During the last years of the 1720’s and the early part of the 1730’s Chardin completed many paintings which were termed as retours de chasse, literally meaning returns from the hunt, paintings which depicted the animals killed by hunters and the instruments used for the kill. Although such sights of dead animals may not be popular during our time now, they were very sought after during Chardin’s time and during the seventeenth century in the Netherlands.
One such painting is his work Still Life with Hare which he completed around 1730 and can be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The first interesting thing to note about this painting is that there is no geometrical demarcation of the background wall and the surface on which the hare lies. Neither the wall nor the surface are marked in any way other than the shadow cast by the paws and body of the dead animal. The depiction is all about the dead animal and the items used to kill it and bring it home. It is some ways a minimalistic depiction which simply depicts the hare lying on top of a game bag next to a powder flask tied with a dark blue ribbon, both of which were his own props and appear in other works. Once again take time to examine the animal and the number of shades of brown Chardin has used in its depiction.
Two other Chardin’s retours de chasse works are thought to be pendant pieces which he completed in 1728. In the painting, Two Rabbits with Game Bag, Powder Flask and Orange, our eyes immediately focus on the Seville orange in the left foreground which is illuminated by a shaft of light emanating from the left. Once our focus leaves the orange it moves upwards towards the two dead wild rabbits, the powder flask and the game bag which are painted with a mixture of dirty whites, grey, cream, and beige and highlighted in blue. On the stone surface we glimpse at a few wisps of straw.
The pendant piece is Partridge, Bowl of Plums and Basket of Pears. The grey partridge is depicted secured by a large nail to the wall in front of a stone alcove. On a stone ledge in the middle and foreground we can see a plethora of fruit and vegetables all of which have been meticulously painted. There is a large basket of pears, a bowl of plums, two peaches, one of which has had a chunk removed, two figs, some blackberries and some sticks of celery all of which are placed on two levels. The colour palette used is a mass of sumptuous colours and tones and is much richer than its companion piece. Again, in this work the light source is to the left of the depiction which links the two pictures. Like its companion painting, it is one you need to study carefully and take in the colours, shapes and shadows Chardin has given to the work. Both paintings are part of the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Around 1733 Chardin changed his painting style from works of still-life which depicted inanimate objects to genre painting. Why did Chardin change his style? Maybe the reason was given by comments made by Pierre-Jean Mariette, a collector of and dealer in old master prints, a renowned connoisseur, especially of prints and drawings, and a chronicler of the careers of French, Italian and Flemish artists. He tells the tale of Chardin being at his friend’s house, the French Rococo painter, Joseph Aved, when a lady called. Mariette continues with the story:
“…One day a lady came to find M. Aved to request him to do her likeness; she wanted it to extend as far as her knees and claimed that she could afford to pay only four hundred livres. She left without a deal being struck for, although M. Aved was not as busy as he has been since, her offer seemed to him to be far too modest. M. Chardin, on the contrary, urged him not to waste the opportunity and tried to demonstrate that four hundred livres was a reasonable payment for someone who was not yet very well known. ‘Yes’ said Aved, ‘if a portrait was as easy to do as a saveloy.’ He said this because M. Chardin was engaged in painting a picture for a fire screen in which he was depicting a saveloy on a dish. Aved’s remark made a strong impression on Chardin; he took it as the truth rather than jest and began seriously to re-examine his career…”
Chardin’s thought process made him realise that the public would soon tire of his inanimate still-life and his retours de chasse works. He was also wise enough to understand that to turn his attention to painting live animals he would put himself up against the leaders in that field, François Desportes and Jean-Baptiste Oudry and he would struggle to compete and sell such works. His decision to change genres was two-fold. Firstly, there was the financial aspect as he knew that there would be plentiful profit from prints made from his genre scenes whereas nobody ever made prints of still-life works. Secondly, there was the artistic argument for him to change genre. His still-life works were classed by the French Academy as the lowest in the hierarchy of artistic genres whereas the status of genre scenes which included human figures was much higher in the hierarchy and portraiture which Chardin started to do in 1734 was even higher up in the artistic pecking order. Maybe part of the reason could have been that Chardin no longer felt fulfilled with his still life works.
One of Chardin’s most famous works was a small work (21 x 17cms) in the style of Dutch cabinet paintings entitled Young Student Drawing, often referred to as The Draughtsman. The work is housed in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Chardin returned to the composition repeatedly over a twenty-year period, and completed no fewer than twelve versions, which illustrates how important the subject was to him. We see a young draughtsman from behind. He is seated on the ground with his legs wide apart, wearing a tricorn hat. He is copying in red chalk the figure of a male nude which is pinned to the wall in front of him. Again, look at the details of the work. The boy’s overcoat is torn on the left shoulder and through the hole we glimpse the red of his suit. Our eyes are immediately drawn to this spot of red. On the floor we can see a knife which the young man has used to sharpen his pencils and leaning against the wall to the right we can see a stretcher and a bare canvas. Through this work, Chardin seems to have been making a comment on the arduous process of artistic training followed by the French Academy. Chardin used to copy his teacher’s academic studies just as the young man in the painting is doing. Chardin recalled his early training with Pierre-Jacques Cazes when he was a young boy:
“…We were set at the age of seven or eight with pencil holder in hand……We spent long hours bent over our portfolio…..We spent five or six years drawing from the model…..The eye has to be taught to look at nature…”
In 1733 Chardin completed his genre work entitled Woman Sealing a Letter which is housed at Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin. It is a large painting (146 x 147cms) and was the largest work Chardin had attempted. Was this choice of size a way of Chardin showing the public what he was capable of producing? Engravings were made of this painting in 1738 and it was the earliest engraving made of a painting by Chardin. The lady holds her letter which she has just written in one hand whilst the other holds sealing wax and she awaits impatiently for her servant to light the candle which will in turn melt the wax and seal the letter. Our eyes are immediately drawn to the white envelope and the red sealing wax. Women and letter writing were a popular motif in the seventeenth century Netherlandish paintings and maybe Chardin had seen some examples. The painting depicts an affluent woman in a wealthy setting but soon Chardin veered towards portraying more modest folk in their domestic settings. This painting was exhibited at the Place Dauphine, Paris in 1734 and at the Salon in 1738.
Prime examples of Chardin genre paintings depicting a poor household are his 1733 work entitled The Washerwoman and Woman Drawing Water at the Cistern both of which are housed at the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm. These two paintings have been classified of works of Intimism, a French term which is applied to paintings and drawings of quiet domestic scenes. The Washerwoman which Chardin completed in 1733 was one of sixteen paintings by him which were exhibited in June 1734, at the Exposition de la Jeunesse in place Dauphine in the French capital.
The Washerwoman when first exhibited was, because of its beautiful rendering of the contrast of the colours and textures, billed as a work in the style of the Flemish 17th-century artist David Teniers the Younger. It was later exhibited at the 1737 Paris Salon, where some critics even likened his style to that of Rembrandt. Chardin was undoubtedly inspired by Rembrandt’s honest descriptions of household chores. In the work we see a servant engaged in the servile, domestic chores of the household. The woman is depicted scrubbing the washing in a large wooden wash bucket. Chardin has portrayed her in full-face albeit gazing away from her work. She seems preoccupied almost as if something has distracted her attention, or maybe she has been depicted in an instant of idle daydreaming.
The other work classed as one of a pair with The Washerwoman was his painting Woman Drawing Water at the Cistern. Here we see everyday chores in a kitchen far away from the rooms occupied by the master and mistress. We see a female servant, who because of her pose and the large bonnet she is wearing, has her face hidden from view. She is bent over filling a jug from a large copper urn. To the left of the urn we can see a side of meat hanging from a hook. Behind her there is a doorway through which we can see another servant clasping the hand of a small child. Once again, several of the objects depicted came from Chardin’s home, such as the copper cistern.
The beautiful rendering of the contrast of the colours and textures has been compared with works by Flemish masters such as David Teniers the Younger.
Carl Gustaf Tessin, one of the most brilliant personages of his day, and the most prominent representative of French culture in Sweden was tasked by the Swedish Court to purchase the two works on behalf of Crown Prince Adolf Fredrik and his future wife, Lovisa Ulrika at a Paris auction in 1745.
..…….. to be continued.