The Snake Charmer by Roullet and Decamps



Several years ago I attended an automata auction in Las Vegas. The huge private collection of Christian Bailly was up for auction and it consisted of 150 rare and beautifully crafted mechanical dolls from the 19th century.

The Snake Charmer by Roullet & Decamps is a female sculpted of gesso and composition with rich amber-brown complexion, brown glass eyes, closed mouth, portrait-like features, and waist-length brunette hair. Her head moves to and fro in a sensous circular motion, her upper right arm pivots, bringing the trumpet toward her mouth; her lower left arm pivots which appears to bring the snake to life; the snake lifts his head, then lowers it as if charmed; her bosom lifts up and down as though she is breathing.


Considered one of the most desirable of the turn-of-the-century automata with exotic pose and sensuous movements, the persona of the Snake Charmer remains a mystery. The international exposition in Paris in 1889 and 1900 stimulated interest in exotic cultures, to be sure. But more specifically, the Snake Charmer was likely inspired by popular culture of the early 20th century. It is possible the inspiration was the French novelist Colette who, about 1905, performed as Salome in Paris theaters costumed in a sensuous bare-breasted manner that closely resembles Roullet & Decamps's Snake Charmer. ( Excerpt from The Golden Age of Automata, The Private Collection of Christian Bailly, Golde Horse Publishing P.28)

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