vingt Spectateurs, vingt interpretations

(Twenty spectators, twenty interpretations)

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 1775 {nd}
1822-1869 {One inscription by Tardieu}
Place of Production:
Paris, France
ink and graphite on paper
Accession number:
One of a set, see others


Brief Description:

A library step-ladder mounted on casters rests on books stacked two high. All of the books are heavily shaded, and only one name (Terenze), written on the spine is clearly visible; another (montagne?) is partly obscured. The stairs rise from the lower left to the upper right of the page.

A variety of objects are placed on the steps. On the first step flowers; on the third step, a horizontal bar supported by two vertical struts all covered with thorns; on the fifth, a dragon-like creature baring its teeth; and on the sixth, three snakes, their bodies intertwined. On the seventh step there is a human skull and, on the top stem, clouds of smoke. Hanging beneath the top step is a jester’s marotte. Spanning the width of frame beneath the staircase are two long cords with small bells hanging from them. On the ground to the right of the staircase is a large block on which there rests a roughly-sketched round-bodied lidded urn with a single handle.

Curatorial Commentary

Pierre-Antoine Tardieu’s latter-day description of this drawing as an allegory of a literary career may well be accurate (Tardieu would acquire the book in 1822, following the death of his wife’s aunt, Marie-Françoise de Saint-Aubin, who was Charles-Germain’s eldest daughter). The flowery lower steps soon give way to obstacles, dragons and serpents – and at the very top death awaits and all vanishes into a puff of smoke. Underpinning everything is folly, as denoted by the marotte and bells beneath the steps.

The steps, which resemble portable sets used in libraries, rest on books , whose titles have been drawn over. The drawing expresses the vanity of literary aspiration – a theme also evoked on a following page (675.172.) On the book spines can be seen the names of and the sixteenth-century writer, Michel de Montaigne and the ancient Roman playwright Terence . The caption recalls Terence’s aphorism 'tot homines, quot sententiae' – ‘there are as many opinions as there are men’ (Phormio, 454). The sentiment is echoed in Montaigne’s “Essais” (Book II, ch. 37): ‘ne feut jamais au monde deux opinions pareilles, non plus que deux poils, ou deux grains’ (‘there have never been in the world two like opinions, any more than two like hairs or two like grains’), (Publius Terentius Afer; Michael Moriarty, personal communication).

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
187 x 132
Inscribed in an unknown hand, on book spine, in ink

montegne [?]
Inscribed in an unknown hand, on book spine, in ink

vingt Spectateurs, vingt interpretations
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

carrière littéraire
Inscribed by Pierre-Antoine Tardieu, below first inscription, in ink

Top left corner, in ink
Translation of inscription
Twenty spectators, twenty interpretations
Literary career
Pentimenti, around and to left of step ladder; the positioning of the step ladder has been altered on the page.


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



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; p. 372n

Related literature

Terence; Terence; Cambridge, London; Harvard University Press; 2001
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne; Les essais; Paris; Éditions Gallimard; 2007

Indexed terms