After the airborne follies of the rococo; after the acres of shot silk and the teasing glances of a thousand sportive mythological nudes; after the busy, enchanting, frivolous, sensual art of Boucher and his ilk - after all that, the work of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, painter of honest and unassuming still life and genre scenes, was a sight for sore eyes.So at least it seemed to Denis Diderot, philosophe, encyclopaedist and art critic, as he wandered through the rooms of the Paris Salon – the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the French Academy – in the year 1767:
“Looking at the pictures of others, it seems to me that I have to create artificial eyes for myself, but in order to see those of Chardin I need only keep the eyes which nature has given me, and to make good use of them… We stop before a Chardin instinctively, just as the voyager, thoroughly tired out from his travels, will choose to sit, without even realising it, in an area which proffers him verdure, silence, running water, shade and a cool, refreshing breeze.”
Never mind that Chardin never painted a landscape; his depictions of hushed bourgeois Parisian kitchens, dining- and drawing-rooms still seemed so “natural” to Diderot (he had no higher word of praise) that they amounted to a kind of second nature. In an age dedicated to high artifice and in love with dazzling virtuosity, no wonder Chardin’s superbly unaffected pictures of the world indoors came across as a breath of fresh air.
Although Chardin has often been admired for his painstaking realism (his patrons complained endlessly about the length of time it took him to finish his pictures) it is perhaps the force of his idealism that has made his art so lastingly popular and so widely admired. He is one of the most optimistic painters of the ancien regime. His pictures of calm, unruffled domestic existence seem to embody a perfect world of peace, contentment, moral probity and absolute order, where servants go about their tasks with quiet, absorbed attention to detail, where mothers teach and children quietly learn, where all is in its allotted place and God is in his heaven.
La Toilette du Matin, one of around 50 works by the painter to be shown at the Royal Academy from early next month, is quintessential Chardin: a restrained, sober, humane and tender picture, as rigorous in its design as it is austere in its morality. The title might lead the viewer to expect one of those slightly titillating boudoir scenes beloved of eighteenth-century genre painters: a young woman in decollete, perhaps,for the viewer to ogle while keeping a suitably disapproving frown on his face.
But Chardin shows nothing of the kind. Instead, we see a demure and neatly dressed mother putting the finishing touches to her young daughter’s hair. The room in which we find them is comfortable but plain, with dun-coloured walls and a simple parquet floor, the pattern of which the artist has traced with considerable care. His attention to detail, as the maker of the picture, is a tacit declaration of sympathy for the patient, careful mother. She too is making and moulding, not a picture but a whole life – that of the little girl, who glances at her own reflection in the dressing-room mirror, at once coquettish and unsure of herself. Chardin’s concentration on their concentration is absolute. This is how the world is made, the picture says; or at least this is how the world should be made. The mother, seen obliquely so that the features of her face are much less sharply individuated than those of the daughter, has an Everywoman quality. She is Chardin’s secular Madonna. The association may even have been meant, given that they are getting dressed for church.
Chardin was influenced by Dutch traditions of genre and still life and the story goes that when his paintings were first shown in public the great portrait painter Nicholas Largilliere took them for “first rate pictures by some very good Flemish artist”. But Chardin’s morality is softer and less satirical than that of his Netherlandish predecessors (and also much less severe than that of his most celebrated English contemporary, William Hogarth). His paintings of children at play, of young boys spinning tops or blowing soap bubbles, stem from a tradition of emblem-book images designed to convey straightforward moral messages about the dangers of idleness. But in Chardin’s art, it is as if such imagery has been reborn, stripped of harsh moral recrimination. He seems fascinated by children in their own right, and although he does not idealise them – there is little trace of sentimentality in Chardin – he does seem fascinated by the raptness of attention which they bring to their gameplaying. The little girl holding a racquet and shuttlecock seems almost entranced; the boy building The House of Cards, likewise, is completely absorbed in what he is doing. Here too there seems to be an affinity between the painter and his human subjects. Chardin places a great moral value on concentration. His picture is constructed as carefully as the child’s house of cards, which traditionally symbolised the vanity of all human schemes and projects, but which, in Chardin’s hands, seems to stand for the very opposite: how much value there is in something carefully, attentively made.
Chardin was first accepted into the French Academy, in 1728, as a “painter of animals and fruits”. This made him the lowest of the low, according to the academic hierarchies of the day, which ranked artists in descending order from painters of history and mythology, down to portrait painters and, finally, artists who depicted inanimate objects. He began painting his genre scenes soon after the start of his official, academic career, partly no doubt in order to raise his status. But there is a sense in which he was to spend his whole life raising the status of the supposedly lower genres of painting – proving that a picture of even the humblest subject could aspire to high seriousness. “I want to stun all of Paris with an apple!” Cezanne was to declare, with self-consciously radical intent, at the end of the nineteenth century; but Chardin had already shown the way more than a hundred years earlier.
Even the apparently slightest of Chardin’s still-life paintings have a quality of perfection and inevitability. The peach beside the silver goblet; the knife on the folded napkin, its handle inviting our grasp; the single spotlit grape; the pair of gleaming cherries – each object has been set where it is, on the austere stone ledge which the painter adopted as his characteristic mise-en-scene for still life, with exquisite care. Chardin’s unerring sense of composition was to make him a hero among later painters themselves preoccupied – albeit perhaps for rather different reasons – with formal beauty and the noble autonomy of the work of art. Yet his still lifes, like his genre pictures, also convey a nearly religious seriousness. We should think of every meal as a miracle, a kind of sacrament, his works seem to imply.
Marcel Proust, standing before one of the painter’s early still lifes, was struck by “a fruit bowl, as glorious as an autumn orchard… crowned with plump peaches, rosy as cherubs, as inaccessible and smiling as the immortal gods.” Proust recognised that there is more to Chardin’s art than there might seem at first glance. The most ordinary things are made to seem numinous and radiant. A dead game bird hanging from a kitchen nail, painted by Chardin, has the unsettling pathos of a Crucifixion. A pile of wild strawberries heaped into a wicker basket looms out of surrounding darkness like a vision, as monumental as the Great Pyramid. The eighteenth century academy placed him at the opposite end of the scale to painters of history or mythology. But as Proust saw, Chardin was a mythological painter, in his own way (and therefore perhaps not as thoroughly remote from Boucher, that dreamer of rococo dreams, as he has been made out to be).
Chardin’s own life was no paradise on earth. He lost his first wife to illness in 1735, just a few years after their marriage, and his daughter died the following year – a chain of events which lends additional poignancy to the painter’s several touching images of mothers and daughters. His art presents a harmony that he is unlikely to have experienced himself. Although he remarried, his later life was clouded by the death of his only son, who drowned in a canal in Venice (and was said at the time to have committed suicide). In old age, he was persecuted by the First Painter to the King, Jean-Baptiste Pierre, a mediocre narrative artist who regarded still life and genre painters with contempt and who conducted a personal vendetta against Chardin, having his state pension reduced to a minimum.
Little is known of Chardin’s earliest years, although they almost certainly involved a great deal of hard work. He probably spent some time in the workshop run by his father, a master-carpenter and maker of billiard tables for the French king, before deciding on painting as a career. There is certainly something carpenter-like about Chardin’s sense of design and composition, and there are times when he seems to approach painting almost as if it were a higher form of joinery, a putting together of shapes and blocks of colour that fit, tongue and groove. (His ability to make harmonious compositions from disparate objects was put to use by the Academie, which employed him as tapissier, or picture-hanger in chief, at the annual Salon – a fraught job which he seems to have carried out with exemplary tact.) He is a connoisseur of ordinariness, and for all the moralised simplicity of his art there is also a wilder strain of hedonism running through it all. In a picture such as The Box of Tobacco, Chardin not only lovingly represents all the paraphernalia of the eighteenth-century smoker – the pipes, the matches, the different kinds of tobacco, all arranged in different compartments of a single, velvet-lined mahogany box – he also signals his own love of stuff in general. Whether it is the slender length of a smoker’s pipe or the dense dark red flesh of a piece of salmon laid out across a convex dish, Chardin takes an immense delight in the shapes and the colours and textures of things. He contemplates the materials of day-to-day existence with the endlessly renewable sensual delight of a libertine.