Two nearly identical decks on The Metropolitan Museum of Art website contain 32 cards each. These decks depict people from Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, showcasing their physical attributes, clothing, and common demeanours. Additionally, both sets include elements for fortune-telling and share nearly identical designs, typography, and layouts. These decks align with the late 18th-century French trend of cartomancy cards, influenced by the contributions of Etteilla, his peers, and their successors.
The cards also allude to the “Four Continents” theme inspired by Europe's increasing exploration, trade, and colonization of various parts of the world. The illustrations arouse fascination with exotic and unfamiliar locations from the four corners of the world. The topic had given rise to a book publishing industry specialising in accounts of voyages to remote parts of the world, the peoples, different religions, forms of government and ways of life encountered. Several such books had been produced with the collaboration of Jacques Grasset Saint-Sauveur, a former diplomat, traveller and writer who is also known to have been part of the cartomancy scene and whose work probably inspired these cards.
This pack contains 4 allegories of the four continets - Africa, America, Asia & Europe - along with 28 cards representing inhabitants from different countries. The cards have their number and titles at the bottom, while at the tops and down the sides are printed in French fortune-telling questions (D) and responses (R), such as: “Tell me frankly am I good in your eyes?”, “Can I be quiet alas! when my heart sighs?” or “What would you do if I said yes to you?” The answers appear to be found on different cards, perhaps those which turn up next in the reading: “What do you think?”, “It is not for me to answer you”or “Will you be constant?”. A small miniature playing card in the bottom right-hand corner gives additional value to each card. However, the card numbers are not consecutive and run as high as 40, suggesting this is not a complete set (missing 8 cards, or the 8 green-tinted cards from the ‘Costumes des Peuples Étrangers’ (below) belonged with this set).
Costumes des Peuples Étrangers - Jeu divinatoire géographique
'Composées de tous les Costumes des peuples étrangers avec de jolies devises et bons mots.
Dediées aux Jeunes Gens; Je me fixe a la plus belle / Imitez moi'
The set contains 32 cards depicting clothing and costumes from various geographic regions: 4 ‘Continent’ cards and 4 ‘Virtue’ cards; the remaining 24 cards have what resemble fortune-telling or love-motto questions (D) and answers (R), as in the Jeu d'Or (above). In the bottom right-hand corner can be found a reversed miniature playing card with a keyword suggesting an outcome, such as Departure, Grief or Desire.
Although some of the characterisations may be seen as Orientalist or colonial, overall the images and quotes give a sense of well-being, innate moral sense, noble spirit and happiness which enhance their educational value. The four virtue cards further endorse this.
The four virtue cards have resemblances to other French cartomancy cards from late 18th / early 19th centuries.
Saint-Sauveur, Maréchal, et al., Pavard, Paris, 1788 (view 83): Costumes Civils actuels de tous les Peuples connus►
Saint-Sauveur, Paris, 1797 (view 83): Tableaux des principaux peuples de l'Europe, de l'Asie, de l'Afrique, de l'Amérique, etc►
Tarot Forum: Etteilla Timeline and Etteilla card Variants►
Sisonke Msimang: “My four-year-old daughter is asking questions about colonial history. How do I respond in an age-appropriate way?” in The Guardian Fri 18 Aug 2023 ►
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Founder and editor of the World of Playing Cards since 1996. He is a former committee member of the IPCS and was graphics editor of The Playing-Card journal for many years. He has lived at various times in Chile, England and Wales and is currently living in Extremadura, Spain. Simon's first limited edition pack of playing cards was a replica of a seventeenth century traditional English pack, which he produced from woodblocks and stencils.
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