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: Chardin and French Eighteenth-Century Painting


Agnes Mongan



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The painted world of the eighteenth century was one of courtly manners and graceful movements, of delicate ladies in rustling pale silks and polished gentlemen in velvet, lace and brocade. Its skies were filled with tumbling cupids and fluttering white doves, with glancing light and shifting shadows. Its earth nourished garlands of flowers, trellised fruits, and feathery trees. It was a world which echoed with the sound of gently plashing fountains and thin, faint music. Into this exquisite and artificial world, in the second quarter of the century, stepped Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin with his simple modest people—devoted mothers instructing their plump little daughters, kitchen maids industriously and seriously at their everyday tasks, unaffected young boys intently constructing houses of cards or blowing iridescent soapy bubbles—and his everyday objects truthfully observed: loaves of bread, bottles of wine, copper cooking pots, a fish fresh from the market or a hare fresh from the hunt. His sudden quiet and simple truth were more eloquent than the swish of taffeta or the sound of water.Surprisingly, his work caused no surprise—except the surprise of pleasure and recognition. For all its carefully nurtured artificialities, the eighteenth century was one which knew true quality when it saw it, no matter what its guise. From the moment that he first showed his paintings, Chardin was respected and purchased, first by his fellow-artists, then by aristocratic patrons. The quiet and honesty of the paintings was, as might have been surmised, a true reflection of the character of the man. He was not to be seduced by honors nor hastened by commissions. The honors came, and he accepted them gratefully. They changed neither his manner of living nor his style of painting. Those who ordered paintings sometimes had to wait, for Chardin worked slowly, so slowly it is said that he never permitted anyone to see him in the concentrated moments of creation. But if he worked slowly, and directly on the canvas without preliminary drawings, he worked steadily and without hesitation once his plan had been determined.His patrons waited patiently because they knew that what they would receive would be, both in paint and in performance, of superb quality. Chardin knew profoundly the physical properties of the materials he used, but this was only a fraction of his knowledge. He knew to the last vibration of subtle tone, how one color would affect another and how various, unmixed colors which, examined near to, might seem but rough inert touches on the canvas, would combine when viewed by the human eye at a certain distance, to give a hue and form of vibrant life.Even when his fame was greatest, spread to all of Europe through the sale of engravings which reproduced his genre-scenes, Chardin's prices remained modest, so modest that at length they failed any longer to tempt the rich and fashionable. Diderot, Chardin's friend and constant champion, once exclaimed in an injured tone (how right he was!): “His (Chardin's) paintings one day will be sought after. . . Who knows what will be paid for a Chardin painting when this rare man is no longer living.”Considering the length of his life (1699-1779) Chardin's production was not great. His manner of painting prevented that. The very scarcity of his paintings has made the prophetic exclamation of Diderot more true than artist or critic could ever have dreamed. Any gallery or collection which contains a painting by him rightly counts itself fortunate and considers that work a treasured possession. What riches to have a full symphony of his mature period!To be aware of his magic one has only to stop and look long enough for it to work its spell. To define it or analyze it is another matter. The most apparently casual arrangement of everyday objects is soon seen to be the most careful and thoughtful placing of every detail. Nothing has just fallen into place. It has been moved to an exact spot by the temperate hand of a subtle and quite genius, a spot where it will never lose its individuality and where it will never cease to play its role in the ultimate harmony of the composition. Defined as each object may be and painted with scrupulous care, it is never isolated. It exists in relation to the other objects and just as it casts its reflection on its neighbor, so its neighbor reflects back its glow. The vibrant light and an almost palpable atmosphere unites everything in a harmony that is muffled and mysterious, yet all-pervasive. Through that light the objects are no longer inanimate. And as clearly as if he had explicitly explained it, one knows that the painter's sensitive hand has arranged all not only to evoke chords of color, but to awaken deeper chords of meaning.A first hasty glance at The Attributes of the Arts might lead one to believe that Chardin had rather carelessly assembled a few volumes, a plaster of Pigalle's Mercury, a portfolio of drawings, a handsome volume bound in smooth ivory vellum, and then tossed in for good measure a palette, brushes, a maul-stick, some architectural plans, some architect's drawing tools, a sharpened sanguine crayon, some medals and the Order of St. Louis. But nothing is casual. Not only is the composition carefully constructed, but every object and every angle of every object has its meaning. To consider it as abstract design only would be to do credit to its composition, but it would be to fail both to feel its poetry and to understand its humanity. The gold lines red morocco portfolio with its blue tie-ribbons is bulging with drawings, evidence of the exacting discipline of the artist. The rolls of architectural plans with the tools that drew them speak of the architect's long labors, and to demonstrate how precise and decisive it must be, one plan is spread before us. The painter's palette is prepared and ready, the volumes where he has found his inspiration, at hand. The sculptures Mercury, the messenger of the Gods, needs no further explanation. In front of these are the silver and gold medals given for distinguished performance and on its broad taffeta ribbon the enameled cross of the Order of St. Louis, awarded for outstanding merit.Chardin was made a Councillor of the Academy in 1743, its faithful and conscientious treasurer in 1752. The latter post he scrupulously filled for 20 years, bringing order out of the chaos he had inherited when he assumed the role. Almost a decade before he painted this picture, which is dated 1766, he had been granted the privilege which he had most eagerly desired: lodging in the Louvre.It is tempting and perhaps not extravagant to see in this subtle, harmonious and exquisite work of his later years (he was nearing seventy) not only his thoughts about the attributes of the arts and the recompenses they offer (his own title for the painting) but the reflection of the happy life he had in the Louvre, where for a golden moment in the history of the arts, so many gifted men were pensioners of the King and lived with their wives and children in adjoining apartments. There they led simple lives with homely pleasures. Inevitably there were many fruitful exchanges of ideas and information. The Chardin's neighbors were the painters Lépicié and Boucher (Hubert Robert and Fragonard were to come later), Cochin the portrait draughtsman and illustrator who was long a faithful friend of Chardin's, the sculptors Pigalle and Pajou, and the architect Gabriel. In addition to these were the jewelers, goldsmiths and enamellers. The crafts have never reached a higher level of perfection than in that period. This painting is visible testimony that one of the greatest and most modest of painters knew their quality, for he has represented the enameller, the medalist and the bookbinder as worthily as he has the painter, sculptor and architect.It is recorded that when the pompous and arrogant Greuze paused at a Salon to look at a still-life painting by Chardin, he was overheard to utter a deep sigh, one supposes a sigh compounded of pleasure, puzzlement and envy. It is one that countless artists and lovers of the arts have echoed since and will continue to echo as long as flawless technique, a searching eye, a subtle hand and a loyal and humble heart can work their magic with paint and canvas.Quotations (Comments by critics on Chardin's work)Everyone sees nature; but Chardin sees it profoundly and exhausts himself in rendering it as he sees it; his work on the Attributes of the Arts is proof of this. How perfectly the perspective is observed! How the objects reflect each other! How the masses are handled! One can't decide wherein lies the enchantment because it is everywhere. One looks for the darks and the lights, and they must be present, but they do not leap to the eye in any spot; the objects are artfully set off one from the other. . . . Take the smallest painting of this artist, a peach, a bunch of grapes, a pear, a nut, a cup and saucer, a rabbit, a partridge, and you will find in it the great and profound colorist. In looking at his Attributes of the Arts refreshed eyes remains satisfied and tranquil. When one has observed this work for a long time, the others appear cold, cropped, flat, unfinished, and out of tune. Chardin is one with nature and art; he relegates other imitators to the third rank.
DIDEROT 1769Had you not already been unconsciously experiencing the pleasure that comes from looking at a humble scene or a still life you would not have felt it in your heart when Chardin, in his imperative and brilliant language, conjured it up. Your consciousness was too inert to descent to his depth. Your awareness had to wait until Chardin entered into the scene to raise it to his level of pleasure. Then you recognized it and, for the first time, appreciated it. . . . Chardin may have been merely a man who enjoyed his dining-room, among the fruits and glasses, but he was also a man with a sharper awareness, whose pleasure was so intense that it overflowed into smooth strokes, eternal colors. You, too, will be a Chardin, not so great, perhaps, but great to the extent that you love him, identify yourself with him, become like him, a person for whom metal and stone-ware are living and to whom fruit speaks. And when they see how he reveals their secrets to you, they will no longer avoid confiding them to you yourself. Still life will, above all, change into life in action. Like life itself, it will always have something to say to you, some shining marvel, some mystery to reveal.
MARCEL PROUST c. 1890His personality finds its consummation in what we call “paint quality,” the indefinable visual joy of a distinguished painted surface made identical with a distinguished personal vision. It is more than autographic, this texture. It reveals spiritual essence in material substance. And it is pleasurable for its own sake, without need of words to interpret it. In fact it is far beyond the power of words to convey. We can only say that a painter has spoken as only a painter can speak.
DUNCAN PHILLIPS 1935Agnes Mongan
Assistant Director, Fogg Art Musuem
Harvard UniversityReferenced Works of Art
  1. J. B. S. Chardin: The Attributes of the Arts. 1766. Oil on canvas, 44 1/4 x 57 inches. Dunwoody Fund.
  2. Palette, medals and the Order of St. Louis. Detail of The Attributes of the Arts by J. B. S. Chardin.
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Source: Agnes Mongan, "Chardin and French Eighteenth-Century Painting," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 43, no. 7 (October, 1954): 52-55.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009