Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

The Modern Theophraste, Or The Rehabilitation of Pierre-Jacques Brillon

Thig813a

The grand siècle was the paramount of French wit. Under the yoke of the Sun King, the Nobility was reduced to a bunch of courtisans. To be noticed by the King or some important people around him was the surest way to get a promotion, and to show some wit, the surest way to be noticed. But everyone was not witty, and ridicule became the most feared plague of the time. “Ridicule can not be defined,” wrote our author Pierre-Jacques Brillon; “it is useless even to call it a bad quality linked to the sayings or the doings of some. No matter what these people do, they are disliked, hated, despised; with no reason but the ridicule about them. The harder these people try to be kind and nice, the more ridicule they appear – and there is no escaping it.” But even the most witty courtisans had the cruel consciousness of their own vacuity, and ridicule sometimes bordered on drama, as described in the following poem of S. Martin:


“ To serve the Sovereign, or to give oneself a master,

To totally depend on the will of another,

To remain in some places we would like to ignore,

For a few pleasures, to suffer a lot of horror (...),

To kiss every one and to find a friend in no man,

Such is the abridged life of a courtisan.”

To ridicule ridiculousness

The bitter-sweet literature of the time is a faithful mirror of this “préciosité”. Some writers portrayed their contemporaries, ridiculing ridiculousness. La Bruyère was the most successful one. His Caractères’ became a best seller and inspired many authors such as Pierre-Jacques Brillon, a young writer who personally knew his model. Brillon was encouraged by La Bruyère to put out his own collection of portraits in 1696, Portraits Sérieux, galants et critiques (or Serious, Gallant or Critical Portraits). “To deal with the same topics as his model is not enough to deserve the same praises,” wrote a contemporary critic. “This particular writer is to his model what a painter of shop signs would be to Rubens.” Nevertheless, Brillon’s book was well received at the time, and he soon put out a new one, entitled Le Théophraste moderne (or Modern Theophraste, 1699). At the end of the day, our author remained in the shadow of La Bruyère and the copies of his books are not that sought-after nowadays. While reading him lately, I realized how unjust it was, then decided to rehabilitate the work of this author - so help me God.

Lives and romances

Many great authors of the time such as Montreuil or D’Aceilly were considered as inconsistent by the critics of the Enlightenment, because they mostly wrote about casual topics such as their lives at Court, or their romances. In the case of Brillon, things were even worse. He was an imitator. FX de Feller wrote, in his Dictionnary (Liège, 1790): “These bad imitations of a good book enjoyed a short-lived popularity because readers had then developed a taste for books written in the vein of La Bruyère’s”. Should I boldly add that this success was partly due to his talent?

Born in Paris in 1671, Brillon was a man of law from the start – a general prosecutor, and a member of the Grand Conseil of Paris, he had a brilliant career. As a young man, he was attracted to literature. His reading La Bruyère was probably a revelation, so was his meeting him. “I follow Labruyère’s footsteps,” reads his preface, “who loved me enough to encourage me in this way; he was not idolizing his work enough to consider that nothing could be added to it. (...) I was occasionally happy enough to be approved by a man of such good taste – I was flattered, I even thought that it entitled me to write a book.” He was only 25 when he published Portraits Sérieux, galants et critiques (Paris, Michel Brunet – 1696). It features a brilliant author’s note. “This is the first book I offer the readers, and the last if so they wish. I am not the type of stubborn writers who keep on working without the readers’ consent. Else I shall choose to do very early what many have only done too late, and retire from writing.” He eventually did. But not before putting out a second book. Aged 25, he was writing twice as well as most fifty-year-old writers.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

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