Offered by Stéphane Renard Fine Art
Provenance: Henri Cain Collection (sold in Paris on 19 November 1927 - number 16)
Bibliography: this painting is referenced as an autograph work in the catalogue raisonné of the painter's works edited by Emile Dacier (number 640 - Tome II page 113)
This painting and its frame have recently been restored; a condition report is available on request. It should be noted (as this is exceedingly rare for a painting of this period) that this painting is presented in its original unlined canvas with its original stretcher, which may have been "tinkered" with by Saint-Aubin himself.
In this painting, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, the great chronicler of the reign of Louis XV, takes us to the annual parade of the Swiss Guards at the Plaine des Sablons. He presents us with an image of great kinetic power, as if we were actually on the side-lines of the parade.
1. Gabriel de Saint Aubin, a chronicler of genius
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin was born on April 14th, 1724 into a family of artists: his father Gabriel-Germain (1696-1756) was the King's embroiderer and his five other surviving siblings (Charles-Germain (born 1721), Catherine-Louise (1727), Louis-Michel (1731), Athanase (1734), Augustin (1736) and Agathe (born 1739)) were also artists. The eldest son Charles-Germain became a draughtsman and embroiderer like his father, Louis-Michel became a painter at the Sèvres manufactory, Athanase an actor, Augustin a great engraver and a famous draughtsman, while his two sisters were also talented draughtswomen.
Augustin de Saint-Aubin's reputation as a draughtsman and engraver eclipsed that of his older brother Gabriel during his lifetime before research into the French 18th century, following the Goncourt writings, restored Gabriel's pre-eminence.
Gabriel was first trained in drawing by his father and then by Etienne Jeaurat (1699 -1789), Hyacinthe Colin de Vermont (1693 - 1761) and François Boucher (1703 - 1770). He taught drawing at the school of the architect François Blondel and made his first engravings, generally etchings, around 1750. The 52 prints that make up his work were generally produced in very small numbers but, because of their inventiveness, they constitute one of the peaks of 18th-century French engraving.
An unsuccessful candidate for the Prix de Rome from 1752 to 1754, he left the Académie Royale and exhibited at the Académie de Saint-Luc in 1774 and at the Salon du Colisée in 1776.
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin's reputation today resides mainly in his graphic work. An unrepentant observer of the society of his time, he sketched its scenes and amusements with vivacity. This creative fecundity was described by his contemporary, the painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze, as the "priapism of drawing". His immense dexterity even enabled him to sketch vignettes representing the artworks sold during the auctions he attended, captured in the margins of the sale catalogues. Today, these sketches often allow us to identify the works that were presented.
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin's paintings are the least known part of his work, although, according to Emile Dacier's count, a dozen of them (not to mention the watercolours and gouaches) have survived. To those existing paintings must be added the twenty or so lost originals which are only known through the engravings that were made after them, or through contemporary descriptions.
2. The Swiss Guards, last defenders of the French Monarchy
Long before the formation of the Swiss Guards Regiment in the early 17th century, the Kings of France employed Swiss soldiers for their personal protection: Louis XI is said to have been the first to have enlisted Swiss soldiers in 1481. This alliance was strengthened by François 1st after the battle of Marignan, and the Swiss contingent played a decisive role in the victory at Cerisoles in 1544. In 1616, King Louis XIII gave a Swiss infantry regiment the name of Swiss Guards, defining their main functions as the guard of the Royal Palace and the sovereign's personal security, alongside the Gardes-Françaises.
The Swiss Guards Regiment, which consisted of twelve companies, was about two thousand men strong at the time of our painting. It was housed in three barracks located in some neighbouring villages around Paris: Rueil, Courbevoie and Saint-Denis.
In 1789, the Gardes Françaises sided with the Revolution and joined the National Guard. On August 10th 1792, the Swiss Guards defended an empty palace while the King and his family fled to the Legislative Assembly. Outnumbered by the insurgents, the main body of the Regiment retreated after receiving orders from Louis XVI to cease fire and surrender their weapons to avoid carnage. Of the 800 to 900 Swiss guards present at the Palace, around 300 were killed in battle and 60 were subsequently massacred at the Hôtel de Ville after surrendering.
3. Description of the work
Le Défilé des Suisses was presented in the Henri Cain sale along with another work of similar subject and size, Les Gardes Françaises à la Parade, whose current location is unknown.
While most of his other known paintings represent either mythological subjects or genre scenes, here Gabriel de Saint-Aubin gives us a spontaneous image of a hugely popular event: the parade of the Swiss Guards Regiment, in front of the King. This parade took place every year on the Plaine des Sablons in Neuilly (between the present Porte Maillot and the Pont de Neuilly). In the background, one can see a rendering of of the Mont-Valérien hill.
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin matches the spontaneity of the draughtsman in this painting by using a very narrow colour range, evoking the dust raised by the parade.
Preceded by four drums, the Captain commanding the Company is marching at the head, followed by a row of five officers. A figure on horseback in the background may represent the King, or the Colonel Commandant of the Guard (the Count of Zurlauben), but our attention is focused on the Swiss Guards and on the representation of their parade uniforms: white French breeches, red jacket with dark blue lapels decorated with white embroidery. The bear hats indicate that this is the grenadier company, as the other guards wore a tricorn.
This detail gives us an indication of the chronology of this artwork, since it was in 1766 that a company of grenadiers was added to the Regiment. It is therefore legitimate to think that it was also in that year that Saint-Aubin chose to depict this newly created unit, although a later date is also possible.
While the five officers are clearly identified, in the other three rows of grenadiers only the first in the row is depicted. The compact mass of the other grenadiers is simply evoked by a touch that might anachronistically be called impressionistic. The details dissolve as one moves up the row, and the individual presence of each grenadier is only suggested by the top of his bayoneted rifle, before this, in turn, fades into the background.
Saint-Aubin takes pleasure in capturing the moment when the whole Company has its right leg raised. This intrinsically unstable position creates great mobility in the representation that is further reinforced by the pictorial technique he uses to evoke the mass of soldiers. In this snapshot, only the elements in the foreground are depicted, as if the speed of the march made it impossible to describe the whole troop in detail.
A brightly brushed sky with its barely sketched clouds completes the feeling of movement. In many places, the very thin layer of paint reveals the canvas on which the liveliness of the brushstrokes can be felt. The narrowing of the palette to shades of pinkish beige unites the dust of the parade with the sky. By bringing out the brightness of the red of the uniforms, enhanced by a few splashes of blue, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin demonstrates his virtuosity and beautifies his painting in an enchanting whirlwind of colour.
Main bibliographic source :
Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, peintre, graveur et dessinateur Emile Dacier Paris and Brussels 1929
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