On Chardin: Greatness in Mediocrity

Three side-by-side self-portraits by Jean Siméon Chardin

Panting is an island whose shores I have skirted. — Chardin

Chardin’s paintings….they’re so delicious you could lick them, and in my misspent youth I did. — Trevor Winkfield

There’s hardly enough love and understanding for Chardin. It’s not a look that screams ‘genius’ or ‘radicality’. Such might be held against him—his lack of glamour. His ill-preparedness for survival.

Yet Chardin hasn’t been without his share of admirers. The encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, wrote prolifically on his work. Manet, Braque and Matisse all cite Chardin as a major influence. And Cezanne, in his own typical way, praised him in a letter as an ‘artful devil’.

In life, Chardin was a time-tenured salon academician and businessman, with a permanent residence at the Louvre and a state pension. But he was also, for all his sophistication and studio-training, a functional illiterate who rarely left the city of Paris. There’s little evidence to suggest that he was any kind of intellectual or possessed a coherent aesthetic programme. It would simply appear that he painted what he thought would sell, and what could best showcase his talents.

French painting, for most of the 18th century, was a fairly meretricious culture. While the Dutch and Spanish were inventing new genres and effects, French painters had little choice but to cling to the official styles of the Academy, which, for its ties to the state, held an economic and ideological hegemony. If you wanted to be a painter in 18th century France, even a minor one, it would have been practically impossible without securing sponsorship through the Academy.

It was a cultural institution in the thrall of aristocracy—and so the artists who tended to fare best were the ones who flattered the regime and its tastes. History painting and mythological allegories were regarded as the highest, most dignified subjects for public art and as such were placed at the top of the Salons’ official hierarchy of style-types.

Chardin's painting "The Kitchen Maid", depicting a seated woman taking a break from cutting vegetables.
Chardin – The Kitchen Maid (1738)

Landscapes, still-lives, and ‘genre painting‘ (an archaic term for depictions of everyday life and domestic scenes) were placed further down in the pecking order. These categories tended to be more popular with the ascendent bourgeois class rather than government officials and noblemen, who regarded such as insufficiently edifying or common.

Chardin settled comfortably into his role in this elite society. After all, there was a healthy market demand for the kind of lowbrow painting which he provided. Yet many of his confreres mocked him, insinuating the demands of high genre painting were beyond his ability. ‘Anybody could paint a portrait of a sausage,’ a fellow artist famously quipped.

Gerard Ter Borch's painting of a woman in an orange and white dress reading a letter in front of a dark separation screen.
Gerard Ter Borch – Woman Reading a Letter (1662)

Perhaps Chardin’s true artistic kinsman can be found in the ‘little Dutch masters‘ of Vermeer, de Hoogh and Ter Borch. There’s a similar focus on technique, spatial effects and an overall ‘truthful’ presentation of the subject matter which grated against the prevailing taste for ornament and sentimentality. The story of the picture; its availability to critical exegesis, meant less to Chardin than the overall problems of formalism—of light, colour, dimension and ‘surface’. He preferred a simple, direct approach and this would be the key to Chardin’s early modernism—his accidental premonition of ‘abstract’, and ‘realist’ values.

Marcel Proust was quick to pick up the lead. Why, he asked, were these canvases of scullery maids and glasses of water so moving?

Until I saw Chardin’s painting, I never realized how much beauty lay around me in my parents’ house, in the half-cleared table, in the corner of a tablecloth left awry, in the knife beside the empty oyster shell.

Proust seems to find a kindred spirit in Chardin. His paintings show how ordinary boring stuff can suddenly become enchanted. And of course, this sort of lovely niceness disqualifies Chardin from the interest of postmodern artists and critics. It’s difficult, for instance, to find any sort of discursive link between Chardin and say, digital art or installation. Young people, especially, will be more inclined to the emotional extremes of painters such as Goya and Schiele, than the lukewarm of a Chardin.

And it’s this impression of ‘warmth’ in Chardin, as discussed by critics such as Trevor Winkfield in his Dear Chardin, that becomes one of most critically challenging things to re-phrase. After all, one of Chardin’s great achievements, in retrospect, would be his avoidance of the Roccoco’s stylistic requirements. Exaggeration, melodrama, pomp.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard – Young Girl Freeing a Caged Bird (1770)
Jean-Honoré Fragonard – Young Girl Freeing a Caged Bird (1770)

Look, for instance, at the work of Fragonard, who was one of the most popular rococo painters at the time. Probably a bit kitschy to our modern sensibilities—or camp, if you like. But people went absolutely crazy for it. The pastel colours (God, how the French loved pastel). The barely-concealed sexual lavisciousness. It’s like looking into a luminous unreal fantasy world made of candyfloss and bosoms.

Or look at this painting by Greuze. He often gets lumped in with Chardin for doing genre paintings. But just as in the Fragonard one finds a smooth and academic finish- a kind of glassy unreality, which is to say nothing of the subject’s frothy sentimentality.

Greuze – The Dead Bird, or A Child Hesitating to Touch a Bird Fearing that it Might be Dead (1759)
Greuze – The Dead Bird, or A Child Hesitating to Touch a Bird Fearing that it Might be Dead (1759)

I don’t mean to unfairly disparage these artists. They were establishment figures, sure, but they weren’t frauds. In other essays, I may even argue for their respective merits—the cache of whimsical devices each brought to bear on painting and fashion. But comparing them to Chardin is like comparing the work of popstars to an Erik Satie.

Chardin's painting of a young teacher and her chubby, red-cheeked student learning an assingment.
Chardin – The Young Governess (1735)

Now look at this painting by Chardin. Sure, it’s a warm picture. There’s sentiment—a genuine feeling of affection that comes across in his depiction of the subjects—but no cloying sentimentality. There’s also an absence of allegory or moralism. The image of the teacher and the pupil isn’t being staged as an illustration of a religious moral principle. There’s no secret drama at play. It’s simply an image of two people going about the motions of routine.

Not everything detached has to be cold. In Chardin, we often get the subtlest of touches. We get affection but without condescension. We get sweetness but without the saccharine. We get some interesting paint effects, surfaces rendered with exquisite care. Glass, copper, bone china, bismuth.

Chardin – Jar of Apricots (1758)

Of course, a photograph is a poor substitute for actual oil-on-canvas. But even for a reproduction as crude as this, we can easily imagine the impact of such a surface. It’s said that Chardin would often compose directly on the easel, without the need for preparatory drawing. He just went straight in with his brush, tweaking and adjusting as he went along. So there’s a kind of automatism there—with Chardin allowing the image to build up unselfconsciously, as it were. He’s not working out the composition beforehand, in a calculated way, but as a spontaneous process, dealing with the problems when and as they arise in the pigment.

Chardin's painting of a modern-looking glass of water on a table with a tea pot and garlic.
Chardin – Glass of Water (1761)

Another thing about Chardin’s realism is just how materialistic it is – how it doesn’t engage with the iconographic traditions usually associated with bourgeois painting. Take this still-life of a glass of water, for instance. In most forms of still-life at the time there would be a strong allegorical/symbolical relationship between the different items on display. Dutch still-life in particular, even at its most acquisitive, such as in the case of Clara Peters, relied on Christian metaphors about piety, the sacrament, memento mori and sexual virtue. So even if it appears as a random jumble of food and objet d’art, a tightly woven system of signs can be deciphered to explain the relationship of the objects and their allegorical import.

Clara Peeters – Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels (1615)
Clara Peeters – Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels (1615)

This painting by Peters has some Chardinesque qualities, especially the spatial device of the foreshortened knife extending off the table. But it’s also an elaborate allegory about Passover, mortality and the reformist spirit of temperance. The pretzel has its hands crossed in prayer. The cheese represents the resurrection because it’s both dead and alive (fermented) at the same time. The jug and the knife have inlaid allegorical personae. It’s a catalogue of tightly-bound symbolic devices.

But in a Chardin, the items truly are random and meaningless. The glass doesn’t represent Christ. It’s just a glass. There aren’t any details elucidating a narrative. Just mood, surface, the sense of light in a shallow, interior space. Whether this development, this expense of signifying, was a matter of prudence or laziness, is unimportant. Last and first, Chardin gives his entire concentration to the mere objects as entities in their own right, with their own aesthetic character, and not ciphers.

Again, I like Peeters. The point isn’t to say that symbolism is wrongheaded. In fact, it’s almost impossible to make a painting that doesn’t symbolize something—even in a very oblique sort of way. Brush strokes themselves are, in a very obvious sense, a symbol of painting. The point is to say, rather that Chardin’s subtle innovation can be described as a means of working for which symbolic contrivance was not only dispensable but finally unnecessary. This is painting for the enlightened secular humanist: the world as it is and not merely as a placeholder for the afterlife.

Chardin – House of Cards (1773)
Chardin – House of Cards (1773)

We can actually see that Chardin’s struggled a bit with the crook of the elbow here. Or perhaps he simply used a mannequin when the boy became tired.

Chardin's painting of a young man blowing soap bubbles with a straw as a child looks on.
Chardin – Soap Bubbles (1734)

Chardin only started doing genre painting midway through his career, perhaps by dint of professional insecurity. He had been teased for a lack of ambition and avoidance of human subjects. So he began making homely portraits of, primarily, homely young women and children. His characters are very domesticated, but full of life—animated, even. We see them involved in trivial pursuits, blowing bubbles, drinking tea, playing cards. Often the activities are motion-repetitive, like a figure in a praxinoscope drum by Reynaud, or an illustration in an encyclopedia. And we can see what an astute observer he was of details such as the rhythm of motion, the folding and sliding of garments and the subtle balance of hats and caps. The colours are consistently subtle, the kind of psychological hues designed to gradually draw one in. Subdued primaries, tints almost: crimsons, ivory blacks, ultramarines and eu de nils.

A genre-scene by Chardin can be didactic in the purest sense of the word. Action is described as purpose and function. Things are directed. Bright figurines, set against shallow and stationary backgrounds are like stills in a GIF. The motions of routine rendered so sensually, and with such intimist detail, that one cannot help but expect these persons to shiver into life.

Chardin – The Embroiderer (1736)
Chardin – The Embroiderer (1736)

Chardin’s middling scale is another great virtue. In an age of grand murals and pompier-style extravagance, his smallness invites contemplation and coziness. A view of the world not quite at home in the cavernous halls of a Louvre jostling alongside Bouchers and Bougereaus. Neither does a Chardin hinge on any kind of illusionistic, optical cleverness for its charm, such as in the tradition of trompe l’oueil. Rather it’s a view of the world that is, to use Diderot’s term, ‘lucid’—and for which lucidity becomes a rule to correct ostentation and commendation.

Curiously enough here’s been a trend of conservative critics attempting to re-cast Chardin as an ironist—or a pastiche artist. The arguments mostly come down to a question of ‘context’ and ciphers. Are we perhaps missing the key to Chardin’s ‘true’ meaning: an inconspicuous state laughter beneath the commiseration?

In her text Pastiche, Fashion, and Galanterie in Chardin’s Genre Paintings, professor of art Paula Radisich reads a ‘sly eroticism’ into Chardin’s women, who, according to her research, are intended to represent the trope of ‘negligent beauty’. Their relaxation and candour, whether engaged in work or leisure, could be interpreted an ironic joke about female deference.

Chardin – Domestic Pleasures (1745)
Chardin – Domestic Pleasures (1745)

But Radisch goes further. Look at this woman crossing her legs. According to the professor it’s an example of nudge-wink eroticism. Perhaps she’s waiting for a man to come and fuck her. Or maybe, from the placement of her hands, she’s just finished scratching the record.

Chardin – The Kitchen Maid with Provisions (1739)
Chardin – The Kitchen Maid with Provisions (1739)

Hell, why stop there. What about this one. Who’s that gent at the door back there? Is it somebody’s lover sneaking around for a quick fuck? She’s just gotten in with the shopping and now she’s horny as hell (phwooar). Just look at the phallic bottle!

But this Sid James routine is a strain at best. One cannot extract from Chardin’s canvases the unavoidably quiet dignity and absorption which he confers upon his subjects, especially women. There’s no self-evident salaciousness to my eye, only a wishful voyeurism. Chardin, when dealing with servants and kitchen-staff always acts respectfully, earnestly, and labours to invest them with a sense of gravitas. Yet perhaps it is this perfume of self-immersion and composure that strikes the conservative mind as highly suspicious.

Chardin – The Monkey-Painter (1741)
Chardin – The Monkey-Painter (1741)

Besides: euphemism just isn’t Chardin’s style. That it would occur to him to smuggle in any subtext at all perhaps gives him too much credit. On the occasion where he does try his hand at humour, it’s fairly broad and self-effacing such as his brief foray into Singerie, or Monkey-paintings. French people were obsessed with these kinds of animal satires at the time, and painters such as Chardin tried to cash in on the craze, despite an obvious lack of skill for drawing animals. Monkey business, get it?

Matisse – The Rake (after Chardin) (1903)
Matisse – The Rake (after Chardin) (1903)

For the longest time, there was a real danger of Chardin’s work being forgotten. Historians spook each other with horror stories of paintings thrown in the trash or mouldering behind chemical sheds. Entire collections would seemingly vanish during the Nazi occupation, never to be seen again. Were it not for the efforts of Chardin’s little cult of admirers, we would perhaps be unable to draw a single line of provenance, let alone remember his name. Which causes one to wonder: who are the ‘mediocrities’ of today, destined to share in such a fate?

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