"Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780)," Oct. 30, 2007-Jan. 27, 2008, at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
We think of Manet and later the Impressionists as painters of modern life, but long before them was Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780). During the Enlightenment, with France on the cusp of becoming modern -- philosophically, scientifically and culturally, if not yet politically -- Gabriel de Saint-Aubin was an ardent recorder of everyday Paris.
Who was Saint-Aubin, you might well ask? With its current exhibition, the Frick Collection, in collaboration with the Louvre, returns this delightful and eccentric draughtsman to his proper place of honor in the history of art. Gabriel de Saint Aubin’s drawings are small in scale, often loaded with figures, and have an impulsive energy that keeps them fresh and vibrant. Saint-Aubin was willing to record, decorate, and add allegory to the Paris around him as he saw fit.
Saint-Aubin puts the viewer right in the middle of every festivity, event, or even disaster -- from Louis XVI Laying the Foundation Stone of the Amphitheater of the École de Chirurgie (1774) to the Fire at the Hôtel Dieu (1772).
To discover what the paintings in the Salon of 1765 looked like, or what you might have seen at the theater or opera in the 1760s and 1770s, or to observe different classes colliding in Paris parks and at outdoor entertainments, drop by "Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780)" at the Frick. It offers a full-scale retrospective of an odd but fascinating forgotten master.
Saint-Aubin’s drawings take a very close look at Paris in his own time. He depicts the courtly fashion plates of the day on one side of Society Promenade (1760), and while finding room for a well-dressed foursome drinking wine at a table on the other, behind them is a beggar, and in the distance are some immigrants from Savoy, one holding a hurdy-gurdy. There are magnifying glasses available so that you can see every detail.
Perhaps it was Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s intense patriotism (despite a bohemian lifestyle) that induced him to look backward in time so often, using allegory to tie the present to the past. Allegory is integrated into modern life in a series of works dealing with Voltaire, who had returned to Paris from exile shortly before his death.
Saint-Aubin’s Allegory in Honor of the Death of Voltaire (ca. 1770) has a nymph representing poetry pouring water into a conch shell while pointing to an overturned hourglass. A skeletal Death stops the mouth of Voltaire, who appears to be writing even in his coffin in an architectural pediment which doubles as his tomb.
In Saint-Aubin’s Voltaire’s ‘Coronation’ at the Théâtre Français on March 30, 1778, the viewer sees a bust of the philosopher being carried onto the stage, while Voltaire himself bows to the crowd. The artist compressed the two events, separated by a matter of hours, and adds a satiric flourish.
Saint-Aubin’s droll sense of humor puts another man in the box below Voltaire, who thinks the applause is for him and also bows. It’s the duc de Richelieu, an elderly royal. As is often the case with Saint-Aubin, he underlines what’s going on in the image with a caption. Saint-Aubin often inscribes his own poems under his drawings just to make sure the viewer gets his point. Usually, though, the image is more than enough.
Many of the artist’s drawings, including Voltaire’s ‘Coronation’ were intended to be etched, and Gabriel de Saint-Aubin was as much a printmaker as draughtsman. And because Saint-Aubin knew as many architects and scientists as he did people in the arts, there are etchings like The Spectacle of the Tuileries: The Watering Cart, the Chairs (1760-63), two etchings on one plate, which spotlight a way of keeping the dust down and a new business enabling strollers to rent seats in the park. As in much of early Saint-Aubin, the lightness of the Rococo is whipped in with the latest in current, events resulting in descriptive yet celebratory confections with a huge cast of energetic characters seen here.
Exactly how Saint-Aubin supported himself throughout his life is still a subject of debate. The exhibition concludes with a room devoted to his rapid sketches of works of art that he made in guides to Paris or in art sale catalogues. He may have started doing them for himself, but it seems likely that he developed a business in jotting down pictures and monuments for others. Greuze commented that "he had a priapic urge to draw," and Saint-Aubin’s sketchbooks and guidebooks, crammed with quickly dashed off drawings, certainly confirm that urge.
While much remains to be learned about his life and career, we do know that Gabriel de Saint-Aubin began was a talented architectural illustrator, specializing in figures. His fascination with architecture is everywhere in his drawings, like his vast Architectural Renovation in the Interior Courtyard of the Old Louvre Palace (1756). Executed in pen and ink, brush and wash, the sheet is full of figures, from workmen to architects. Saint-Aubin also drew many monuments like the Porte Saint-Denis, fountains and municipal sculptures.
Saint-Aubin was a designer, too, creating plans for everything from fêtes to watch cases. You can admire his designs for a watch, some vases, and a drawing and print for a trade card for an ironmonger.
Coming from a large family of draughtsmen, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin tried to win a Prix de Rome early in his career, but failed. Luckily for posterity, he remained in Paris all his life and turned to indefatigably chronicling his beloved city.
Though there are a few paintings in the Frick exhibition, they provide proof that Saint-Aubin was not destined to be a painter, exceptions being A Street Scene in Paris and The Meeting on the Boulevard, both from 1760. They have so much information packed into them that they can’t help but be exciting, even if they aren’t very well painted.
Saint-Aubin may not have been a painter, but he was a portraitist. Unmarried himself, Saint-Aubin was especially close to his older brother and his family. His Germain-Augustin and Rose de Saint-Aubin Drawn by Their Uncle (1760) is an affectionate work in a typical mix for Saint-Aubin of graphite, chalk and wash.
A more bizarre portrait resulted from Saint-Aubin’s job of making a secret likeness. Saint-Aubin was paid to record the features of a reluctant bishop and records the process in Gabriel de Saint-Aubin Concealed behind a Screen, Making a Portrait of the Bishop of Chartres (1768). Always interested in allegory, he inserts a genie above his head to help the project along.
"Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780)" is a revelation. Don’t miss the unusual works of this freshly rediscovered master.
The exhibition was organized for the Frick Collection by Frick curator Colin B. Bailey and guest curator Kim de Beaumont. The curators at the Musée du Louvre, where the exhibition next appeared, Feb. 27-May 26, 2008, are Pierre Rosenberg, president-director emeritus, and Christophe Leribault, chief curator in the department of drawings. The show’s catalogue is the first major work on the artist in about 80 years and illustrates many works for the first time.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.