Published: August 15, 2000
NEW YORK CITY – Mounted in celebration of the tercentenary of the birth of Eighteenth Century French artist Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features works encompassing the painter’s distinguished five-decade career. “Chardin,” on view through September 3, is the first New York exhibition devoted to the artist’s work and the first in this country since 1979.
The exhibition was organized by the Met, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in Paris, the Kunstmuseum and Kunstshalle in Dusseldorf, and the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It has already drawn large crowds in Paris, Dusseldorf, and London.
Selection of works on view was made by preeminent Chardin scholar Pierre Rosenberg, Director of the Musée du Louvre in Paris. He is also the principal contributor to the informative accompanying catalogue.
“Chardin” is made possible in New York by the Florence Gould Foundation. An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Although he is recognized as one of the great artists of all time, Chardin remains relatively unknown in this country. This is largely because most of his paintings are in France – the National Gallery of Art, with eight works, has the largest American collection – and because he has not been the subject of a major US exhibition in over two decades.
These factors make the current show at the Met a rare opportunity for us to take the measure of this overlooked artist. Needless to say, Chardin’s beguiling canvases come through with flying colors.
Master of still life and genre scenes, Chardin brought a breath of fresh air to Eighteenth Century French painting, which was bound by the strict conventions of the academic style. In an era when artists established their reputations on the strength of vast historical canvases or sentimentalized fantasies, Chardin commanded attention with small still lifes, humble domestic vignettes, and insightful portraits.
His special gift was to find and convey the extraordinary in the ordinary. He turned mundane objects and minor interior views into major art statements. As The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman recently observed, “Chardin was the best still life painter ever because he made the most of the least.”
Even though he was bucking the French art establishment, Chardin’s art took Europe by storm. His work inspired titans such as Cézanne, Manet, and Matisse, and admiration for his oeuvre has never waned among critics and the public.
Among Chardin’s greatest admirers was the distinguished philosopher and writer Denis Diderot, who called the artist a “great magician.” Wrote Diderot in 1767, “One pauses instinctively in front of a Chardin like a weary traveler who sits down… in a grassy spot that offers silence, water, shade, and a cooling breeze.”
Born in Paris, the son of a master cabinetmaker, Chardin rarely left his native city and died there at the age of 80. His first wife died young; he was survived by his second wife. Two daughters died in early childhood, while his only son, who was a successful painter, apparently committed suicide.
Chardin lived for much of his career on the Left Bank, near Saint-Sulpice, within walking distance of the Seine. In 1757 Louis XV granted him a studio and living quarters in the Louvre, where he lived the remainder of his life.
Chardin came of age at a time when the prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which dominated the art scene, decreed that history painting was its highest form of art. Lesser categories that followed included portraiture, landscape, genre, and still life. It is a mark of his genius that throughout his career, Chardin’s works in the lowest of the hierarchy – genre and still life paintings – were well received in the Académie’s Salons and were acclaimed by artists and critics alike.
Long active in the Académie, Chardin was elected to several offices and for decades took charge of hanging the annual Salon exhibitions.
He began as an outsider. In his twenties, Chardin studied with several history painters and at an unfashionable academy, but he lacked the classical education required to enter the Académie, where he would have gained the right to exhibit at the Salon, which was patronized by the king, nobility, and major collectors. By the age of 28, however, he was recognized as a “skilled painter of animals and fruit,” and was admitted to the prestigious institution by a special procedure. The quality of his work, shaped by the Seventeenth Century Dutch still life tradition, was exceptional and an overnight hit.
His early Académie work, “The Ray” (1725-26), owned by the Louvre, depicts with startling realism a bristling cat preying on a graphically gutted fish that hangs amidst an array of kitchen objects. It was the young artist’s debut masterpiece.
Another standout pre-1730s still life is “Partridge, Bowl of Plums, and Basket of Pears” (circa 1728), a richly hued depiction of a gray bird hanging from the wall of a stone alcove above a basket and bowl of fruit. It brings to mind elaborate works by Dutch masters.
Particularly stunning is “Bowl of Plums, a Peach, and a Water Pitcher” (1728-30), loaned by The Phillips Collections, in which light from the left illuminates the bowl and its fruit and highlights the fanciful butterflies and other decorations on the white Chinese porcelain ewer. It is a beautiful image.
In the mid-1730s, the artist began focusing on kitchen utensils and other household objects, often working on a small scale, as in the Louvre’s “The Copper Cistern” (circa 1735), a deftly composed picture of a copper urn and its shadow set against a gray background with a long-handled saucepan, a water bucket, and a glazed earthenware jug arrayed before it. Filled with a sense of timelessness, this spare yet arresting painting was particularly admired by Cézanne and Cubist artists.
Inspired by Dutch and Flemish still lifes, Chardin’s early work in that genre reflected their modest size and restricted range of subjects, albeit adapted to French tastes and feelings. He did not, however, depict objects that were interesting in themselves, as had the others, but rather common household things whose beauty depended on the way he grouped and painted them. Moreover, he eschewed the showy trompe l’oeil effects of the Dutch school in favor of grave compositions featuring the astute interplay of color, light, and rhyming forms.
Instead of using expensive silver dishes and handblown glass, Chardin preferred to pick a few plain, sturdy kitchen pieces and perhaps some uncooked meat or fowl – the household objects of the common man – as his subjects. He found so much beauty in these everyday things and treated them with such respect and understanding that they became important as symbols of a way of life.
As Met director de Montebello puts it, “Through Chardin’s eyes, seemingly banal objects and scenes – a copper pot, a washer-woman, a mother admonishing a child, a basket of wild strawberries – are infused with an uncommon degree of emotional intensity in compositions of exquisite balance and beauty. Rejecting the styles and subjects of his contemporaries, such as Boucher and Fragonard, Chardin elevated the still life to a noble art form and achieved a place for himself as a quiet revolutionary in the pantheon of art history.”
Today, Chardin’s quiet, unassuming pictures exude dignity and simplicity. They still speak to us in the painter’s own language of color, form, and light.
In the early 1730s, motivated by both financial and artistic concerns, Chardin appears to have reexamined the direction of his career. He recognized that genre scenes, with their representations of the human form, were more highly regarded than still lifes and more likely to gain public favor. In addition, genre pictures lent themselves to engravings, offering a new source of income.
The resulting genre paintings are small in format, with smallish figures in homely interiors, reflecting the simple domesticity of everyday bourgeois life, unsentimentalized and unidealized. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Chardin’s genre works were not rendered picturesque by explorations of low life or titillating excursions into the demimonde. Rather, his canvases imparted dignity and even nobility to the most mundane domestic tasks. In effect, Chardin, as in his still lifes, took over a Dutch tradition and invested it with a new feeling for the dignity of everyday life.
“The Washerwoman” (1733), described by Rosenberg as “Chardin’s first intimist masterpiece,” is a standout among this group. Depicting a woman washing clothes, with a child blowing soap bubbles and a cat dozing at her feet and another woman hanging wash in an adjoining room, it is a perceptive, evocative domestic vignette.
“The characters, the cat, distant yet close to one another, each inhabiting his or her own world, are part of this chaste, discreet intimacy,” Rosenberg writes in the exhibition catalogue. “The gestures are static, as if frozen, the faces without expression. Chardin gives his attention to the construction of his composition; he wants to convey the peace and silence of this domestic scene.”
Several other early genre canvases stand out for their intimacy, tranquility, large scale, and broad handling. They suggest the accuracy of de Montebello’s observation that “Part of the poetry in Chardin is the silence of his pictures. He captures and holds the moment for eternity.”
A special highlight of the exhibition is one of three versions of the familiar “Soap Bubbles” or “Young Man Blowing Bubbles” (circa 1734), from the Met’s own collection. Showing a youngster studiously blowing soap bubbles under the watchful eye of a small child, it is a quiet masterpiece of painting and composition.
Another standout is the eternally endearing “Girl with Shuttlecock” (1737), which graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue. In it, a young, piquant girl, decked out in a bonnet, dress, and apron, prepares to apply her racquet to the multicolored shuttlecock in her hand. “The painting,” observes Rosenberg, “is charming in its simplicity, disarming in its purity. Seldom has a small girl been portrayed with such modesty and delicacy, tenderness and sympathy – or such comprehension and complicity.”
“Meal for a Convalescent” or “The Attentive Nurse” (circa 1747), is a softer, more introverted image of a nurse peeling a hard-boiled egg for a patient. It is the highlight of the National Gallery of Art’s Chardin collection.
In the last of Chardin’s figure paintings, “The Serinette” or “The Bird Organ” (1751), from the august Frick Collection, a young woman, perhaps modeled by Mme. Chardin, cranks a music box as she looks toward a canary in a cage who is learning to sing. “The painting is porcelain-like, polished, and detailed, with a somewhat cool elegance,” in Rosenberg’s eloquent description. It retains, he adds, “the note of poetry and reverie that is so characteristic of his work.”
Although a good deal of research and writing has been devoted to Chardin, how he went about producing his acclaimed paintings remains something of a mystery. He apparently found drawing difficult, worked slowly and focused on the evocative rather than the literal aspects of subjects before him. No one reported seeing him painting and he had no pupils or followers. He was hardly a prolific painter; about one-third of his 300 surviving paintings are copies. Chardin, says Met director de Montebello, is “a pure painter whose subject is almost subordinate to the joy of painting.”
“The Draftsman” (circa 1734), which was acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., as recently as 1982, shows a young man leaning over his portfolio to copy a study of a male nude in red chalk pinned to the wall. Although his face is hidden, the man’s concentration is palpable. Since Chardin found drawing difficult, it has been speculated this is a self-portrait.
The exhibition includes a selection of the late still lifes for which Chardin is especially admired. Painted with a sure sense of perspective, color, and composition, they achieve balance in the seemingly haphazard arrangement of everyday objects. Works of dignity, gravity, and consummate simplicity, inviting comparison to Vermeer and Cézanne, they set a standard that painters are still trying to emulate.
Compared with earlier works featuring dead game, “Two Rabbits, a Pheasant and a Seville Orange on a Stone Ledge” (1755) shows the mature artist less concerned with detail than in conveying a general sense of his subjects. “He wishes to achieve…harmony which…was more important to him than anything else,” says Rosenberg. “He does not neglect emotion, but it is a restrained and discreet emotion.”
“Basket of Wild Strawberries” (1761) is a small, deceptively simple view of a pyramid of luscious berries, flanked on a table by a glass of water, two cherries, a peach, and two white carnations. Here, the artist has magically captured the ripeness of fruit, the bloom of flowers, and reflections on objects in a beautiful composition that conveys stillness and timelessness.
Citing the boldness of Chardin’s “Wild Strawberries” image, Rosenberg notes the “contrast between the red of the strawberries and the white of the carnations, the green of their stems and the ochre yellow of the wicker basket. Nothing could be more natural or more free, more composed or more carefully considered, nothing more tender or more moving.”
“Three Apples, Two Chestnuts, Bowl, and Silver Goblet” (circa 1768) emphasizes the manner in which light and shade create the atmosphere around carefully arrayed tabletop objects. This is another treasure from the Louvre.
In his maturity, Chardin received significant support from the French king. He began to collect an annual royal pension in 1752 and in 1757 King Louis XV granted the artist studio and living quarters in the Louvre for the remainder of his days.
Chardin’s reputation was international, with his works sought by leading collectors of the day, including not only the French king but also Catherine the Great of Russia and Frederick the Great of Prussia.
“The Attributes of the Arts and Their Rewards” (1766) is a larger, more complex composition, the first version of which was commissioned by Catherine the Great, and is now in the State Museum in St Petersburg. (When she died, the Russian empress possessed five Chardin canvases.)
The variant on view in New York, from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, was apparently painted by Chardin for sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, a plaster cast of whose celebrated “Mercury” occupies the center of the painting. The cross of the Order of St Michael, which was awarded to Pigalle, appears on the left, along with an assortment of books, coins, brushes and palette, a portfolio of drawings, and other tools of artistic endeavor.
Looking at “Attributes” admiringly, Diderot observed that “Chardin is between nature and art; he… is an old sorcerer from whom age has not yet stolen his magic wand.”
His eyesight weakened by exposure to paint fumes, in the 1770s Chardin began to create pastels, with fascinating results. At the 1775 Salon he exhibited two self-portraits and one likeness of his wife in pastel that are masterpieces of acute analysis, breadth of vision, and assured technique. All owned by the Louvre, they were, unfortunately, only displayed in Paris.
In choosing works for this exhibition, Rosenberg says, “We wanted to present the artist’s finest paintings, the most perfect, the most harmonious, the paintings that leave nothing to be desired.” Visitors to the Met will find that he has succeeded admirably. One only wishes that more of Chardin’s unforgettable oeuvre was on view.
This sumptuous display of artistic virtuosity makes clear why Chardin’s work was so admired by later artists and helped set the stage for modern painting. Bucking the dictates of the art establishment and popularity of history paintings and rococo sensations, his quietly simple and pictorially harmonious canvases have a timeless appeal. As the ever perceptive observer Diderot wrote in 1763, a Chardin still life “is nature itself; the objects free themselves from the canvas and are deceptively true to life.”
“Chardin” is accompanied by an enlightening, illustrated catalogue written by Rosenberg with contributions by other noted scholars, as well as a chronology and bibliography. Rosenberg sees the artist as an unconscious “subversive,” at odds with the art leadership of his time, who “opened the door to modern painting.” Rather than a traditionalist rooted in the Eighteenth Century, he argues that Chardin was someone who looked ahead to the Nineteenth Century and especially presaged the work of the great Cézanne.
This very fine volume, co-published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, sells for $29.95 (softcover) and $45 (hardcover). The latter is distributed by Yale University Press.
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