Bâtir Est beau, mais detruire est Sublime

(To build is beautiful but to destroy is sublime)

Artist or maker:
Saint-Aubin, Charles-Germain de (b.1721, d.1786)
Inscription gives the date as 1761
Place of Production:
Paris, France
watercolour, ink and graphite on paper
Accession number:
One of a set, see others


Brief Description:

Two men stand at either side of the page, facing inwards. They are dressed in blue coats and waistcoats trimmed in yellow, blue breeches, white stockings and black shoes. They wear wigs and three-cornered black hats.

An array of objects is positioned between them. At the centre of the page there is an oversized black boot, bearing a plaque inscribed with the words "A LA / GROSSE BOTTE". The boot is placed on top of a white rectangular signboard with a red cross. A narrow board on which "A LA CROIX D’OR" has been written is attached to its lowest edge. An enormous white quill pen is visible to the left of the boot and, underneath that, another sign with a roughly sketched design that may depict a figure holding a long staff. Wall brackets lie scattered about the foreground. One is under the feet of the man standing at the right of the page. With both hands, the man lifts a sledgehammer as if to strike the boot in front of him. The figure to the left of the page is posed with his weight resting on his left leg (which is positioned on top of the second sign), and his right extended to the side, toe pointed. Over his left shoulder he carries a giant sword with a gold-coloured scabbard and a long pole with a sign, decorated with a smiling sun motif, hanging from it.

In the background, beyond the patch of ground on which they stand, a strip of brown earth runs the width of the page. A large building, faintly sketched in graphite can also be seen in the background.

Curatorial Commentary

The reform of regulations governing the display of shop signs was proposed in 1761 by the highways department of the Paris municipality. It was recommended that all signs should be placed at a minimum of 15 feet above the ground, and should not project out into the street by more than three feet, thereby reducing the risk of injury to the public, who could be hurt by these overhead, often oversized sculptural objects, which sometimes became detached during high winds. The Lieutenant-Général de Police, Antoine de Sartine, a crown appointment, modified the proposals, and on 17 December 1761 decreed that shop signs should be displayed flat against the wall.

That these are realistic depictions of the kind of signs that Parisian shops sported is underlined by the famous nostalgic description of them in the “Tableau de Paris” of Louis-Sébastien Mercier in the 1780s. Mercier described ‘a boot as huge as a hogshead’(Mercier, 1788; Wrigley, 1998). Two of the shops to which the drawing alludes – “La Grosse Botte [d'Or]”, a boot-seller, and “La Croix d'Or”, a fabric-merchant, were located at Saint-Germain-des-Prés and were suppliers of goods to aristocratic families (Coquery, 1998, pp.389, 393)

The wording of the caption is a citation from Voltaire’s satirical poem, “La guerre civile de Genève” (1768), attacking Genevan civic dignitaries who had been opposing his theatrical activities at Ferney on religious grounds. Though there is no direct link between the context of the two phrases, it is worth remarking that the same passage of the poem contains a reference to the obscure Athenian Herostratos, who is cited in the nearby drawing at 675.349.

This is one of a number of images in the latter part of the “Livre de Caricatures” in which Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin depicts street trades and services, less in the genre of the “cris de Paris” that dominates in the early sections of the book (e.g. 675.24) but rather in relation to changes to traditional practices. Innovations concerning the precursor of the Parisan postal service (“la petite poste”), the taxing of street trades (the “petits métiers”), and street lighting are the subjects of drawings at 675.347, 675.348 and 675.312.

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
187 x 132
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, on boot, in ink

Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, on sign, in ink

Bâtir est beau, mais detruire est Sublime
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, below image, in ink

Les Enseignes de Paris abatües 1761
Inscribed by Charles-Germain de Saint-Aubin, top, in ink

Top left corner, in bracket, in ink
Translation of inscription
At the Great Boot
At the Golden Cross
To build is beautiful but to destroy is sublime
The signs of Paris pulled down, 1761
Pentimenti, to right of boot, in graphite; a third figure may also have stood to the right of the boot; the oval shape of its face is visible.


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



Kim de Beaumont; The Saint-Aubins sketching for fun and profit; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 67-92; p. 87
Richard Taws; The precariousness of things; Colin Jones, Juliet Carey, Emily Richardson, The Saint-Aubin Livre de caricatures: drawing satire in eighteenth-century Paris, Oxford, SVEC, 2012; 327-347; p. 338, fig. 15.6
(forthcoming) 13927 (Ed). Les Histoires de Paris
(forthcoming) 15364. Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the making of the modern city, 1660-1914
(forthcoming) 15364 and 8762 (Ed). The Flaneur Abroad

Related literature

Louis-Sébastien Mercier; Tableaux de Paris. Nouvelle édition, corrigée et augmentée; Amsterdam; [n. pub.]; 1782-1788
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Louis Moland; Œuvres complètes de Voltaire; Paris; Garnier Frères; 1877-1885. vol. ix, pp. 544
Édouard Fournier; Histoire des Enseignes de Paris, revue et publiée par le Bibliophile Jacob; Paris; Dentu; 1884. vol. i, pp. 116-17
Jacques Michel; Du Paris de Louis XV à La Marine de Louis XVI: L'œuvre de Monsieur de Sartine. Tome 2: La reconquête de la liberté des mers; Paris; Les Éditions de l'Érudit; 1983
Richard Wrigley, Between the street and the salon: Parisian shop signs and the spaces of professionalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Oxford Art Journal, xxi, 1998, 43-68
Natacha Coquery; L'Hôtel Aristocratique: Le marché du luxe à Paris au XVIII siècle; Paris; Publications de la Sorbonne; 1998
Phillippa Plock, Now showing: the Waddesdon Manor trade cards, online and in the frame, The Ephemerist: Journal of the Ephemera Society, 141, 2008, 22-28

Indexed terms