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Pygmalion and Galatea. Black chalk. 20.6 x 16.9 cm.
The engraver and draughtsman, Augustin de Saint-Aubin, was taught by his two elder brothers and then apprenticed to Étienne Fessard and Laurent Cars. In 1771 he became an agrée at the Academy and, after Fessard’s death, was awarded the honorary title of Graveur de la bibliothèque du Roi. Saint-Aubin produced a substantial printed œuvre and also distinguished himself as an illustrator. Saint-Aubin ranks among the most skilled and accomplished of 18th century French portrait engravers; his very vivid and entertaining portrait drawings of Parisian society ladies and actresses perfectly reflect the elegant court culture of the Ancien régime. The impressions contained in his drawings of everyday life in Paris are likewise of considerable cultural and historical value.
This drawing served as the design for an engraving by Jean-Baptiste Gautier (active approx. 1780–1820 in Paris) entitled L’hommage reciproque (Inventaire du Fonds Français 2, Bocher 411). Together with a companion piece it portrayed sculpture as opposed to painting. In an allusion to the Pygmalion legend, it shows a sculptor holding tools in his hands and with his right arm resting on a sculptor’s trestle that supports a female bust. The young man gazes at the marble sculpture with a dreamy look in his eyes. As described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Greek sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with one of his own sculptures and, after Venus grants his wish and brings her to life, has a daughter with her named Paphos. In modern art the mythological figure was frequently employed to illustrate the creative act of the artist, the animation of dead matter and the ability of art to deceive. In 18th century France, various ballets and music theatre pieces made use of the material, the most influential among which was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s melodrama of 1762 entitled Pigmalion, scène lyrique. The authors transposed the ancient characters to the modern day and their dramatic works in turn influenced depictions in the visual arts, which clothed Pygmalion in contemporary dress (see J. L. Carr, Pygmalion and the ‘Philosophes’, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 23, no. 3/4, Chicago 1960, pp. 239 ff.). Saint-Aubin likewise transferred the ancient scene to his time, thereby giving the scene a special charm.
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