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>Seth Kaller:</b> Leaves from<br>George Washington's Own Draft <br>of His first Inaugural Address. An Extraordinary Rarity!
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Declaration of Independence: Benjamin Tyler 1818 - First Print with Facsimile Signatures.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Thomas Jefferson Signed Act of Contress Authorizing Alexander Hamilton to Complete Famous Portland Maine Lighthouse.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Emanuel Leutze. Silk Flag Banner designed by Leutze, created by Tiffany & Co., and presented to Gen. John A. Dix, 1864.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> The "greatest of early American maps … a masterpiece" (Corcoran). Thomas Holme.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Lincoln Summons His Cabinet for a Historic Meeting to Discuss Compensated Emancipation.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Albert Einstein. Autograph Letter Signed. Einstein Counsels His Son ... Meaning of Life.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Normal Rockwell. Painting/Drawing Signed. Rockwell's "Barbeshop Quartet", 1936.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Frederick Douglass. Autograph Letter Signed to unknown correspondent. Washington, D.C.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Harry Truman. Autograph Manuscript Notebook for Kansas City Law School Night Class.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> Robert E. Lee. Autograph Letter Signed, June 11, 1782. Hours after the Battle of Culpeper Court House, Lee Escapes Again.
    <b>Seth Kaller:</b> George Washington. Letter Signed, as Commander-in-Chief, Continental Army, to Elias Dayton, Headquarters, [Newburgh, N.Y.], June 11, 1782.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b><br>Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,<br><i>The Chap Book</i>, 1896.<br>$20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b><br>Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec,<br><i>Troupe de Mlle Églantine</i>, 1896.<br>$20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b><br>Philippe Henri Noyer, <br><i>Limonade Brault</i>, 1938. <br>$4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b> <br><i>The Great Men of the World</i>,<br>designer unknown, circa 1945-46. <br>$7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3: Vintage Posters</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b><br>James Montgomery Flagg,<br><i>Wake Up, America!</i>, 1917.<br>$4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b><br>Alfred F. Burke, <i>Share / Jewish <br>Relief Campaign</i>, circa 1915.<br>$3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b><br>Ludwig Hohlwein, <i>Marke Pkz / <br>Burger - Kehl & Co.</i>, circa 1911. <br>$8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Aug 3:</b> <br>Gian Emilio Malerba,<i> E.A. Mele / Modo e Novita per Signora</i>, circa 1900. $7,000 to $10,000.
  • <b>19th Century Shop.</b> (DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION, Chicago, 1968). <i>Collection of papers of John M. Bailey, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, concerning the convention</i>. Various places, 1968.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> (ARMSTRONG, NEIL.) VERNE, JULES. <i>A Trip to the Moon.</i> New York: F. M. Lupton, September 9, 1893. Signed by Neil Armstrong, first man to walk on the moon.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> KEY, FRANCIS SCOTT. <i>A Celebrated Patriotic Song, the Star Spangled Banner.</i> 1814.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> [COLUMBUS, CHRISTOPHER, Amerigo Vespucci ..] Bernardus Albingaunensis .. Dialogo nuperrime edito Genue in 1512.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> (WATKINS, TABER &c.). <i>An album of 32 photographs of the Yosemite and American West Various places</i>, c. 1890s
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> (BATTLE OF CONCORD.) <i>Powder horn used by Minuteman Oliver Buttrick at the Battle of Concord</i>, April 19, 1775.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> (CIVIL WAR.) <i>An Extraordinary Confederate Photograph and Autograph Album of Dr. R. L. C. White</i>, 125 original mounted salt prints. 1859-61.
  • 20 Jul 2016, starts at 1pm EDT, NY
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Full scale vintage <i>Sputnik-1</i> EMC/EMI Lab Model, with live transmitter. US$ 10,000-15,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Flown SOYUZ-3 space navigation indicator with unflown on-ground transformer. <br>US$ 30,000-40,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Flown on SOYUZ 9<br>An exhaustive manuscript on life in space. [Trans: On-Board Flight Journal for Spacecraft Soyuz-9, 1970]. US$ 6,000-9,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> SOYUZ 18? Flown Navigation Celestial Globe. Soyuz 18 lasted from May 24-July 26, 1975. US$ 30,000-40,000
    20 Jul 2016, starts at 1pm EDT, NY
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Flown Space Suit from ISS Expidition 6. Worn by Flight Engineer Don Pettit on his dramitic return to earth. US$ 25,000-35,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Original Gemini 133P Trainer Assembly Five Part Electrical System & Attitude Maneuver ... US$ 60,000-90,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Lunar Rover Development. Collection of 11 vintage gelatin silver prints and 4 vintage NASA lithographs. <br>US$ 2,000-3,000.
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Lunar Orbiter I. The first image of the earth as seen from the moon. Gelatin silver print. August 23, 1966. US$ 2,500-3,500
    20 Jul 2016, starts at 1pm EDT, NY
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Michael Collins' Flown Crew-Signed Apollo 11 Emblem. One of the very few Armstrong signed mission artifacts. US$ 50,000-70,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Flown Apollo 11 Navigational Chart. Taken to Lunar surface mapping the start of the <br>first manned lunar descent. <br>US$ 25,000-35,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> FFlown Apollo 11 Flight Plan Sheetmission Day One. Some of the first words and data values written by Neil Armstrong. US$ 18,000-25,000
    <b>Bonhams Jul 20: </b> Apollo 12 - Alan Bean in the Ocean of Storms. Signed and inscribed by Bean. <br>US$ 2,000-3,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions