The Wallace Collection

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Gabriel-Jacques de Saint-Aubin, A Fête in the Colisée (P780)
Treasure of the Month - April 2008

Gabriel-Jacques de Saint-Aubin, A Fête in the Colisée (P780)

Gabriel-Jacques de Saint Aubin was one of the most brilliant and prolific draughtsmen of the eighteenth century.

Born in 1724 into a family of craftsmen and artists, he died in 1780 in relative poverty. It is still not entirely clear how Saint-Aubin earned his living, and very few paintings by his hand survive. He was an obsessive draughtsman, but we know very little about commissions he might have received. It seems that he primarily worked as an illustrator, one of his specialties be the illustration of exhibition, collection and sale catalogues with thumbnail sketches. These images provided valuable records of the lists of works in the otherwise unillustrated printed catalogues. Saint-Aubin was particularly fascinated by life in the French capital, a city which he possibly never left. Through his drawings he became the most important chronicler of the multi-faceted and extravagant life of the
French capital in the eighteenth century.

Saint-Aubin’s drawing in the Wallace Collection is one of his most brilliant works. It shows a public ball in the Colisée, a luxurious place for public entertainment on the Champs-Elysées, which was built in 1770 following the model of London’s Vauxhall pleasure gardens. The artist depicts the bustling Fête framed by the columns of the ground floor ambulatory. He apparently began the drawing on the spot: in the dome one can see notes recording the subjects of the sculpted female figures, which he could use later in his studio. The intricate technique of the drawing required a thorough reworking. The drawing is twice signed and dated 1772 – on the plinth of the column to the left and more legibly in the lower left corner.

A series of drawings from that year (one shown above left) bear testimony to Saint-Aubin’s unique fascination with the Colisée which, as an economic venture, turned out to be a complete failure and was demolished by 1785.

Further Reading

  • J. Ingamells, The Wallace Collection Catalogue of Pictures III: French before 1815, London 1989, pp. 330-331.
  • Gabriel de Saint-Aubin 1724-1780, exhibition catalogue, New York, The Frick Collection, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Paris 2007 (English edition).