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the philosophe Diderot, who said of the painter’s work that “it is nature itself,” to Proust, who in a study of Chardin unpublished during his lifetime wrote that “having understood the life of his painting, you will have discovered the beauty of life.”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 …