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Pourquoy rechercher le bonheur

(Why seek happiness?)

Artist or maker:
Saint-Aubin, Charles-Germain de (b.1721, d.1786)
Date:
1759-1775
Inscription evokes a quotation from Voltaire's "Candide" (1759)
Place of Production:
Paris, France
Medium:
watercolour, ink and graphite on paper
Accession number:
675.323
One of a set, see others

Commentary

Brief Description:

An elderly man wearing a white curly wig with tall peaks and a pair of oversized spectacles sits at a games table. The table has a black frame with gilt rococo details and is covered in green baize. It has rounded corners, a sloped edge, and elegantly curved legs. The man, who is positioned at the right of the table facing left, is seated in a gold-framed armchair upholstered in red and rests his feet beneath the table on a red cushion with gold tassels at the corners. He is dressed in a red jacket trimmed with a brown fur collar and cuffs, white stockings and black shoes. He leans forward to place an ace of clubs on top of a four-tiered house of cards positioned at the centre of the table. A six and an ace of diamonds, are visible among the cards used to build the house. A small pile of cards is positioned by his left hand on the edge of the table.

A skeleton stands behind the man and, with both bony hands, appears to be tying a bow to the pigtail of the man's wig.

Curatorial Commentary

The house of cards had long been a familiar emblem of Vanitas in painting and printmaking. It was particularly popular among seventeenth-century Netherlandish artists who used it to express the vanity of human ambitions and the ephemerality of childhood or of life itself. Partly influenced by Dutch and Flemish prototypes, eighteenth-century French painters also also explored the subject, notably Nicolas Lancret (e.g. “Air”, Waddesdon Manor, acc. no. 2490.1) and Jean-Siméon Chardin who made four paintings of a boy building a house of cards between 1735 and 1737 (exh. Académie royale, 1735, Waddesdon Manor; Musée du Louvre; exh. Salon of 1741, National Gallery, London; exh. Salon of 1737, National Gallery of Art, Washington). Three of these were displayed at the Académie royale or at the Salon, and three reproduced in well known prints (Rosenberg, 1999, pp. 237-8).

The arrangement of the present drawing - the seated figure and table seen in profile – strongly recalls the composition of the Chardin works. Indeed the Waddesdon Chardin (acc. no. 82.2007) depicts the figure placing an ace of hearts on the precariously balanced house of cards. In the present drawing the equivalent card is an ace of spades, intimating death. In Saint-Aubin’s drawing, instead of the children or young adolescents commonly associated with the symbolism of the fragile structure, this card- house is built by a man of at least late middle age. His face and neck are haggard and he needs enormous spectacles. If Saint-Aubin used the simply furnished, soberly dressed Chardins as a point of reference, he chose to depict the seated man with luxurious, fur-trimmed clothes with elaborately decorated and gilded chair and table. Instead of the Ace of Heart in the Waddesdon Chardin, the man in Saint-Aubin’s drawing places an Ace of Clubs – the peasant’s suit – at the apex of the castle, perhaps casting aspersions on the rich man’s origins (Carey, “Taking Time: Chardin’s Boy Building a House of Cards and other painting”, 2012, cat. no. 15).

The skeleton finishing the seated figure’s coiffure recalls the iconography of the long tradition of Northern European prints depicting Death appearing unannounced to people of all ages and conditions (in the “Livre de Caricatures” see also 675.133 and 675.291).

The drawing also continues the theme of balance and of the equilibrium of forces, which is the subject of drawings on the two previous pages (675.321, 675.322; cf. 675.176). Whereas they concern matters appertaining to contemporary politics, this drawing evokes a bigger picture – the idea that life itself is fragile and fleeting.

Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin’s inscription may cite an unidentified other source. However, there is a certain resonance too with with a passage from Voltaire’s best-selling novella, “Candide” (1759): “‘Candide croyait rêver, et regardait toute sa vie comme un songe funeste, et le moment présent comme un songe agréable.” (‘Candide thought he was dreaming and regarded all his life as a terrible dream and the present moment as an agreeable dream’). “Candide” is also referred to on 675.295.

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
187 x 132
Inscriptions:
Pourquoy rechercher le bonheur / Le bien est un Songe flateur / Et le mal un Songe funeste.
Inscription
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

323
Pagination
Top right corner, in bracket, in ink

323
Pagination
Top right, in ink
Translation of inscription
Why seek happiness? Good is a fond dream and evil a fatal dream.
Language:
French

History

Part of:
Livre de Caricatures tant bonnes que mauvaises. 675.1-389
Collection:
Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust)
Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957

Bibliography

Related literature

François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire; La P... d'O... [i.e., Pucelle d'Orléans], poeme devisé en quinze livres; Paris; [n. pub.]; 1755
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire; Candide ou l'optimisme; Geneva; Les Frères Cramer; 1759
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Jeroom Vercruysse; La Pucelle d’Orléans; Geneva; The Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institute; 1970
Juliet Carey; Taking Time: Chardin's Boy building a House of Cards and other paintings; The Rothschild Foundation, Waddesdon Manor, 28 March - 15 July 2012; Waddesdon; The Rothschild Foundation, RF; 2012

Indexed terms