In my last few blogs I have concentrated on lesser-known artists but for the next few blogs I will be delving into the life and works of one of the greatest French artists of the eighteenth century. This painter is rightly regarded as one of greatest masters of Still Life in the history of art. I give you Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin. Chardin who was born in 1699 and grew up in a time when the painting style of the establishment was Rococo; an affected style which was overflowing with allegorical images from classical mythology depicted amongst a whirl of lavish adornments. Chardin would not follow that theatrical trend, much preferring his works to be rational conversation pieces. His works of art were ones of truth, self-effacement, and tranquillity.
Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was born on the Parisian Left Bank quarter of Saint-Germain-des-Prés on November 2nd 1699. His father was Jean Chardin, a master cabinet-maker, and his mother was Jeanne-Françoise David, his father’s second wife. The family lived in a house on the rue de Seine, close to the church of Saint-Sulpice, which has, along with its “Rose Line”, gained notoriety because of the film The Da Vinci Code. Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was baptised the next day in the church with fellow cabinet maker Siméon Simonet and the wife of another cabinet maker, Anne Bourgine acting as godparents.
From an early age Chardin found joy in drawing and painting and his father decided to nurture his son’s love affair with painting. He had his son join the Académie de Saint-Luc and by securing him a position at the studio of the French historical painter, Pierre-Jacques Cazes to teach his son the finer techniques of painting. It was whilst studying at Cazes’ studio that Chardin learned to draw and studied the history of painting. This was the same sort of tuition young artists were taught at the Académie Royale de Peinture. However, entry to such a prestigious establishment was not open to all and Chardin never studied there but managed, through Cazes, to acquire similar training. During his time with Cazes Chardin set his mind to become a history painter but that was to change. Why did he change? The answer was probably quite fundamental – he was not a very good history painter and so he decided to set upon a different artistic journey.
One of his earliest paintings was The Game of Billiards which he completed in 1725. It is a painting which depicts a large number of people in a real-life setting. This work by Chardin which is housed in Musée Carnavalet in Paris was probably a reference to his father who made billiard tables for a living. During those early days he turned his attention to genre scenes but soon found that his greatest satisfaction came from depicting animals involved in game hunting which were known as tableaux de chasse, (hunting pictures). He believed that such paintings should be as realistic and unique as possible, once stating:
“…I must forget everything I have seen, and I must even forget the way such objects by others…”
Chardin exhibited his first still life painting on September 25th 1728. The date was important as this was the date, he was accepted by the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Charles-Nicolas Cochin, the Younger, the French art critic tells the story of Chardin and that fateful day:
“…Encouraged by the praise he was receiving from a number of artists, he decided in 1728 to present himself to the Académie. He was eager to know what the leading officers of this august body thought. He employed a little ruse – a perfectly legitimate one – to be sure of winning their approval. He placed the paintings he was going to present in the first room, as if by chance, and waited in the second room. M. de Largillierre, an excellent painter, one of the best colourists and a knowledgeable theorist on the effects of light, came to find him. He stopped and studied the paintings before coming in to the room where M. Chardin was waiting. As he entered, he said: ‘You have got some very fine paintings there. They must be by a skilled Flemish painter. Flanders is an excellent school of learning about colour. Let us see your paintings now’. ‘Monsieur, you have just seen them’ said M. Chardin ‘What? Those paintings which….?’ ‘Yes, Monsieur.’ ‘Oh, my friend, said M. de Largillierre, embracing him, present yourself without hesitation…”
However, before this acceptance, Louis de Boullongne, the first painter to the king, and who had served as one of its highest-ranking officials of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, entered the room. Chardin grasped the opportunity to ingratiate himself with Louis de Boullongne, informing him that ten or twelve of the paintings in the first room were painted by him but added that if the Académie found any to their liking they could have them! M. de Boullongne dryly commented that Chardin was already talking about being enrolled when he had yet to be accepted but said he was pleased that Chardin had drawn his attention to the paintings. Cochin goes on to say that Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin was accepted by the Académie to general applause and the institution accepted two of Chardin’s paintings as his morceaux de reception (reception pieces). Chardin was accepted into the Académie but as a painter “specialising in animals and fruit” which, according to the Académie at the time, was the most inferior genre of all.
One of the Chardin’s paintings accepted by the Académie was entitled The Ray, which he completed in 1726. The painting remained in the collections of the Academy, before entering, during the French Revolution in 1793, the Muséum Central des Arts, which would later become the Louvre. It is without doubt one of his early masterpieces and it has remained on public display without interruption since 1728. The French novelist, Marcel Proust, on seeing the painting described the fish as:
“…the beauty of its vast and delicate structure, tinted with red blood, blue nerves and white muscles, like the nave of a polychromatic cathedral…”
It is a depiction of contrasts. The central and dominant figure in the painting is the gutted and skinned ray, a repulsive blood-stained fish with almost a human face. To the right we see a collection of everyday inanimate objects, a skimming ladle, the casserole, knife and the pitcher whilst to the left of the hanging fish we have items from the vegetable and animal world. We see oysters, a carp and the strange figure of a young cat, fur raised in fright at something it has seen outside the painting. Cats would often feature in Chardin’s paintings. The depiction of the skinned ray itself with its expressionless and eerie gaze is spellbinding.
Chardin’s second morceau de reception for the Académie was his painting entitled The Buffet. This work was completed in 1728 some two years after the completion of The Ray. In the foreground we see a hunting dog, standing next to a wine cooler and a bunch of radishes. He is staring up at a dark grey parrot which is perched on the handle of a large ewer. The dog is obviously distressed at the sight of the bird leaning towards the fruit. To the left on the end of the curved sideboard there is a pewter jug, two stemmed glasses of wine, one of which is tilting over possibly due to the dog pulling the white linen table cloth. At the other end of the sideboard there are two carafes which have been described as being made of very fine fern ash glass, two bowls without handles, probably Chinese in origin. The focus of our attention is the central high pyramid stack of plums and peaches which sits on a crumpled white tablecloth. Below the fruit is a plate of oysters and two golden rounds of lemon. Again, as we have seen in many Flemish still-life works, Chardin has displayed his artistic talent by his depiction of the folds in the tablecloth, the curling lemon peel and the three-dimensional look of the silver tray and knife which overlap the edge of the sideboard. Again Marcel Proust lovingly commented on what he saw:
“…Clear as daylight, enticing as spring water, glasses in which a few mouthfuls of sweet wine linger as in the throat, stand beside glasses that are already almost empty, like symbols of thirst assuaged. Bent over like a wilted bloom, one glass is half toppled; this happy stance shows off the shape of its foot, the delicacy of its joints, the transparency of the glass, the elegant flare of its cup…”
Many of the items depicted in those still life paintings emanated from other works by Chardin. Take a look at his painting entitled Pewter Jug with Basket of Peaches, Plums and Walnuts, which he completed the same year and is part of the Staatliche Kunsthalle collection of Karlsruhe, and one can recognise the pewter jug which is part of The Buffet depiction.
Also in his painting Carafe of Water, Silver Goblet, Peeled Lemon, Apple and Pears which he completed in 1728, and also part of the Staatliche Kunsthalle collection of Karlsruhe, we also see items which appeared in The Buffet which makes one wonder whether these two paintings were preliminary studies for the larger work.
Chardin chooses his objects and fruit carefully, for their shape and for their colour. Look at the variety of colours. They are all arranged carefully with the contrast between the soft pink of the peaches and the velvety blue of the plums, the carmine red of the apple and the acid green of the pear or the sharp yellow of the lemon.. It is magical to see how he alternates between hot and cold colours and how he juxstaposes the various shapes of the fruits and the rectilinear surface they are placed on.
..….. to be continued.