The Livre de caricatures tant bonnes que mauvaises, 'The Book of Caricatures Both Good and Bad,’ is a unique survival from an age of powerful censorship. If it were to have been discovered by the authorities, it would have been destroyed and its authors at the very least imprisoned in the Bastille.
Most of the nearly 400 drawings in the book are by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin (1721-1786). As Dessinateur du Roi pour la broderie et la dentelle (Designer of embroidery and lace to the King’s wardrobe), he depended upon the king and the court for his livelihood and status. A prolific draughtsman, he also published designs for embroidery as well as the L’Art du brodeur (‘Art of the Embroiderer’)(1770). TheLivre de caricatures reveals a different, secret side of the artist’s identity. It bears witness to his playful but dangerous scrutiny of the court, the city and his times.
Saint-Aubin claimed that when he acquired the volume it was already partly filled with drawings and that his friends urged him to add to the ‘mélange de folies’ (‘medley of follies’). This may be true. It may be a fabrication to tease the viewer. Saint-Aubin created the book with his family and friends over a period of nearly 40 years, from the 1740s to 1770s. His artist brothers Augustin and Gabriel were among the contributors that have been identified so far. Sometimes they added to an image or amended the inscription over time as a subject gained new topicality.
The Livre de caricatures is peppered with imagery derived from carnival and fairground culture as well as from the realms of high culture. Its subversive wit encompasses sophisticated word play – puns and other linguistic jokes – and visual humour. In the Saint-Aubin family the Livre de caricatures was known as the Livre des culs (‘Book of Arses’).
The book evokes the life of the Paris streets, from postal services to itinerant traders and provides an ironic commentary on the efforts of the authorities to police, clean, tax and light the city. It fizzes with theatre, music, literature and scientific experiment. Artists, designers, collectors and connoisseurs are frequently, if affectionately mocked – even individual works of art, including a chamber pot with an exaggeratedly illustrious provenance, and anthropomorphic vases.
Many drawings bear witness to public events, including the torture of Robert-François Damiens, who tried to assassinate Louis XV in 1757. The Prince de Soubise is depicted as an ass returning home in disgrace after military defeat. The Jesuits are among the most prominent of the religious groups at which the authors aimed their humour, along with popes, corrupt monks and esoteric sects. On some occasions, references to contemporaries are disguised in allegory or in stories from the bible, literature and history. However, in most cases the targets are audaciously clear, and they include the king and his mistress, the marquise de Pompadour. Reflecting a long tradition of French suspicion of royal mistresses, Louis XV is shown neglecting his public duties while Pompadour meddles in state affairs and rules over an emasculated court.
The later history of the Livre de caricatures
Charles-Germain was something of a collector as well as a family historian. Towards the end of his life, he composed a kind of family album, which he entitled the Livre des Saint-Aubin, which contains many drawings by himself, his brothers and by other members of his family. For several years now, this volume has been in the Louvre. It is the subject of a short work by Pierre Rosenberg, Le Livre des Saint-Aubin (Paris, 2002). The Louvre inventory number is RF52178. From his teenage years, Charles-Germain also kept a volume of his own drawings of flowers. This work, which he entitled Recueil de plantes, is held at the Oak Spring Garden Library, Upperville, Virginia. The work contains useful biographical details on the Saint-Aubin family. The images from these two volumes, along with those from the Livre de caricatures, provide an exceptional range of drawings by this fascinating individual. The dated but very well-documented account of the Saint-Aubin family by Victor Advielle, Renseignements intimes sur les Saint-Aubin, d’après les papiers de leur famille (Paris 1896), still constitutes the best account of Charles-Germain and his family.
Covertly preserved by Saint-Aubin’s descendants, the Livre de caricatures became prized by collectors. It was at one time in the collection of Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur (1822-1893), the architect who designed Waddesdon Manor. While in his possession, it was seen by the writers and collectors Edmond and Jules de Goncourt (1822-96; 1830-70) who described it as a ‘magic lantern of its times’. The Goncourts’s description of the contents of the Livre de caricatures in the section devoted to the Saint-Aubins in their L’Art du XVIIIe siècle is fullest account of the work’s contents before the Waddesdon Saint-Aubin project.
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild purchased the volume at Destailleur’s posthumous sale and kept it with his French eighteenth-century books in the Morning Room. Critical of the ancien régime but attracted to its arts and literature above those of all other periods, he must have valued the Livre de caricatures’s ironic commentary on people, events and things so closely connected with his collections at Waddesdon Manor.
The digitisation and web catalogue of the Livre de caricatures was completed in 2012 under the auspices of a Project Grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council by a team including Professor Colin Jones (Queen Mary University of London), Dr Juliet Carey, Pippa Shirley and Colette Warbrick and Post-Doctoral Research Assistant Dr Emily Richardson. The Project also organised an exhibition about the Livre de caricatures and the Saint-Aubin at Waddesdon Manor in 2010 and produced an interdisciplinary volume of collected essays, edited by Jones, Carey and Richardson, entitled The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: Drawing Satire in Eighteenth-century Paris, published by the Voltaire Foundation’s ‘Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century’ series.
The Livre de caricatures was made to provoke pleasure and laughter, probably from a small group of Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s friends and family. Now that it is available to a wide public for the first time, users of this website are encouraged to contribute their thoughts on works in the volume. Please write to Diane Bellis at [email protected] , marking your message ‘SAINT-AUBIN CARICATURES’. The Project Team will reply to your message. We anticipate up-dating the website on a regular basis to incorporate new ideas and materials.