Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 36 x 47 cm
Signed: lower left: chardin
Unknown, until discovered by Francois Heim, Paris; Private Collection, Paris.
Pierre Rosenberg, Tout l’Oeuvre peint de Chardin, Paris, 1983, p.84, no 75a, illus (also same pages and number in Italian version, L’Opera completa di Chardin, Milano, 1983); Pierre Rosenberg, Chardin: New Thoughts, Franklin D. Murphy Lectures I, Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, 1983, pp. 47 and 49, fig. 31; to be included in the forthcoming Wildenstein Foundation catalogue raisonné.
Karlsuhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Jean Siméon Chardin 1699-1779, Werk, Herkunft, Wirkung, 1999, pp. 103-104, no. 10a (illus. Color)
The elevation of Chardin to full membership of the Royal Academy of Paintings and Sculpture in 1728 coupled with his position as Treasurer, the officer responsible for the hanging of the pictures exhibited at the Salon, marks a turning point in the history of French painting. Hitherto, the ‘hierarchy of genres’ had been considered immutable and, indeed, the Academic authorities struggled to maintain the primacy of history painting throughout the remainder of the century. Nonetheless, it was Chardin’s extraordinary faculty which accorded him the prominence he enjoyed during his lifetime and the fame that has largely eclipsed the talents of artists such as Desportes and Oudry, still life painters in the grand decorative tradition. While, like the latter two artists, Chardin himself produced several large-scale decorations, it was as the painter of small scale, intimate kitchen still lifes that he transformed this genre.
Born in 1699, he gained entrance to the studios of the unofficial Academy of Saint Luke and probably took lessons from P.J. Cazes and N.N. Coypel, although neither of these artists seem to have left their mark on his subsequent career. Compared by many of his contemporaries with Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century masters, it might seem that the Northern influence was predominant in his formation. However, Chardin, when painting the intimate genre subjects that occupied him during most of the 1740s and 1750s, avoids much of the seamier side of life depicted with such attention by the more vulgar Flemish; restraint and good manners are the most notable characteristics of these delightful scenes, lauding a variety of domestic virtues. His work was in no sense political and avoided contact with contemporary events; the vignettes he selected to portray could have taken place at any time in history – only costume places them firmly in his own time. Although he does not seem to have been willing, or perhaps able, to develop this theme beyond a limited number of subjects which he repeated several times, they are among the most famous images of the eighteenth century, providing a stark contrast to the grand portraits of Nattier and Drouais, the elaborate mythologies of Boucher, and elegant genre scenes of Watteau and Lancret. In the last two decades of his career, he returned once again to still life painting, perhaps having exhausted his inventive skills in depictions of everyday life. These later works are not a replay of his earlier pictures; his style has evolved with less concern for the precise replication of detail than for the masses and volumes, textures and contrasts. His technique has also changed in these later works; he now uses a thinner paint mixture with less impasto and less clarity, while maintaining a classic simplicity.
The final and perhaps most revealing aspect of his art is his use of pastel chalks in the handful of intimate portraits, most notably of himself at his easel and his (second) wife but also of children and friends. These were warmly welcomed by the critics when first shown at the Salon of 1771 as evidence that the now seventy-two year old artist still commanded the skills of an inventive and highly accomplished master. We may speculate that he chose to use pastels because of his disappointment at the lukewarm reception of his oil portraits exhibited in the 1746 and 1757 Salons, and although a problematic medium he was able to take it to a level equal to the greatest contemporary pastelists, Liotard and Quentin La Tour. His style, however, was already out of date and he was replaced as Treasurer in 1774 following the appointment of D’Angiviller as Surintendant, while the ascendancy of Pierre, the powerful proponent of the grand genre, led to a renewal of the official promotion of history painting. Despite this disappointment, he was still much admired and, at the opening of the Salon of 1779, he received a singular mark of royal favor, a gold snuff-box presented personally by one of the King’s aunts. Four months later he was dead. Unpublished until 1983, when Pierre Rosenberg reproduced this picture in his catalogue raisonné and in the text of his Murphy lecture (see Literature, below), it represents an important addition to the artist’s known oeuvre from the early 1730s. An exact replica of this composition, first known as part of the Marcille Collection in the mid-nineteenth century, has been much published and is listed in the Rosenberg catalogue as if it was the first version. Since the discovery of our painting, yet another replica of this composition (thinly painted in a very tight style, without the fatty paint of our picture), has also appeared. M. Rosenberg has observed that our picture is ‘of high quality and demonstrates that once Chardin had perfected a composition, he repeated it with more or less happy results for a clientele which was not disturbed by the existence of prior versions’. All three are signed on the ledge, but only our painting has a significant change in the placement of any of the objects, which indicates that our picture is actually the first version, rather than the former Marcille picture. In both the other two compositions there is no evidence of any significant change (although the unrecorded picture has traces of an entirely different composition underneath) and the placement of the scallion follows exactly its position here. It is evident, however, to the naked eye, that the artist first placed the scallion in our work to the right of the pottery jug, then moved it behind the mortar on the left of the composition, before placing it centrally as it appears today. Likewise, the outline of the mortar has also been changed, indicating perhaps that the artist shifted it to better balance the pottery pitcher on the right. There are also slight alterations to the profiles of the other objects.
These self-same objects appear repeatedly in his paintings of this time, arranged and rearranged with the greatest of care and placed on a shelf in what appears to be his kitchen, but which is more likely to be his studio. Sometimes he includes cuts of meat or fish ready for cooking, but these compositions avoid all unnecessary detail or anecdotal reference. What fascinated the artist was the form of objects, their surface texture, and relationship to each other in slight variations of raking light. The horizontal pictures are almost all characterized by the placement of a copper pot or bowl and sometimes an earthenware jug in the center, balanced perhaps by a pile of vegetables, a cloth, two or three eggs, a pestle and mortar or pitcher, giving the composition a slightly pyramidal form. His scumbled technique is used to contrast the different objects so that there can be no confusion over the nature of the surfaces – the hard, polished copper, the matt white of the eggs, the soft folds of a cloth, or the turned wooden pestle and mortar. Our painting has a thick priming and, in working up the contrasting surfaces with a thicker layer of paint than he sometimes uses, the objects have been given a particular clarity, most apparent in the portrayal of the pottery pitcher on the right of the composition.