, if not always successful, painter.”
A lifelong Parisian, Saint-Aubin was born into a family of skilled craftsmen. His father was embroiderer to the king for three decades. Gabriel was the most talented of four brothers. The eldest, Charles-Germain, created and wrote a treatise on embroidery designs and produced volumes of engravings after his delicate watercolor studies of flowers. The younger and less skilled Louis-Michel was a porcelain painter at the Sevres factory. The youngest, Augustin, became well-known for his outstanding engravings, some based on the work of such contemporary painters as Boucher, Fragonard and Greuze.
Gabriel studied at the French Royal Academy, hoping to become a history painter. But after he failed several times to win the prize that would have enabled him to train in Rome †once losing out to Fragonard †he set aside plans for a traditional artistic career and took up anecdotal depictions of daily life in Paris in all its varied aspects.
“He was first and foremost a tireless stroller, an assiduous footloose ‘flaneur’ of Paris,” writes Rosenberg in the catalog.
“[I]nterested in everything and everybody,” Saint-Aubin sketched all that he saw, large and small events alike. He read a lot and communed with learned people, while leading a free-spirited, bohemian existence. Described by Bailey as an “idiosyncratic but engaging figure,” his life was filled with such eccentricities as insomnia, hypochondria and slovenly personal habits.
Blessed with great gifts in drawing, Saint-Aubin was employed as an illustrator all his life. His eldest brother joked that he produced “one hundred thousand drawings.” In the course of a quarter-century as chronicler and witness to Parisian life, Saint-Aubin “raised anecdote to the level of great art,” says Rosenberg.
In his early 20s, Saint-Aubin began teaching drawing at an architectural school, and started creating elaborate architectural drawings recording municipal fetes celebrating major events at court. This early concentration on architecture stimulated his interest in Parisian themes, often combined in allegorical conceits that invoked supernatural variations on contemporary reality. This intertwining of fact and fancy remains a hallmark of his art.
His approach to Parisian subjects was fresh and exciting because he did not view himself as merely a genre artist, but rather he employed his varied artistic background to convey his immediate fascination with events in his hometown that were attracting local, national and sometimes international attention.
As a commemorative illustrator, Saint-Aubin depicted most major occasions in the lives of the French royal family between 1750 and 1780. Working with local architects and engineers, he glorified building projects of national significance and visualized utopian schemes designed to uplift humanity.
As he recorded current events, Saint-Aubin captured for posterity such memorable occurrences as calamitous fires, visits by foreign dignitaries, stage and musical performances, and various forms of lavish entertainments. His comprehensive record of contemporary Parisian history became an invaluable source of information for future scholars.
“[H]is greatest strengths,” writes guest curator de Beaumont, were “a gift for subtle observation rather than grand emotive gestures; a matchless ability to combine freedom of handling with intricate detail, often on the most diminutive scale, rather than a feeling for monumental plastic forms.”
Saint-Aubin never married and died in poverty shortly before his 56th birthday.
In the most important illustration project of his career, for Philippe de Pretot’s Spectacle de l’histoire romaine expliquee, Saint-Aubin depicted events of Roman antiquity. Highlights in the exhibition include two masterpieces, “The Naval Battle Near Ecnomus (256 BC),” 1763, portraying the Roman naval victory over the Carthaginians during the First Punic War, and “The Triumph of Pompey (61 BC),” 1763, depicting Roman general Pompey’s third and final triumphal entry into Rome. In the latter image, especially, the artist successfully met the challenge “of how much information he could impart to a single image of relatively modest size, while maintaining visual and narrative coherence,” says de Beaumont.
Although he never married, Saint-Aubin’s exposure to the family life of his widowed older brother, Charles-Germain, helped him create a number of sensitive portrayals of children. He depicted his niece and nephew in “Germain-Augustin and Rose de Saint-Aubin, Drawn by Their Uncle,” 1766, with a dignity and respect that recalled Jean-Simeon Chardin’s insights into the nobility of childhood. In this small (73/16 by 413/16 inches) wash over graphite, the artist captured a moment when young Rose appears to be about to play the hurdy-gurdy resting in her lap.
There may also be a family connection to one of his most famous sheets, the intricately layered watercolor and gouache “The Flirtatious Conversation,” 1760. In this apparently conventional genre scene, the lecherous older man resembles profile portraits of Saint-Aubin’s recently widowed brother Charles-Germain. Inscribed on the sheet are verses composed by Saint-Aubin that translate as “Old, unreformed debauchee/You think you are seducing this beautiful creature/But long ago the damsel/Made up her mind to be honorable.”
In the 1760s, Saint-Aubin focused on a variety of genre scenes aimed at the thriving French market for reproductive prints. He created successful, updated versions of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “fetes galantes,” adapting more idyllic pictorial traditions to specific places and circumstances of current Parisian life.
Saint-Aubin’s “Society Promenade,” 1760, juxtaposes elegant men and women with lower-class types like a beggar and an itinerant Savoyard family in an outdoor setting. It was engraved by A.J. Duclos, an associate of the artist’s brother Augustin.
Saint-Aubin’s rare, admired oil painting, “A Street Show in Paris,” 1760, makes one wish he had done more work in this medium. Depicting a humble aspect of his city’s street activities, passersby and urchins gather to watch mock swordplay between outdoor performers, a performance designed to entice the public into the adjacent theater. It was engraved by Duclos to be paired with the glimpse of more elevated local life, “Society Promenade.”
In “Gabriel de Saint-Aubin Concealed behind a Screen, Making a Portrait of the Bishop of Chartres,” 1768, the artist depicted himself secretly carrying out his assignment by depicting the unsuspecting prelate at a dinner party.
Saint-Aubin was the first artist to create in paintings, finished drawings and thumbnail sketches panoramic views of contemporary picture auctions and exhibitions of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, conducted every other year in the Salon Carre of the Louvre. In his unfinished watercolor “The Salon du Louvre in 1765,” 1765, he sought to encompass, with fascinating documentary detail, an entire exhibition site devoted to the work of Chardin in a single, ambitious image. This finely finished sheet laid the foundation for his celebrated “View of the Salon of 1767,” 1767.
These images of the Salon, “at once realistic and accurate, tours de force of spatial invention †are far superior to many of the works on exhibit at the time,” observes Rosenberg. They constitute Saint-Aubin’s most original contribution, providing priceless documents for art historians studying his era.
Saint-Aubin’s fascination with Parisian stage and musical performances was reflected in works such as “Momus,” 1752, showing a ballet dancer playing the role of the offspring of Night and Sleep. In the expansive colored drawing, measuring 19 by 26½ inches, “Lully’s Opera ‘Armide’ Performed at the Palais Royal,” 1761, a large crowd enjoys an elaborately staged production, with sets designed by Francois Boucher and his son, of a work by Italian-born composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Saint-Aubin’s love of the theater and admiration for the writings of Voltaire came together in several of his finest late works. The first immortalized the famous author’s appearance, shortly before his death, at the Theatre Francais, where he received spontaneous ovations when he entered his box and was crowned with a laurel wreath, and immediately after the performance of his tragedy Irene, when the entire company took turns crowning his portrait bust on the stage. Rather than depicting only one event, Saint-Aubin added to the drama of the occasion by showing both as part of a glorious moment.
On the eve of his own death, the artist created an odd, idiosyncratic homage to his recently deceased literary hero in “Allegory in Honor of the Death of Voltaire,” 1779. In an image filled with symbols and notations, Saint-Aubin composed a dreamlike blend of unlikely juxtapositions. The mourning water nymph at the center, based on a sculpture by Jean-Antoine Houdon, pours water from an urn into a shell-shaped vessel.
The spray agitates a swan †representing Poetry †near her feet, as a nearby muse inscribes a scroll with the famous maxim for Voltaire’s mausoleum at Ferney: “His spirit is everywhere, but his heart is here alone” †a reference to Voltaire’s beloved residence. The author’s tomb looms above. As the philosopher raises himself up in his coffin to resume his writing, inevitably Death places a seal on his lips.
In his composite drawings, Saint-Aubin frequently included identifiable art objects by contemporary artists, often in complex and idiosyncratic combinations. In “Sheet of Studies: Castel’s Clock, Various Portraits, and Carved Group,” 1773, for example, he copied an image of famed actress Mademoiselle Clairon from an engraving in the upper right, and included several other figures. The composition is dominated, however, by a grand, tall astronomical clock.
Exploring why Saint-Aubin is not in vogue today, Rosenberg notes that “His drawings are too small, they look unfinished, overloaded, do not have sufficient will power. At a glance, they are difficult to apprehend&nd demand an effort” to understand.
Moreover, he adds, “his work contains nothing tragic, violent, desperate or derisory&”
On the other hand, organizers of the exhibition, specifically Leribault, point out that no artist of the Eighteenth Century, at least, devoted himself so prolifically, resiliently, perceptively and empathetically to a city and its dwellers as did Saint-Aubin.
Rosenberg observes that “This priceless, unique documentation, to which no other city in the world can boast anything comparable, is still largely untapped.” He and his colleagues argue, persuasively †and document in the works on display †that Saint-Aubin deserves greater appreciation.
In portraying the city that was his world, Gabriel Saint-Aubin bequeathed a trove of images of great beauty, broad scope and considerable personal charm that reflect his unmatched pictorial imagination and his feel for the people and the world around him. “He saw everything, observed everything, drew everything with a communicative empathy,” says Rosenberg, “but above all with sweetness and humor, with decency, never vulgar, always elegant, and with a sort of amused detachment.”
As curator Bailey puts it, “As the unsurpassed chronicler of the city of Paris in the heyday of the Enlightenment, he captured all aspects of cultural life with wit, affection and pride †providing an immensely vivid window into that world.”
“He was an eccentric and especially inquisitive onlooker. But above all he was the most endearing bystander in the history of arts,” concludes Rosenberg.
The exhibition catalog, the first significant reference work on the artist in nearly 80 years, features essays by principal organizers Bailey, de Beaumont, Leribault and Rosenberg, with contributions by other experts. Published by Musee du Louvre Editions and Somogy Editions d’Art, it is available for $59.95, hardcover. The Frick Collection is at 1 East 70th Street. For information, 212-288-0700 or www.frick.org .
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