Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2013 Issue

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

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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

  • <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>April Auction<br>April 4, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> MITCHELL, John (1711-1768). A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America. Copperplate engraving with original hand color. London, 1755. $250,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AUDUBON, John James (1785 - 1851). Brown Pelican (Standing), Plate 251. Aquatint engraving with original hand color. London, 1827-1838. $175,000 to $225,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AUDUBON, John James (1785 - 1851). Fish Hawk or Osprey, Plate 81. Aquatint engraving with original hand color. London: 1827-1838. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>April Auction<br>April 4, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> GONZALES DE MENDOZA, Juan (1545 - 1618). <i>The Historie of the great and mightie kingdome of China…</i> London, 1588. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> VERBIEST, Ferdinand (1623-1688). [World Map] Kun-Yu Ch'uan-Tu. Engraved twelve sheet map with vertical sections joined to form six sheets. Korea, Seoul, c. 1860. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> SANGGI, Chong (1678-1752). Korean Atlas. Manuscript map on mulberry bark paper. C. 1750-1790. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <center><b>Arader Galleries<br>April Auction<br>April 4, 2020</b>
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AUDUBON, John James (1785 - 1851). Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Plate 66. Aquatint engraving with original hand color. London, 1827-1838. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> AKERMAN, Anders (1721-1778). & AKREL, Frederik (1779-1868). Pair of Celestial and Terrestrial Globes. Stockholm, c. 1800. 23 inch diameter, each. $60,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Arader Galleries, Apr. 4:</b> BENNETT, Lieut. William Pyt (d. in action, 1916). AN IMPORTANT AND APPARENTLY UNPUBLISHED SERIES OF GELATIN SILVER PHOTOGRAPHS OF LHASA AND TIBET TAKEN DURING THE CELEBRATED YOUNGHUSBAND MISSION OF 1904. $60,000 to $80,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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