Pitagore dit de fort belle choses Sur les nombres.

(Pythagoras said very fine things about numbers)

Artist or maker:
Saint-Aubin, Charles-Germain de (b.1721, d.1786)
Additional handwriting by Pierre-Antoine Tardieu (b.c 1784, d.1869)
c 1740-c 1753
1822-1869 {Inscription}
Inscription by Tardieu gives date of drawing as 1753, although it appears to have been worked on at, at least, two different times.
Place of Production:
Paris, France
watercolour, ink and graphite on paper
Accession number:
One of a set, see others


Brief Description:

A smiling young man wearing a small four-legged stool on a strap over his left shoulder stands facing obliquely towards the left. In his extended right hand, he holds a piece of paper, on which lines of script and three seals are visible. His left hand hangs at his side. The man is dressed in a round-necked, collarless coat that flares out at the waist. He wears tattered stockings or half-gaiters, dark shoes and a three-cornered hat decorated with two plumes that unfurl towards the left.

To the left of the page and facing towards the standing figure is a second man, dressed in long red robes and wearing a long curly wig with high peaks. He kneels at the feet of the first man, his hands pressed together as if in supplication.

Curatorial Commentary

This drawing is multilayered, seemingly composed in a number of stages, with puzzling captions and a cross-reference. The complications are amplified by the fact that Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, the descendant of Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin who inherited the book in the 1820s, and contributed the caption at the bottom of the page, may have misunderstood the intentions of the original drawing.

The central figure is drawn 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 especially 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 on 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.

The central figure may have originally been one of the beggars or low types who appear frequently in the “Livre de Caricatures”, often depicted in Style A. However, added text and drawing have given the image additional layers of meaning. The somewhat puzzling evocation of Pythagoras may refer to the belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of the soul, ideas with which he was particularly associated. This was a veiled way of talking about social and political promotion, a constant bugbear in the “Livre de Caricatures”. The ragged clothing and the reference to boot-cleaning outside the door of a minister contrast with the celebratory mood of the drawing at 675.137, a cross-reference to which is made. The caption at 675.137 – ‘he was not always so well in the saddle’ – emphasises this contrast.

The inscriptions at 675.121 and 675.137 give a more precise context to this generic transformation. They evoke the political crisis over the sacraments controversy associated with the administration of the last rites to alleged Jansenists, which led the government to exile the magistrates of the Parlement of Paris in May 1753. The recall of the Parlement in September 1754 was regarded as a defeat for its principal antagonist in the sacraments affair, Christophe de Beaumont, the archbishop of Paris, and a dramatic elevation of the Parlement’s own fortunes.

In this reading, the ragged figure at 675.121 and the mounted drummer at 675.137 would appear to depict the Parlement. However, the later addition of a grovelling figure in the dress of a Parlementaire shifts the meaning and suggests that the central figure at 675.121 is – as Tardieu’s final caption also suggests – the comte d’Argenson, one of Louis XV’s most long-serving ministers, brandishing the royal decree or “lettre de cachet” exiling the Parlement. War minister from 1743 to 1757, and minister with responsibility for Paris from 1749, d’Argenson supervised relations with the Parlement. A member of the anti-Jansenist, “dévot” faction at court, he had been an enthusiastic supporter of a strong disciplinary line in 1753.

Tardieu suggests that the figure here represents not the triumphant Parlement but rather the comte d’Argenson - who in fact in 1754 was anything but triumphant. It is, moreover, slightly odd to represent as a beggar either the Paris Parlement or the comte d’Argenson – the latter was from a distinguished Robe family. However, d’Argenson had been at the height of his power in early 1753, and his failure to deal with the Parlement effectively over Jansenism was one reason for his dismissal in 1757.

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
187 x 132
Pitagore dit de fort belle choses Sur / les nombres.
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

[?] a Paris
Inscribed, below first inscription, in graphite; the inscription, executed in very faint graphite, is partly overwritten.

Il decrotoit alaporte d'un ministre
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, top, in ink

et devint comme veréz alapage 137
Inscribed in an unknown hand, below second inscription, in ink

Le Comte d'Argenson délivre des lettres de cachet et d'exil contre le / Parlement. 1753.
Inscribed by Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, bottom, in ink

Bottom right, in graphite

Top right corner, in graphite

Top right corner, in ink
Translation of inscription
Pythagoras said very fine things about numbers
[?]in Paris
He cleaned shoes at the door of a minister's house
and became as you will see on page 137
The comte d'Argenson delivers lettres de cachet and letters of exile against the Parlement. 1753.


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, Emily Richardson; Archaeology and materiality; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 31-53; pp. 43-4
John Rogister; Decoding the Livre de caricatures; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 55-66; pp. 57, 59, fig.2.2
John Shovlin; War, diplomacy and faction; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 95-116; p. 106

Related literature

John Rogister; Louis XV and the Parlements of Paris, 1737-1755; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press; 1995
Julian Swann; Politics and the Parlement of Paris under Louis XV, 1754-1775; Cambridge; Cambridge University Press; 1995. pp. 87-121

Indexed terms