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

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