by Roderick Conway Morris

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Chardin's Enchanting and Ageless Moments

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA, Italy 23 December 2010
Louvre, Paris
Hare with a Game Bag and Powder Flask
by Chardin, 1728-30



'We stop in front of a Chardin as if by instinct,' wrote Diderot in his review of the Paris Salon of 1767, 'like a traveler weary of the road choosing, almost without realizing, a place that offers a grassy seat, silence, water and cool shade.'

Jean-Siméon Chardin's small still lifes and genre scenes have been working their magic ever since the 18th century. And trying to explain how Chardin created his enchanting effects has never ceased to exercise writers on art.

The Louvre has the world's largest collection of Chardins, and Pierre Rosenberg, formerly the director of the museum, has made a lifelong study of the painter. He is now the curator of 'Chardin: Painter of Silence', the first exhibition devoted to the French artist ever to be staged either in Italy or Spain (the show will travel on to the Prado in February). The event brings together 52 pictures (with four additional works and a few substitutions in the Madrid version).

The slowness of Chardin's production was legendary. He painted little more than 200 pictures from his first known works in the early 1720s until his death at the age of 80 in 1779 - an average rate of a mere four a year.

'His paintings cost him a great deal of work,' as one contemporary duly noted. But, at the same time, nobody seems to have had any idea how he painted. Not even his friend and admirer Diderot, who had to admit that: 'No one has seen him working.'

Yet he reached a wide audience both through his regular participation at the Salon, and through engravings of his works, executed by some of the finest masters of that art. Indeed, prints of his genre scenes, despite their modest range of subjects, sold better than those of any other living artist in France.

The son of a maker of billiard tables, Chardin initially studied under two well-known history painters but showed no aptitude for this kind of art, which was then regarded as the pinnacle of artistic endeavor. But being given the lowly task of painting a dead rabbit provided him with an epiphanic moment.

As his biographer Charles-Nicolas Cochin records, Chardin recalled saying to his younger self: 'In order to concentrate on reproducing it faithfully I must forget everything I have seen and even forget the way such objects have been treated by others.'

Several of the artist's most celebrated early game pictures, including 'Hare with a Game Bag and Powder Flask' and 'Rabbit with a Red Partridge and Seville Orange', are in the first rooms of the exhibition.

But it was soon to be still lifes in kitchen settings that were particularly to occupy Chardin's attention and distinguish him from his contemporaries. A classic early example of these, 'Basket of Plums, Bottle, Glass of Water and Cucumbers', a rare loan from the Frick Collection in New York, and 'Preparations for Lunch or The Silver Goblet', from the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille are the first canvases to greet the visitor. They both date from the second half of the 1720s and, although they are not flawless from the technical point of view, they already have such powerful atmosphere that slight imperfections are barely noticeable.

The artist expanded the range of utensils, vessels, tableware, fruit, vegetables, eggs, fish and meat in his compositions, providing richer contrasts of colors, textures and volumes. But they rigorously maintained a distinctive, elegant austerity. The humble stone shelf remained the almost invariable support of these objects. And picture after picture demonstrates the artist's unobtrusive mastery in arranging and lighting them.

Throughout his career Chardin seems to have taken almost literally the Latin dictum 'Ars est celare artem' (the art is to hide the art), remaining obsessively secretive about his methods. But among these still lifes, which are imbued with a consistent air of tranquillity and seeming ease, there is the telling 'A Young Student Drawing', from 1733-34. Seen from behind in a threadbare coat, this young man hunched over his drawing board hints perhaps at the sheer labor Chardin was putting in to achieve his hard-won miniature triumphs.

Chardin had been accepted into Paris's Académie Royale as a painter 'specializing in animals and fruits'. According to stories from the time, it was his realization of the huge gap in remuneration (not to mention status) between this and other forms of figurative painting that encouraged him to take up figures.

An early result of this change of direction was 'Boy Blowing Bubbles', of which there are three versions on display. These led in the 1730s to a series of charming, tender studies of children, represented here by three of the most outstanding - 'Girl with Shuttlecock', 'Child with a Top' and 'The Young Draughtsman' - which revealed Chardin's ability to depict innocence and freshness without sentimentalizing his juvenile subjects.

He also began to experiment with domestic scenes that combined figures with still-life kitchen elements, such as 'The Scullery Maid' and 'The Cellar Boy'. He subsequently turned his gaze on life upstairs, in bourgeois parlors and drawing rooms, creating such famous images as 'The Governess', his first hit at the Salon in 1739, 'The Diligent Mother', 'Saying Grace', 'Domestic Pleasures' and 'Meal for a Convalescent'. (All of these downstairs and upstairs vignettes are in the exhibition).

These fleeting moments 'in no way interesting in themselves and not warranting attention' caught by the artist 'with a truthfulness that is all his own, and strangely naïve', in the words of a mildly perplexed contemporary critic, proved immensely appealing to viewers regardless of social class. They lend a quiet dignity to simple tasks and everyday situations, recognizing that significance can be found, or overlooked, in the small things in life.

While not entirely abandoning one genre for the other, Chardin did few still lifes between the mid-1730s and late 1740s. His return to the genre generated some of the finest pictures of his career, an impressive number of which figure in the current exhibition.

A unique work from this period is his 'Bouquet of Carnations, Tuberoses and Sweet Peas in a White Porcelain Vase with Blue Decoration', dated around 1755. Everything about it is astonishing, from its virtuoso Impressionistic rendering of the Delft vase, daring color combinations, bold, glistening brushwork and the enduring sensation that the picture must have been painted yesterday.

Chardin's life had become more prosperous thanks to his own efforts, official appointments and his marriage to a wealthy widow in 1744. One sign of this was the appearance of fine glass and Meissen porcelain in, for example, 'The Jar of Apricots' and 'The Butler's Table'.

Yet one of his later absolute masterpieces, 'Glass of Water and Coffee Pot', is of a cheap tumbler, pot and a handful of vegetables and leaves - and is one of the most awe-inspiring, deceptively simple images he ever painted.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023