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Nature Itself’

Chardin 27-September 3, 2000.

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Pierre Rosenberg, with essays by Rosenberg, Colin B. Bailey, René Démoris, Marie-Laure de Rochebrune and Antoine Schnap
Royal Academy of Arts/Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 355 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The elegant Chardin show at the Met has been traveling through the turnover of centuries, beginning in Paris last fall, advancing to Düsseldorf and London, and arriving in the New World with an air of triumph. Chardin, whose life stretched from 1699 to 1779, has come to outrank, to modern taste, Watteau and Fragonard at the earlier, rococo end of his century and David at the other, neoclassical end. André Malraux, fifty years ago in The Voices of Silence, delivered this judgment:

Chardin is not a minor 18th-century master who was more delicate than his rivals; like Corot he is a subtly imperious simplifier. His quiet talent demolished the baroque still-life of Holland and made decorators out of his contemporaries; in France, nothing can rival his work, from the death of Watteau to the Revolution.

Chardin’s eloquent literary champions range from the philosophe Diderot, who said of the painter’s work that “it is nature itself,” to Proust, who in a study of Chardin unpublished during his lifetime wrote that “having understood the life of his painting, you will have discovered the beauty of life.” Chardin’s later admirers include Manet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Giacometti, Francis Ponge, Julien Green, Lucian Freud, the brothers Goncourt, Vermeer’s rediscoverer Thoré, and a host of modern critics whose detailed appreciations are surveyed by Colin B. Bailey in his catalog essay on recent writings on Chardin. The French painter, whose repute and income during his lifetime, while not insignificant, were unspectacular, has been enlisted in the exalted company of Vermeer and Cézanne, the purest of pure painters, whose genre scenes and still lifes, respectively, both impeccably serve and mystically transcend their subjects.

Made expectant by rumors of this high regard, the visitor to the eight galleries the Metropolitan has devoted to Chardin may be surprised (especially if he or she has come from the bright and lively show of modern Paris paintings on the floor below) by the rather relentless brownness of Chardin’s canvases, their skyless subterranean cast; they seem, most of them, rendered with an ascetic palette more Spanish than French. Some of the colors may have sunk: the orange in Rabbit with Red Partridge and Seville Orange (1728-1729) is a half-ghost; the plums in Bowl of Plums, a Peach and Water Pitcher (1728-1730) are likewise chalky and unfleshed; and the dead thrush in Wild Rabbit with Game Bag, Powder Flask, Thrush and Lark (circa 1730) is a transparent sketch in white and gray. These early still lifes were almost all arranged on the same stone ledge, before an olive-drab stone wall rendered with a fury of broad brushing and scrubby blotches that anticipates abstract expressionism—for example, in the two identically sized canvases from the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe, one dated 1728 and the other estimated to be from the same year.

Rabbit fur (“Poor bunnies,” a female museumgoer murmured in passing) functioned for Chardin much as reflections in water did for the Impressionists, as a goad to innovation in technique. According to the posthumous biographical essay by Charles-Nicolas Cochin:

He had never painted fur before. He realized that he should not paint it hair by hair, or reproduce it in detail. “Here is an object which I must aim to reproduce,” he said to himself. “In order to concentrate my mind on reproducing it faithfully, I must forget everything I have seen, even including the manner in which such objects have been handled by others. I must place it at such a distance that I cannot see the details. I must work at representing the general mass as accurately as possible, the shades and colors, the contours, the effects of light and shade.”

His rabbit fur explodes in flurries of dry brushstrokes; the limpness of death erases anatomy and almost returns these fruits of the hunt to the mottled background of stone. Rabbit fur taught Chardin a certain atmospheric mistiness that carried over into his depictions of fruit. His peaches and plums look furry, whereas the cats with which he decorated his early, larger still lifes do not.

Chardin’s name was made, when he was twenty-six or so, with the large-scale Ray (1725-1726), a still-startling nature morte dominated by a partially eviscerated ray, whose gills and eyes do an eerie imitation of a smiling, pin-headed man. The surrealism was, I believe, unintentional, but the glistening, arrestingly detailed inner flesh was thoroughly meant. The Ray, when displayed at the 1728 Exposition de la Jeunesse, made a sensation, and it, along with the even more ambitious, heaped Buffet (1728), led to his shortcut admission, the same year, to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The Académie bestowed upon its members the right to exhibit at the annual Salon, which was attended by the King and the fashionable public. Hitherto, Chardin, a cabinet-maker’s son who lacked the classical education necessary to study at the Académie Royale, had belonged to the run-down, maverick Académie de Saint-Luc. Henceforth, he had the status of a master painter, and the credentials for professional success.

Art as practiced in the ancien régime was a hierarchical department of the idealized monarchy. Four genres of painting were recognized—in order of importance, history painting, portraiture, scenes from ordinary life (genre painting), and still life. With an almost comical strictness their subjects presented a dwindling in social rank: kings and rulers and religious beings were the subjects of the first, the aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie of the second, the common people and servant class of the third, and lowly objects, edible or not, of the fourth. Chardin showed his character by steadfastly sticking, for five years after 1728, to the lowest of the genres, deepening and varying still life and shedding the virtuosic precision and crowding of his seventeenth- century Dutch and Flemish predecessors.

Two paintings of hares from around 1730 achieve, with their more elongate lapine bodies, striking gestural drama on the canvases (see illustration on opposite page). All supporting details are forsworn but the game bag and powder flask, instrumental in the chase; nails stretch a single hind leg to the top of the canvas; the colors all revolve close to the fur’s grayish brown. This single-subject minimalism makes a violent effect congruent with dashing streaks and stabs of Chardin’s brush. The merest dry dabble of red shows blood leaked from the creature’s nose or drying in its crotch, reinforcing the hint of crucifixion. A viewer should of course not bring modern squeamishness to Chardin’s depiction of game, ubiquitous and indispensable in this era; yet the limp weight of death figures as a psychological factor as well as the occasion for a baroque diagonal. A Mallard Drake Hanging on a Wall and a Seville Orange (1728-1730) shows the feathered body hanging with an askew plump weight from one foot, and extends Chardin’s usual browns and whites into black, which forcefully outlines the bird’s red bill, seen from beneath, as well as tipping the tail and wings. The shadows on the wall—Chardin’s shadows, and the theories of shadow and perception common in the eighteenth century, were the topic of a 1995 book by a searching theorist of representation, Michael Baxandall*—are especially shuddering, like echoes of the drake’s vanished animation. This “majestic” (as the wall caption rightly says) bird reappears, along with one of the hares, in the large Water Spaniel (1730), a commissioned piece that also includes a rifle. According to Cochin, Chardin when a student was told by his teacher, Noël-Nicolas Coypel, to paint a rifle, and discovered in the exercise that “the colors and effects of light presented by nature are difficult to achieve; the reflections that this experiment gave rise to helped to make him what he later became.” Given the importance of “the colors and effects of light presented by nature,” the exact duplication within one painting of figures lifted from others surprises us, and bares a gap between Chardin’s sense of the artist’s craft and our own. He commonly duplicated genre paintings and sold them again—one of the more popular, The Return from Market (1738), no fewer than four times. The borrowed bodies in Water Spaniel, it should be said, are brighter than in the originals, and indeed look spotlit. One of the last Chardins to depict a living animal, this ambitious work is the only one in this show to occupy an outdoor setting; with a curious bush and stage-flat clouds, it looks very artificial.

On the other hand, some of the early still lifes seem crude. Two small canvases, loaned from museums in Bordeaux and Houston, both date from 1730 and involve chunks of mutton dangling above an array of utensils and vegetables. Both are painted with short quick strokes and dabbled highlights of white; the meat is scarcely recognizable as such, and an inky darkness underlies the scrubbed-looking spots of color. The Bordeaux canvas, which was not discovered until 1969, appears scarcely finished. He was experimenting with texture; in Still-Life with Ray and Basket of Onions (which he reproduced at least six times), the brushstrokes are noticeably dry and granular, even those defining the smooth eggs. (One worries, in fact, about the chemistry of Chardin’s underpainting and his notoriously patient way of letting his works ripen; some of his figural canvases, like Girl with Shuttlecock, 1737, and The Morning Toilet, 1741, are cruelly crackled, and parts of Domestic Pleasures, 1745-1746, are alligatored like a Ryder.) In searching out visual truth among humble objects, Chardin disdained trompe l’oeil smoothness; in Musical Instruments and Basket of Fruit (1732), one of a pair of “overdoors” commissioned for the Paris residence of the Comte de Rothenbourg, the basket and a leaning guitar both shrug, in a Cézannesque manner, at correct perspective, and the musical notation on two crumpled sheets is rendered as lyrical scribbles—what, instead, would a Flemish precisionist have carefully made of those bars of notes!

According to a tale in a 1749 article on Chardin by Pierre-Jean Mariette, a dealer in prints, the painter was executing, for a firescreen, a picture of a saveloy (a highly seasoned sausage) on a dish. When he endeavored to persuade a friend, Joseph Aved, a portrait painter, to accept four hundred livres for a portrait, Aved replied that he would, “if a portrait was as easy to do as a saveloy.” Chardin reflected on this friendly sneer, and turned, around 1732, from still life to the next step up in the ladder of genres, the painting of scenes from ordinary life. The earliest surviving example, Woman Sealing a Letter (1733), is rather gloomy and cluttered, and its setting and costumes border on the luxurious; it was quickly followed, however, by The Washerwoman (1733), which takes us to the servants’ quarters. The little capped ragamuffin blowing soap bubbles feels lifted from a cozily disheveled Dutch interior, but the washerwoman herself, glancing wistfully toward the painting’s left edge, feels French, and in her ambiguous, abstracted attitude typically Chardinesque.

His attempts at facial animation are halfhearted at best, and his human interactions lukewarm, and yet for all their indifference to signs of conventional charm the paintings were turned into popular engravings; an array of these, taken from the Met’s collection, occupies the last room of the exhibition, and it is striking how the engravers sharpened the poignance and heightened the little actions, including rhyming verses to drive home a moral that is scarcely there. The innocuous servant girl, for instance, in The Return from Market was charged with these verses by the engraver, François-Bernard Lépicié:

From your look, my dear young girl
I calculate that, recklessly,
You borrow from the housekeeping
The cash you need to clothe yourself.

The gentle housekeeping tensions in The Governess (1739), between a dapper boy with downcast mien and a servant brushing his tricorn hat; the tender vanities of The Morning Toilet, as a mother primps a docile small girl who sneaks a look into the mirror; the domestic pieties of Saying Grace (1740 and 1744): all these were made much of, by the engravers, their caption devisers, and contemporary commentators. A late and especially sensitive sentimental anatomist was Proust, who observed in Saying Grace “the contented hands of the woman setting the table and the ancient tablecloth and the plates still intact after so many years and whose smooth firmness she has felt the resistance of always in the same spot between her careful hands.” Such emotional content is not necessarily absent from the works: Chardin himself said, according to Cochin’s account, “You use colors, but you paint with your feelings.” Yet comparison of print and painting often shows the print to have crisply heightened a mood cool and enigmatic in the original: one’s eye in the painted Morning Toilet goes less to the little girl’s glance than to the dashingly painted shoe peeping out from the mother’s dress, the lovingly highlighted silver jug so solidly situated on the floor, and the gilded book resting on the red stool in the foreground.

The single or dominant figures in many of the genre canvases are painted as if they are objects in a still life, with no more or less attention than Chardin gives to a bunch of onions or a copper pot. The copper pot in The Scullery Maid (circa 1738) steals the show, and the figure in The Cellar Boy (1736- 1738) serves, stiffly, as the mustering-point for various large containers. These servants’ faces are expressionless, and those displayed in The Turnip Peeler (1738) and the much-duplicated Return from Market are, one could say by a sympathetic stretch, reflective, insofar as lives of drudgery permit reflection. Vermeer’s women seem in comparison engaged by their tasks, quietly smiling as a hum of secluded peace encloses them.

Strikingly absent from Chardin’s genre paintings is any hint of the erotic, even as a flirtatious possibility; his masterpieces of human representation have solitary children as their subjects. Three of these—Girl with Shuttlecock, The House of Cards (circa 1737), and Child with a Top (1737-1738)—are arrayed on one wall of the exhibit, with a fourth, The Young Draughtsman (1737), near at hand. The viewer comes rapturously upon these celebrated signature pieces, in which Chardin’s particular innocence and simplicity achieve a human scale both majestic and intimate. The heads are doll-like in their smooth roundness and rosy glow and unshakable calm; the consummate tranquility of his best still lifes informs their rendering, which is generally smooth, without much of that artful scumble which reminds one (in, say, The Cellar Boy and The Return from Market) of amiably rough Wyethesque (N.C., not Andrew) illustrations in children’s books. Details like hats, caps, playing cards, shuttlecocks, quills and ribbons, flat tabletops, and rounded childish hands are seen with easy clarity and exquisite compositional poise. Much of childhood, these images imply, is a still life, a set of objects arranged on a plane. The children gaze into their own worlds, bright cubbyholes within eighteenth-century grandeur. These relatively spacious canvases sunnily partake of the Enlightenment’s love of logic, decorum, and play.

In an ajar drawer of Child with a Top Chardin has placed a crayon-holder like an artist’s signature. He was, in fact, fond of toying with his signature, affixing it to surprising facets of the represented reality. In many of his early canvases, it is inscribed on the edge of a shelf as if carved there—a demure bit of trompe l’oeil. His sense of the artist as an undeniable presence and of the painting as not a window into reality but a willful sort of artifact liberated him, in the still lifes to which he returned from genre painting around 1748, to freer brushwork and starker, more frontal arrangements. From 1734-1735 date three studies featuring copper kitchen utensils, notably rich in color and impasto; The Copper Cistern, housed in the Louvre, rejoices in its range of homely metals and explores their resonances of sheen and reflectiveness with a monumentalizing intentness. So, too, the pots and clay vessels collected around the figure of The Scullery Maid.

After 1748 he returned to fruits and bottles, dead birds and rabbits with an assured flamboyance. The small Grey Partridge, Pear and Snare on a Stone Table (1748) has the bravura dash of a Sargent. A Rabbit, Two Thrushes and Some Straw on a Stone Table (circa 1755) with a kindred swiftness and verve gives us a puddle of brown feathers and fur, death at its meekest. Bouquet of Carnations, Tuberoses and Sweet Peas in a White Porcelain Vase with Blue Decoration (circa 1755), Chardin’s only surviving painting of flowers, uses reds and blues as suavely as he uses grays and browns; dabs of duller paint, brushstrokes doubling as petals, lend his small bouquet the recession of depth in atmosphere. Among the exhibit’s many flurries of bold brushwork, this small canvas is one of the most astonishing and carefreely perfect. A number of small horizontal paintings of edibles, including the well-known Basket of Wild Strawberries (1761), rest in their modesty and (but for the triangular mound of strawberries) murkiness like fruit stored in the cool of a cellar.

The larger and more complex still lifes from his last decades, including some carefully worked out commissioned overdoors (The Attributes of the Arts, The Attributes of Music, both 1765; The Attributes of Civilian Music, The Attributes of Military Music, both 1767) do not make as congenial an effect, to a modern taste, as these fresh and apparently unstudied small canvases. Less has become, for us, more; the virtues prized in academic art—high finish, organization of many elements, a grandiose humanism—are almost valueless now. What we treasure instead is a glimpse, even a fragmented glimpse, rendered so as to reveal a personality in the painter. A plaster cast of Mercury, introduced into The Attributes of the Arts and Their Rewards (1766; commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia), though impeccably enough painted, seems arrived from a dusty attic. Chardin executed several versions of this refined jumble, and the two on view here, from St. Petersburg and Minneapolis, are disconcertingly identical, devoid of creative second thoughts: a machine might have done the work.

It suits our modern fancy to think of Chardin as a saint of perception, a kind of monk guilelessly contemplating the glory in a glass of water or an earthenware coffee pot, “giving to each thing its color,…” Proust wrote, “each form of shining significance for the eye, if obscure significance to the brain.” But Chardin was also an unabashed self-copier, once the image was locked in. The “majestic” mallard hanging by one leg becomes a word in a sentence instead of a shout when transposed to a large oval still life, Duck Hanging by One Leg, Pâté, Bowl and Jar of Olives (1764). Just as a certain clumsiness reinforces the earnest worth of Chardin’s early work, some of his later, more conventionally ambitious pieces are vitiated by his serene professionalism.

And yet less of an artisan might not have resorted to pastels when his eyes, affected by a lifetime of lead-based pigments and binders, contracted, like Degas’s a century later, amaurosis—paralysis of the eyes. How much poorer our sense of this painter would be without the self-portraits he executed in pastel, having never attempted one in paints. At last the man himself appears, wearing comical get-ups of beribboned turbans on his wigless skull, and owlish round spectacles, and, in the self-portrait of 1775, an eyeshade that makes him look like a batty grandmother, yet one full of dignity, with an expression, to quote Proust once more, “daring you to smile, or to make an excuse, or to weep.” His last self-portrait was executed in 1779, a few months before his death, and, though signs of age darken and crease his visage, his attitude is alert, the crayon uplifted in his hand.

His self-portraits are impish, and cocky in a reserved Gallic manner, “subtly imperious.” Some of his late still lifes, too, have an impish touch: the slice of melon in The Cut Melon (1760) posed atop the triangular chasm left by its removal, and, in The Brioche (1763)—a painting left in Paris but present in the catalog—the wonderfully painted double dome of bread topped, as was the custom with a brioche de mariage, by a sprig of orange blossoms. The joke, if there is one, is on all those contemporary painters of pomp and sexual power who did not see that the highest subject of painting is the painting itself, and that the ordinary plain things and persons around us offer the painter not just as good an excuse as any, but the best excuse possible, since the everyday world is what is always there.

  1. *

    Shadows and Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 1995).

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