Framed beneath an arch of tall trees, a small crowd watches two characters from commedia dell’arte (a popular form of comic theatre) engaged in a mock duel. The show is watched by a mix of male and female characters from various social classes, ranging from young children to the elderly. This is very likely a street performance in the boulevard du Temple, which by the 1760s had become a lively area filled with cafés, inns, shops, street performers and permanent theatrical venues.
Saint-Aubin worked primarily as a graphic artist, earning his living from making etchings and engravings and illustrating books. He portrayed everyday life in Paris, including aspects of it overlooked by more established artists. His humorous sketches of the Parisian scene often showed recognisable locations. Saint-Aubin had ambitions to be a painter, and this rare painting from 1760 is typical of his choice of subject and lively treatment.
Saint-Aubin was primarily a graphic artist, who earned his living from making etchings and engravings and illustrating books. His career prefigures that of Daumier, the nineteenth-century illustrator and caricaturist. Both artists portrayed everyday life in Paris, including aspects of it overlooked by more established artists. Less satirical than Daumier, Saint-Aubin made humorous sketches of the Parisian scene and contemporary manners which often showed recognisable locations. This rare painting from 1760 is typical of his choice of subject and lively treatment.
Framed beneath an arch of tall trees, a small crowd watches two characters from commedia dell’arte (a popular form of comic theatre), possibly a Neapolitan Scaramouche and Harlequin, engaged in a duel. They are performing what was known as a parade – the painting was once titled Le Parade du Boulevard. As described in a contemporary theatrical dictionary, a parade was a ‘farce or little comedy with no rules whatever … very free and very satirical, that the buffoons stage on scaffolding above the entrance to their plays in order to attract the public.’ Given the relatively low height of this stage, the theatre entrance would have been to the side, rather than below it. Although these fencers are acting out a mock duel, the tips of their swords are uncovered and neither wears a mask, adding an element of danger to the show. The man at the window with his arms raised may also be part of the act.
An assortment of male and female characters from various social classes, and ranging from young children to the elderly, watch the performance. Saint-Aubin creates a series of vignettes within the picture. Near the centre, for example, you can see a waiter (identifiable by his apron) whose braided hair suggests a connection with the Far East. His arm is around his female companion. A child at her feet, unable to see the stage, tries to attract her attention. In contrast to the people absorbed in the duel, a boy on the right, perhaps exhausted from sounding the drum roll to announce a performance he has seen many times, sleeps astride a bass drum.
This street performance is very likely taking place in the boulevard du Temple, which by the 1760s was filled with cafés, inns, shops and permanent theatrical venues. Despite the hostile view of one commentator, who in 1754 complained about the ‘multitude of common people who assail you with rough talk … vendors of poor beer, charlatans, games with dogs, parades which make idiots laugh’, the boulevard du Temple attracted people of all classes. It even received royal endorsement when it was visited in June 1756 by members of the royal family.
Saint-Aubin’s painting met a growing taste for images of crowd activities in recognisable places in or near Paris. Although he may have exercised some artistic licence – for example, the decorative arching trees that perhaps suggest an attempt to bring the imagery of the fête galantes into a modern urban scene – contemporary viewers would have recognised this as a credible portrayal of the boulevard du Temple. It has been suggested that this is a companion painting to The Meeting on the Boulevard (Musée Hyacinthe Rigaud, Perpignan), which shows a strolling aristocratic couple rather than ordinary street folk, but the two pictures were never hung as a pair and never belonged to the same owner.
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