Tragedie Publique.

(Public tragedy)

Artist or maker:
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 stands at the centre of the page facing forward. In his right hand he holds a wad of papers on which scribbles (or illegible writing) are visible. In his left hand, which is extended horizontally to his side, he holds a single page, also covered in scribbles. He is dressed in a ochre coloured collarless coat that flares out a little at the waist. The coat, which is partly unbuttoned, is patched in several places. An unidentified object emerges from his left pocket and a medal or badge hangs from a chain pinned to his right breast. The medal is oval shaped with four short arms. Beneath the coat, he wears a high necked white shirt and a pair of brown breeches, stockings and black shoes. He wears a soft black hat with an upturned brim from beneath which his hair hangs down.

Behind the man to the left of the page are two red cart wheels for use in the punishment of breaking on the wheel. They are mounted on posts dug into the ground and secured by pegs. A garland of yellow and blue flowers is wrapped around the shortest post and flowers hang from both wheels. Behind the man to the right are two tapering stone towers joined by a wooden beam. The body of a man hangs from one of the three hooks in the beam.

Curatorial Commentary

This drawing seems to be closely linked to the drawing opposite (675.124), with the wheel, and pleasures and pains associated with it, as a leitmotiv. The previous drawing highlights positive and celebratory uses of the wheel: a pleasure-carriage, a firework contraption and a water wheel. Here, the two wheels depicted are those used for breaking criminals – incongruously decorated with flowers – while in the background a criminal hangs from a gibbet structure. The vague original caption has been supplemented at a later date by a moralistic sentiment in an unknown hand. If we take death as the one of life’s objectives portrayed in this image, the other three directions portrayed at 675.125 make up the four.

The central figure in somewhat patched clothing resembles the figure at 675.121 who may be interpreted to be the comte d’Argenson. War minister from 1743, and minister with responsibility for Paris after 1749, d’Argenson’s brief did cover relations with the Parlement and the other Parisian law courts, so the punishment on view was something over which he had influence. D’Argenson’s father had served for two decades as Paris Police Lieutenant (“Lieutenant Général de Police”) under Louis XIV and the Regency and d’Argenson himself had a reputation as a tough disciplinarian. It is possible that the papers he brandishes are meant to be judicial sentences.

An alternative reading would make this a simple news-sheet vendor, complete with badge, handing out the broadsheets with news of public executions, which were popular events. The figures of the vendor recall the traditional representation of the “cris de Paris”, a popular pictorial genre dating back to the Renaissance, representing Paris street traders hawking their wares. They range from cheap, crude woodcuts mass produced for a popular audience, to lavish and refined suites of engravings destined for the portfolios of wealthy connoisseurs (Milliot, 1995). Several prominent eighteenth-century French artists including Boucher and Bouchardon engaged with the tradition, as did Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s brother Augustin, and interest in them was also shown by the comte de Caylus, who was known to the Saint-Aubin family. A good number of “cris de Paris” type drawings can be found in the “Livre de Caricatures” (e.g. 675.24, 675.123, 675.140). Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s approach to the genre tends towards the lightly comic and the theatrical, as befits the general tone of book.

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 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.

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
187 x 132
Tragedie Publique.
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

Une des quatre fins de l'homme
Inscribed in an unknown hand, below first inscription, in ink

Top right corner, in graphite

Top right corner, in ink
Translation of inscription
Public tragedy
One of the four ends of man


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

Robert Massin; Les cris de la ville: Commerces ambulants et petits métiers de la rue; Paris; Éditions Gallimard; 1985
Vincent Milliot, Le travail sans le geste. Les représentations iconographiques des petits métiers parisiens (XVI-XVIIIe s.), Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, xli, January 1994, 5-28
Vincent Milliot; Les Cris de Paris: les représentations des petits métiers parisiens (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles); Paris; Publications de la Sorbonne; 1995

Indexed terms