Découverte de la basse fondamentalle

(Discovery of the fundamental bass)

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 man playing a long, sinuously curved instrument crouches on the back of a large fantastical bird, facing left. The bird has white feathers flecked in pink, a pink crest and wings, and long pink, red and yellow tail feathers. In its beak it holds a piece of paper covered in illegible scribbles.

The body of the man on the bird's back also faces left. His head is turned back over his shoulder towards the front. He wears a mustard yellow coolie-style hat with two thin plumes rising to the left of its crown, a yellow jacket and breeches, which are pulled down to reveal his naked buttocks. The bottom edge of a musical score is tucked into the back of his jacket while its top is pinned to a rectangular frame, through which the man’s body passes. The frame is strapped to the bird. A small brown monkey playing a hunting horn perches on top of the frame, facing right.

To the right of the bird is a second man who stands amidst its tail feathers, facing left. He has a distinctive face with a bald head, a long pointed nose and a protruding lower lip. A pair of round spectacles with yellow lenses perch on the bridge of his nose. He looks at the music, pointing at it with the index finger of his left hand. He holds a piece of rolled paper, or a white baton in his raised right hand. The man wears a long pink belted robe with pink and white striped wide sleeves and a white collar. The lengths of his yellow belt flow out behind him.

Curatorial Commentary

Jean-Philippe Rameau, a frequent butt of humour in the “Livre de Caricatures” is here orientalised (as ‘Ramikisof’; see too 675.177 for another oriental incarnation). The use of infantalising or nonsensical names was a feature of the oriental tale, a literary genre popular in the first half of the eighteenth century. Many drawings in the “Livre de Caricatures” make reference to the East, including Persia, Arabia and Japan, but particularly to China. Numerous chinosieries imitate, evoke and poke fun at Chinese art in a playful, fanciful and distinctly Western idiom. Such drawings also are used satirically against Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s own society.

This drawing makes reference to Rameau’s treatise, “L’Art de la basse fondamentale” (‘Art of the Fundamental Bass’), written c.1737 (which is also noted on 675.21). In contrast to his theoretical works on harmony, published as “Traité de l’harmonie” (1722) and “Génération harmonique” (1737), “L’Art du basse fundamental” was designed by Rameau to be a practical guide to composition and accompaniment. The manuscript was never published, but the ideas were widely known about and were subsequently reworked in his “Code de musique” (1761; cf. Christenson, 1987).

Rameau’s theory provided Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin with the opportunity to construct a scatological pun, linking the fundamental bass with the music of the human fundament – a source of humour much evident in the book as a whole. (e.g., 675.66, 675.67, 675.69) The humour extends to mockery of the Sinophile tendency to attribute to the Chinese all inventions of note (cf. also 675.45; de Pauw, 1773, pp. 13, 15). The fantastical date far exceeds even the most far-fetched account of human origins.

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
Découverte de la basse fondamentalle
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

Par ramikisof, japonois, en l'an 997784396
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below first inscription, in ink

Basse fondamentalle
Inscribed, probably in the hand of Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, beneath second inscription, in graphite; the graphite is faded, almost to the point of illegibility.

Top right corner, in ink
Translation of inscription
Discovery of the fundamental bass
By Ramikisof, Japanese, in the year 997784396
Fundamental bass


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



Colin Jones, Presidential Address. French Crossings. II. Laughing over Boundaries, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 21, December 2011, 1-38; p. 5
James H. Johnson; Musical culture; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 215-232; p. 219, fig. 9.2
Richard Taws; The precariousness of things; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 327-347; p. 332

Related literature

Corneille de Pauw; Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinoises par M. de P***; Berlin; George Jacob Decker; 1773
Thomas Christenson, Rameau's "L'Art de la Basse Fondementale'', Music Theory Spectrum, ix, Spring 1987, 118-41
Graham Sadler, Patrons and Pasquinades: Rameau in the 1730s, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, cxiii, 1988, 314-37
Robin Howells, Pleasure Principle: Tales, Infantile Naming, and Voltaire, The Modern Language Review, xcii, April 1997, 295-307

Indexed terms