Saint-Aubin’s painted oeuvre is rare as he is much better known for his brilliant drawings of everyday life, particularly the series of portrayals of the visitors to the Paris Salons, in which it is possible to observe the method of hanging and identify individual works. This work is one of his largest paintings (the 1774 Salon of the Parisian Academy of Saint Luke included one painting on this scale, measuring 3 feet by 4 feet) and, like most of his other surviving pictures, shows an everyday location – a lawyers’ chambers – painted in a bold, fluent fashion that immediately recalls the work of the English genre painter, William Hogarth. Saint-Aubin’s painting style and his choice of subjects, indeed, seems much closer to English eighteenth century art than that of his French contemporaries. Yet there is not the slightest evidence that he particularly admired the British school nor that he was patronized by any British collectors. One of his most famous popular genre subjects, nonetheless, hangs today in the National Gallery, London.
This scene, set apparently in the receiving room of two bewigged lawyers, may have been based on a contemporary newspaper report. Clearly signed but undated, it was probably executed in the late 1750s, although it is hard to establish a chronology of Saint-Aubin’s paintings. While one advocate sits close to the fire and the other stands behind, both resent the interruption in their comfortable routine. On the fireplace a clock stands before a trumeau mirror, before which is placed a small puppet hanging from a stand, a popular decorating accessory which may be seen in other mid-18th century interiors. At the back of the room, set between rising shelves of legal tomes, can be seen loosely sketched dispatch boxes of papers. The action, however, is set in the immediate foreground where two small children, their pose betraying their anxiety, are pushed forward by a Chardinesque maid who is offering to the two men, perhaps her own employers, a letter that evidently accompanied the two children. Are they orphans, perhaps placed in the custody of these legal worthies, but apparently with little prospect of any sympathy or affection? What was their fate? The artist may have considered that the viewer would have known the outcome – one fears for the poor children that it was a sorry one.
This painting was recently discussed at the symposium on Saint Aubin organized by the Frick Collection in conjunction with the Louvre (the exhibition opens in Paris on 21 February 2008) where its inclusion among the painted oeuvre of the artist was affirmed. The Louvre exhibition includes just seven of his securely identified paintings, but a number (known only from their titles in the livrets of the Salons of the Académie of Saint-Luc) still remain unidentified.