J'ay bien de la peine a gouverner mon Empire

(I have a lot of trouble governing my empire)

Attributed to:
Saint-Aubin, Charles-Germain de (b.1721, d.1786)
Additional handwriting by Pierre-Antoine Tardieu (b.c 1784, d.1869)
Style A
c 1740-c 1775 {nd}
1822-1869 {One inscription by Tardieu}
Place of Production:
Paris, France
watercolour, ink and graphite on paper
Accession number:
One of a set, see others


Brief Description:

A smiling man with a round face and large features stands in front of the wooden frame of a building. Climbing plants furl around some of its beams and grass grows from its joints and at its base. To the left of the page a large shoe is visible on the ground beside one of the building's posts. It has a very high heel and a curled toe. To the right of the frame, leaning against another post, is a wide-mouthed cauldron or open vessel.

The man, who has shoulder length blond hair, is simply dressed in a light yellow belted tunic, a pair of pale red breeches, a black hat and shoes, holds a long-handled saucepan which rests on a three-legged stool. He leans forward slightly from the waist and raises a spoon to his lips with his right hand.

Curatorial Commentary

The drawing makes a pair with the drawing opposite (675.164). Heraclitus (c.535BC-c.475BC), the Greek philosopher who wept at life’s follies on the facing page is matched by a representation here of Democritus (460BC-c.370BC), the philosopher who laughed at them. Following the association between the two established by Seneca, Juvenal and others, they were often paired in Western art from the Renaissance onwards (Richardot, 2000).

The laughing, epicurean figure happily preparing a dish recalls a similar figure in the drawing at 675.128. However, the lengthy second part of the caption, written in the early nineteenth century by his descendant, Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, puts a more deliberately political interpretation on this work, suggesting that the conventionally, even demotically-dressed figure represents the king cooking, away from court ceremonial at Versailles.

It was well-known that Louis XV preferred such relaxation. According to the memoirs of Christophe Collé, the comte de Lauraguais, who was an acquaintance of the Saint-Aubins (Cf. 675.176) composed in his youth a short story, “La Cour du Roi Pétaud” (‘The Court of King Pétaud’), which poked fun at the king for serving his home-cooked pasties to his courtiers, an act for which Lauraguais barely escaped punishment. This drawing may derive from this source. However, it was more widely known that, even at private parties at Versailles with chosen intimates, Louis ground and prepared coffee for his guests.

The prince de Dombes was the courtesy title of Louis-Auguste de Bourbon, son of the duc du Maine. Dombes counted as a Prince of the Blood: although his father was the illegitimate offspring of Louis XIV and the king’s mistress, the marquise de Montespan, he had been legitimated. A high-ranking military commander, Dombes generally eschewed attendance at court. The intimation that he was present at the minor chateaux of La Muette and Choisy may be correct, although this ruined or burnt-out building also suggests a scene on military campaign, when such informality was more accepted.

The object in this drawing which – along with the latter part of the caption - seems to establish the identification with Louis XV is the outsized shoe in the background. In vogue during the 1750s and 1760s, this high-heeled fashion item would become known as a ‘French’, or ‘Pompadour heel’ (Pratt & Woolley, 1999, pp. 44-6). The choice of the shoe to represent the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, may have been informed by its associated erotic symbolism, much used in the painting of the period (Cf. Posner, 1982, pp.85-8). The accusation that Louis XV was being feminised, dominated and turned away from kingly duties by his mistress is much evoked in the “Livre de Caricatures” (e.g. 675.235, 675.316).

The chateaux of La Muette (then on the outskirts of Paris, now encompassed within the XVIe arrondissement) and Choisy (Choisy-le-Roi, Val de Marne) had both been much enlarged by Louis XV, and both sites retained strong associations with Madame de Pompadour. Louis opened up a forest trail through the Bois de Boulogne which allowed him a distant view of Pompadour’s chateau at Bellevue, near Sèvres. Furthermore, almost as soon as she became the royal mistress in 1745, Pompadour took over the decoration and running of Choisy, turning it into a jewel of the rococo style and a focus for high living.

The accusation that the king was being influenced by Pompadour to neglect his duties and thereby causing the ruination of French power was quite common during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), when French fortunes suffered many reverses. The first part of the caption appears to justify this equation, as do the pointing, weeping Heraclitus figure on the page opposite page, and the burnt-out building on this. Dombes had died in 1755 – but then the association with him was only made latterly by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s grandson-in-law, Pierre-Antoine Tardieu and in an illustrative manner.

This drawing is in Style A, attributed to the principal author of the “Livre de Caricatures”, Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin. Style A displays 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 on the sections of the volume 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
J'ay bien de la peine à gouverner mon Empire
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

A la Muette ou à Choisy le Roi Louis XV s'amusait à faire la / cuisine, le plus souvent aidé par le Prince de Dombes. Quelle / belle occupation pour un Roi!!!
Inscribed by Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, bottom, in ink

Top right corner, in ink
Translation of inscription
I have a lot of trouble governing my empire
At La Muette or at Choisy, king Louis XV liked to do the cooking, most often assisted by the prince de Dombes. What a fine occupation for a king!!!
Around figure's right arm, in graphite; figure's right arm was once further to the right of its current position.


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



Juliet Carey; Des chefs-d'oeuvre discrets: la collection de dessins; Les collections exceptionnelles des Rothschild: Waddesdon Manor (Hors-série de l'Estampille/l'Objet d'Art, No. 14), Dijon, Éditions Faton, 2004; 56-63; p. 58 ill.
Juliet Carey; The king and his embroiderer; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 261-282; p. 266n
Colin Jones, Juliet Carey; Introduction; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 1-27; p. 20n
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; p. 34
Katie Scott; Saint-Aubin's jokes and their relation to...; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 349-403; pp. 363n, 368, 370, 372n, 398, fig. 16.8
Julian Swann; Politics and religion; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 117-150; p. 136

Related literature

Donald Posner, The Swinging Women of Watteau and Fragonard, The Art Bulletin, lxiv, 1982, 75-88
Thomas Kaiser, Madame de Pompadour and the Theaters of Power, French Historical Studies, xix, Fall 1996, 1025-44
Lucy Pratt, Linda Woolley; Shoes; London; V & A Publications; 1999
Anne Richardot, Un philosophe au purgatoire des Lumières: Démocrate, Dix-Huitième Siècle, 32, 2000, 197-212

Indexed terms