PRINT September 1999



CERTAIN FRENCH ARTISTS ARE DEEMED so crucial an element of the national patrimony that grand retrospective exhibitions of their work must follow in regular, stately intervals. In 1979, Pierre Rosenberg organized, as a Louvre curator, the first modern retrospective devoted to Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Now, exactly twenty years later and having been elevated to the Louvre’s directorship, Rosenberg has returned to the scene of his greatest previous success and again mounted a Chardin exhibition, with some one hundred works and a touring schedule that includes Düsseldorf, London, and New York. It may seem paradoxical that so much considerable national and institutional weight should rest on a painter of such modest still-life and domestic subjects. But that was no less the case during the artist’s own lifetime.

Chardin may have been the first painter to attract a waiting list of avid international collectors. Continental monarchs and princes sent their agents to Paris with instructions to scour the secondary market for early work and to impress upon the slow-working artist the preeminent claims of this or that mighty patron. He could nonetheless keep them waiting for years, which inevitably excited the marketplace all the more.

Chardin’s appeal to the highest elites was not, of course, founded on the two usual staples of official art in the eighteenth century: on the one hand, grandly allegorical concoctions designed to bathe the pretensions of power in a broth of classical allusion, and, on the other, lighter-than-air rococo fantasies that coyly celebrated aristocratic sexual license. Early on he turned away from the training that would have equipped him for either pursuit in order to concentrate on still-life painting of the most modest and unspectacular kind.

Conventional aesthetic opinion held this genre of painting in the lowest esteem, both for the absence of consciousness in its subject matter and for its emphasis on mechanical rather than imaginative skill in its rendering of mere appearances. In the previous century, Dutch specialists in still life had raised the stakes of eye-catching illusionism to the highest possible degree. Wealthy collectors, many with titles and many outside the Netherlands, came to covet these pictures, but their prestige as works of art remained low.

In the late 1720s, when Chardin set his independent course as an artist, he seemed to be opting for both a ready, tested market and a comfortable obscurity outside the competitive arena of artistic reputation. As if to underscore the low estimation of his chosen genre, he offered little to none of the gleaming items of luxury tableware, brilliant bouquets, or sumptuous foodstuffs that had been customary in his northern prototypes. Instead, the staples of Chardin’s still life were the homely tools and raw game of the kitchen. He presented himself for membership in the Royal Academy of Painting with the livid representation of an upended ray from a fishmonger’s stall, the visceral gaudiness of which stands out from his more typical arrangements of dead hares, stoneware pots, unglossy fruit, plainly worked silver, and worn knives set on plain stone shelves against indeterminate, dun-colored backgrounds.

More than this reticence in motif distinguishes Chardin’s early painting from his predecessors and from contemporaries content to carry on in the established northern mode. In their work, the contrasting textures and reflectivity of fur, feathers, metal, or peel each called on distinct and precise techniques in their rendering, with much minute play of the brush. Chardin left these well-rehearsed devices behind; the fine detail in any passage of his painting is suggested by his coaxing unusual behavior from the very matter of his binder and pigments, their patterns of settling, congealing, or catching on a rough ground. His equivalents to the close apperception of surfaces are abstractions palpably made of paint, while his broad handling of light and atmosphere as often as not abjures clarification of separate objects for a controlled obscurity of shadows emerging and retreating against his dark grounds.

But sustained reticence translated itself into a kind of fame previously unknown in the genre. Chardin’s contemporaries marveled at his effects and talked of magic in his brush. The painter almost never let anyone see him lay down his pigments; he worked with agonizing slowness and rarely was witnessed
in the act of drawing (even though he was fond of painting young artists struggling to render the academic figure on the sheets of their portfolios). There are no studies for his works, which made him—already for his eighteenth-century audience of artists, critical admirers, and collectors—the epitome of artistic originality; yet the paradox of his practice is that he freely duplicated his more popular paintings, creating each version anew directly onto the canvas and thoroughly muddying any conventional idea of original and replica.

By the end of Chardin’s first decade of fame, still life had given way to a no less remarkable series of paintings based on the human figure: Initially the artist widened his view to take in isolated servants who might have been hovering in range of the implements and provisions in his still lifes. Children, alone or in pairs, illustrate homilies about learning and dissipation with the same geometric gravity. Finally, he seamlessly joined household and homily in a set of world-defining interiors with bourgeois mothers and children, which struck his contemporaries—from heads of state to the new audience of ordinary viewers found in the public exhibitions of the Salon—with the force of revelation. These small canvases, which might easily be held in the hand, outweighed in attention and respect the grandest historical dramas that hung above them. Here was the model of natural, well-ordered affection and nurturing within the family on which the Enlightenment would found its notion of civil society. And nowhere had it found such convincingly tender yet dispassionate representation (to which the complete absence of male subjects no doubt contributed).

But Chardin himself turned away from this charge almost as quickly as he had happened upon it, leaving his newly large and excited audience to digest his rare painted images in the form of moralizing prints. For the last two decades of his career as a painter, he turned again to the seclusion of still life; the complexity and refinement of these renewed investigations in his old mode largely leave the powers of description behind. Go look and be amazed.

Thomas Crow is the Robert Lehman Professor of the History of Art at Yale University and a contributing editor of Artforum.