hien-vam, qui fit jetter dans un lac neuf vases...

(Hien-vam, who ordered nine vases to be thrown into a lake…)

Attributed to:
Saint-Aubin, Charles-Germain de (b.1721, d.1786)
Attributed to Style A
c 1740-c 1775 {nd}
Place of Production:
Paris, France
watercolour, ink and graphite on paper
Accession number:
One of a set, see others


Brief Description:

A slim, white faced woman in oriental dress stands at the centre of the page. She is depicted in three quarters view, looking towards the right. Her cheeks are rouged. Her three-lobed coiffure is studded with stones. She is dressed in a kimono-style overdress with a V-shaped neckline and wide sleeves. It is secured by a long sash, tied at her right side, which flows out behind her. Her dress is patterned with blue flower motifs and with red irregular shapes filled in with stripes. Her under-dress (which is just visible at her neckline) is horizontally striped. She wears a short necklace that rests on her collarbone. In her right hand she holds a round fan decorated at its centre with a pattern of concentric circles. On the index finger of her raised left hand perches an exotic bird with blue, white and red plumage. The bird has a long open beak, crest, and four long tail feathers.

Curatorial Commentary

Many drawings in Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s “Livre de Caricatures” make reference to the East, including Persia, Arabia and Japan, but particularly China. Chinoiseries imitate or evoke Chinese art in a playful, fanciful and distinctly Western idiom. In addition, some drawings engage with themes in eighteenth-century French discussions of China, including issues about historiography and alphabets and, as here, debates about inventiveness (cf. 675.23, 675.45, 675.48.)

The inscription appears to evoke an adaptation of the story of the Chinese emperor Hien Vang, the 32nd emperor of the third Tcheou (or Zhou), dynasty (towards 453-222 AD), recounted in du Halde (1735, i, p.361). The story was situated in time a mere two (rather than 16) thousand years earlier. Hien Vang believed that retention of the crown and the security of the state depended upon the possession of bronze vases commissioned by Yu, the legendary founder of the Xia dynasty (c.2070-c.1600 BC). Du Halde explained that the vases – each of which was engraved with the map of a province - contained Yu’s knowledge about his lands, the nature of the soil and its fertility and irrigation (du Halde, 1735, i, pp. 289-9, 361). To confound his enemies within the state, Hien Vang threw the vases into a deep lake from which they could not be retrieved.

Du Halde listed technical competencies for which the Chinese claimed priority, such as the compass and print technology, and those in which they excelled, such as music and mathematics (du Halde, 1735, i, p. 271; ii, pp. 249-61; iii, pp. 256-71). Charles-Germain also added inventions that were European in origin but about some of which there was contemporary debate. Oil-painting was a Renaissance invention, but the rediscovery of encaustic painting (painting with heated wax) following its disappearance in late Antiquity was claimed by the comte de Caylus (who was known to the Saint-Aubin family), although his method was much disputed (Rice, in “Jean-Jacques Bachelier”, 1999, pp. 67-74). Similarly the theory of the ‘fundamental bass’ was conceived by Jean-Philippe Rameau, and was the topic of contemporary French debate. (It is also jokingly referred to as a Japanese invention on 675.63.) A mocking note is added to Charles-Germain’s list by ascribing to the Chinese the discovery of the best way of making soup.

The female figure in the drawing resembles the illustration of a Chinese woman holding a bird in the work of Athanasius Kircher (Kircher, 1987 [1677], p. 106). Her posture, the position of the bird on her left hand and the hairstyle are similar, although the design of the robe and its fabric are different and the woman here has a fan in her right hand. Her feet are also uncovered whereas they are covered Kircher’s illustration. This latter detail is significant, as it shows Charles-Germain’s familiarity with Kircher’s text as well as his images – for he writes that women went barefoot (even though his image shows a woman shod), had clothes embroidered with flowers, birds and other ornaments and enjoyed playing with puppies and birds (Kircher, 1987 [1677], p. 102).

This drawing is in Style A, attributed to the principal author of the “Livre de Caricatures”, Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin. Style A displays a childish and naïve aesthetic and sometimes subject matter, and is characterised by crispness of execution, clear outlines and smooth application of colour. It is dominant in the early part of the book, from 675.3 to around 675.160. The opening inscription (675.1a) claims that the book was acquired from booksellers on the Paris quays in 1740 already containing drawings in another hand. The inscription states that ‘my friends put captions [underneath the drawings] and got me to continue this miscellany of follies’ (“mes amis y mirent des légendes et m’engagerent à continuer ce melange de folies”). This may be a tall story, explicable by Charles-Germain’s reluctance to admit authorship of the work. Charles-Germain was a versatile artist, and the possibility that he was responsible for the entire process in these initial drawings cannot be ruled out. In the drawings in the book not in Style A, Charles-Germain first made graphite sketches in much the same way. However it is possible that in the sections of the book dominated by Style A, Charles-Germain confined himself to working up existing graphite drawings, as well as adding details and also, with his friends’ assistance as he describes, the captions.

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
187 x 132
hien-vam, qui fit jetter dans un lac neuf vases ou etoient conservés / depuis seize mille ans, la description et l'invention de la boussole, / de l'imprimerie, des peintures a huille et En caustique, de la musique / et la basse fondamentalle, des mathematiques, et de la meilleure / façon de faire le pottage
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

Top right corner, in ink
Translation of inscription
Hien-vam, who ordered nine vases to be thrown into a lake. In them were were conserved for 16,000 years, the description and the invention of the compass, the printing press, painting in oil and encaustic, music and the fundamental bass, mathematics, and the best way to make soup.


Part of:
Livre de Caricatures tant bonnes que mauvaises. 675.1-389
Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust)
Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957


Related literature

Jean-Baptiste du Halde; Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et physique de l’Empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie Chinoise; Paris; P. G. Le Mercier; 1735. i, pp. 361, 289
Antoine-Joseph Pernety; Dictionnaire portatif de Peinture, Sculpture et Gravure; Paris; Bauche; 1757. see "Traité pratique de la peinture à l'encaustique" pp. xlvii-lxxxv, and "encaustique", pp. 296-7
Anne-Claude-Philippe de Tubières-Grimoard de Pestels de Lévis, comte de Caylus; Recueil d'antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques, romaines, et gauloises; Paris; Desaint et Saillant; 1752-1767
Corneille de Pauw; Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinoises par M. de P***; Berlin; George Jacob Decker; 1773. For a discussion of the inventions attributed to Chinese Emperors, see pp. 13,15
Athanasius Kircher; China Illustrata by Athanasius Kircher, translated by Charles D. van Tuyl from the 1677 original Latin edition; Oklahoma; Indiana University Press; 1987
Thomas Christenson, Rameau's "L'Art de la Basse Fondementale'', Music Theory Spectrum, ix, Spring 1987, 118-41
Danielle Rice; Jean-Jacques Bachelier et la découverte de la peinture à l'encaustique; Ulrich Leben, Tamara Preaud, Xavier Salmon, Helene Mouradian, Jean-Jacques Bachelier (1724 - 1806): Peintre de Roi et de Madame de Pompadour, Paris, Musee Lambinet de Versailles Jean Jacques Bachelier (1724 - 1806) Peintre de Roi at de Madame de Pompadour 23 November1999 - 19 March 2000, Somogy Editions d'Art, Musée Lambinet (Versailles), 1999
Marcia Reed; A Perfume is Best from Afar: Publishing China for Europe; Marcia Reed, Paola Demattè, China on Paper: European and Chinese Works from the Late Sixteenth to the Early Nineteenth Century, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2007; 9-27

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