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Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)
( Originally Published 1955 )
French painter of still lifes, interiors and portraits. Chardin was representative of the new middle-class taste in art of his day. Nevertheless he interests us more now for the way in which he anticipated attitudes of later centuries in painting. The careful scrutiny in his method and the homogeneous flecking of his colors suggest the new modes of envisaging nature which occupied the attention of nineteenth-century painters. He shared this modernity with the critic Diderot, who grew enthusiastic about him, saying, "He is the great colorist ... the great magician ... the sublime technician ... he is nature itself." His employment of still-life and even of genre scenes as vehicles of artistic arrangement looked forward to Cezanne and the modern abstractionists.
Chardin was born in Paris of a humble family. His artistic beginnings were also humble. A student of P. J. Cazes, he assisted J. B, van Loo in the restorations of frescoes at Fontainebleau, and he painted the rifle in a hunting scene by Noel Coypel. His reputation was earned with a surgeon's signboard which he decorated with a street scene. In 1728 he successfully exhibited still lifes in the open-air exhibition at the Place Dauphin. These included The Ray, presently in the Louvre. Having already joined the Academy of St. Luke through the influence of his craftsman-father, Chardin was enjoined to apply to the Royal Academy. He was elected in 1728 with considerable applause and with the strong support of Largilliere, who was fascinated with the Flemish cast of Chardin's work and with his scientific treatment of color and light. Chardin's paintings quickly became the rage, but sold only for small sums and he apparently never lived on their income. They were frequently published as engravings, especially the genres, with little verses below, but he did not appear to realize on this business. Business-like he was, however, in his simple bourgeois manner: from 1752-55 he was treasurer of the Academy, and with his wife's aid he put its books in order, following embezzlements on the part of his predecessor. For twenty years he served as tapissier of the Louvre, which included the delicate and exacting task of hanging the pictures for the Salons, a duty for which his career of pictorial arrangement had ably equipped him.
Chardin's manner of still-life painting represents a rather sharp break with previous tradition. Still life had originated as a symbol of hospitality and good living or as an island of technical virtuosity in a painting of nobler subject. Chardin shifted the emphasis to the pictorial value of the represented objects themselves. This had been anticipated in the margins of certain late medieval paintings and in the statuesque but airless bodegones (see) of Zurbaran and SanchezCotan in Spain. However, Chardin's interest was also an atmospheric one. Indeed it might be said that the palpability of atmosphere and the personality of light were his ultimate objectives. So he constructed within the compass of two unities: the abstract interplay of the solid (and planar) geometry of the objects and the cohesion of the canvas by a uniform, homogeneous color system and brushwork. All of this was arrived at by an intense, close examination of the actual objects and by the credo that anything was worthy to be painted. This latter doctrine moved him to choices of humble kitchen objects, bits of ordinary life, simple closed interiors. In genre, for instance, it led to a concentration on the immediacy of the mannequin-like forms- It excluded any feeling of extension beyond the framed vignette; there was no allusion to a continuum or world-system which had characterized most Baroque painting. That which the eye perceived was usually presented without comment except that of artistic selection and arrangement. Chardin came to genre painting in mid-career. He based it on the then popular Flemish tradition. He delighted in moralizing subjects but rendered them in statuesque rather than anecdotal manner. His portraits are characteristically sober in pose and scrutiny, but achieve a bit of Rococo spirit through the live colorism of his pigments.