ZOLA, as reported by George Moore, said of Degas: “I cannot accept a man who shuts himself up all his life to draw a ballet girl as ranking co-equal in dignity and power with Flaubert, Daudet, and Goncourt.” This remark gives us the cue for Zola’s critical endowment; despite his asseverations his naturalism was only skin deep. He, too, was swayed by his literary notions concerning the importance of the subject. In painting the theme may count for little and yet a great picture result; in Zola’s field there must be an appreciable subject, else no fiction. But what cant it is to talk about “dignity.” Zola admits ingrained romanticism. He would not see, for instance, that the Degas ballet girls are on the same plane as the Ingres odalisques; that a still-life by Chardin out-weighs a big canvas by David; and it must be admitted that the world is on the side of Zola. The heresy of the subject will never be stamped out, the painted anecdote will always win the eye of the easily satisfied majority.
It may be remembered that the great Spaniard began his apprenticeship to art by copying still-life, which he did in a superlative manner; his Bodegones, or kitchen pieces, testify to this. Chardin, who led as laborious an existence as Degas, shutting himself away from the world, studied surfaces with an intensity that Zola, the apostle of realism, would have misunderstood. Later the French painter devoted himself with equal success to genre and figure subjects; but for him there was no such category as still-life. Everything of substance, shape, weight, and colour is alive for the eye that observes, and, except Velasquez, Vermeer, and a few others, no man was endowed with the eye of jean Baptiste Siméon; Chardin, an eye microscopic in intensity and that saw the beautiful in the homely.
Edmond Pilon has published a comprehensive little monograph in the series Les Mattes de L’Art. M. Pilon is as sympathetic as he is just in his critical estimates of the man and his work. There is not much to relate of the quotidian life of the artist. His was not a romantic or a graceful figure among his contemporaries, the pastellist La Tour, Fragonard, and the rest, nor had his personality a jot of the mysterious melancholy of Watteau. His artistic ancestry was Dutch; in the footsteps of De Hooch, the younger Teniers, Vermeer, Terburg, Kalf, he trod, rather plodded, producing miracles of light, colour, finish. A long patience his career, he never indulged in brilliancy for the mere sake of brilliancy; nevertheless he was an amazing virtuoso of the brush. He was born in the Rue de Seine, Paris, November 2, 1699. His father, jean Chardin, a joiner, was a man of artistic instinct whose furniture and marquetrie were admired and in demand. The lad began his tuition under Cazes, but soon went to the atelier of Coypel. Later he worked under the eye of Carle Vanloo in the restoration of the large gallery at Fontainebleau. His painting of a barber chirurgeon’s sign drew upon him the notice of several artists of influence and he became a member of the Academy of St. Luc. When he exhibited for the first time in public, in the Place Dauphine, 1728, Watteau had been dead seven years; Coypel, Allegrain, Vanloo, Troy, and the imitators of the pompous art of Le Brun were the vogue. Colour had become a conventional abstraction, design, of the most artificial sort, the prime requisite for a sounding reputation. The unobtrusive art of Chardin, who went to nature not to books for his inspiration, was not appreciated. He was considered a belated Dutchman, though his superior knowledge of values ought to have proved him something else. Diderot, alone among the critics of his epoch, saluted him in company with the great Buffon as a man whom nature had taken into her confidence.
In 1728 he was received at the Academy as painter of fruit and flowers. He married his first wife, Marguerite Saintan, in 1731, and his son, J B. Chardin, was born the same year. In 1735 he lost his wife and infant daughter, and he double blow drove him into retirement, but he exposed his pictures from time to time. He was made counsellor of the Academy in 1743, and in 1744 married the second time, a widow, Françoise Marguerite Pouget by name. This was a happy marriage; Madame Chardin, a sensible, good-tempered bourgeoise, regulated the household accounts, and brought order and peace into the life of the lonely artist. Hereafter he painted without interruptions. He received from the king a pension of five hundred francs, his son obtained the prix de Rome for a meritorious canvas, and if he had had his father’s stable temperament he would have ended an admirable artist. But he was reckless, and died at Venice in a mysterious manner, drowned in a canal, whether by murder or suicide no one knew. Chardin never recovered his spirits after this shock. The king offered him lodging in the gallery of the Louvre (Logement No. 12). This was accepted, as much as he disliked leaving his comfortable little house in the Rue Princesse. As he aged he suffered from various ailments and his eyes began to give him touble; then it was he took up pastels. December 6, 1779, he died, his wife surviving him until 1791.
He was a man of short stature, broad-shouldered and muscular. Liked by his friends and col-leagues for his frankness, there was a salt savour in his forthright speech he never learned to play the courtier. His manners were not polished, a certain rusticity clung to him always, but his honesty was appreciated and he held positions of trust. Affectionate, slow with the Dutch slowness praised by Rodin – and tenacious, he set out to conquer a small corner in the kingdom of art, and to-day he is first among the Little Masters.
This too convenient appellation must not class him with such myopic miniaturists as Meissonier. There are breadth of style, rich humanity, largeness of feeling, apart from his remarkable technique, that place him in the company of famous portrait painters. He does not possess what are called “general ideas”; he sounds no tragic chords; he has no spoor of poetry, but he sees the exterior world steadily, he is never obvious, and he is a sympathetic interpreter in the domestic domain and of character. His palette is as aristocratic as that of Velasquez: the music he makes, like that of the string quartet, borders on perfection.
At his début he so undervalued his work that Vanloo, after reproaching the youth for his modesty, paid him double for a picture. Another time he gave a still-life to a friend in exchange for a waistcoat whose flowery pattern appealed to him. His pictures did not fetch fair prices during his lifetime; after more than half a century of hard work he left little for his widow. Nor in the years immediately subsequent to that of his death did values advance much. The engraver Wilk bought a still-Iife for thirty-six livres, a picture that today would sell for thousands of dollars. At the beginning of the last century, in 1810, when David was ruler of the arts in Paris, the two masterpieces in pastel, now in the Louvre, the portraits of Chardin aux besicles, and the portrait of Marguerite Pouget, his second spouse, could have been bought for twenty-four francs. In 1867 at the Laperlier sale the Pourvoyeuse was sold for four thousand and fifty francs to the Louvre, and forty years later the Louvre gave three hundred and fifty thousand francs to Madame Emile Trépard for Le Jeune Homme au Violon and l’Enfant au Toton. Diderot truly prophesied that the hour of reparation would come.
He is a master of discreet tonalities and a draughtsman of the first order. His lighting, more diffused than Rembrandt’s, is the chief actor in his scene. With it he accomplishes magical effects, with it he makes beautiful copper caldrons, humble vegetables, leeks, carrots, potatoes, onions, shining rounds of beef, hares, and fish become eloquent witnesses to the fact that there is nothing dead or ugly in nature if the vision that interprets is artistic. It is said that no one ever saw Chardin at work in his atelier, but his method, his facture has been ferreted out though never ex-celled. He employs the division of tones, his couches are fat and his colour is laid on lusciously. His colour is never hot; coolness of tone is his chief allurement. Greuze, gassing one of his canvases at an exhibition, a long time regarded it and went away, heaving a sigh of envy. The frivolous Frago,” who studied with Chardin for a brief period, even though he left him for Boucher, admired his former master without understanding him. Decamps later exclaimed in the Louvre: “The whites of Chardin! I don’t know how to recapture them.” He might have added the silvery grays. M. Pilon remarks that as in the case of Vermeer the secret of Chardin tones has never been surprised. The French painter knew the art of modulation, while his transitions are bold; he enveloped his objects in atmosphere and gave his shadows a due share of luminosity. He placed his colours so that at times his work resembles mosaic or tapestry. He knew a century before the modern impressionists the knack of juxtaposition, of opposition, of tonal division; his science was profound. He must have studied Watteau and the Dutchmen closely. Diderot was amazed to find that his surpassing whites were neither black nor white, but a neuter– but by a subtle transposition of tones looked white. Chardin worked from an accumulation of notes, but there are few sketches of his in existence, a sanguine or two. The paucity of the Velasquez sketches has piqued criticism. Like Velasquez, Chardin was of a reflective temperament, a slow workman and a patient corrector.
The intimate charm of the Chardin interiors is not equalled even in the Vermeer canvases. At the Louvre, which contains at least thirty of the masterpieces, consider the sweetness of Le’Benedicite, or the three pastels, and then turn to the fruits, flowers, kitchen utensils, game, or to La Raie Ouverte, that magnificent portrait of a skatefish, with its cat slyly stealing over opened oysters, the table-cloth of such vraisemblance that the knife balanced on the edge seems to lie in a crease. What bulk, what destiny, what chatoyant tones! Here are qualities of paint and vision pictorial, ‘ vision that has never been approached; paint without rhetoric, paint sincere, and the expression in terms of beautiful paint of natural truths. In Chardin’s case by him the relativity of mundane things was accepted with philosophic phlegm an onion was more important than an angel, a copper stew-pan as thrilling as an epic. And then the humanity of his youth holding a fiddle and bow, the exquisite textures of skin and hair, and the glance of the eyes. You believe the story told of his advice to his confrère: “Paint with sentiment.” But he mixed his sentiment with lovely colours, he is one of the chief glories of France as a colourist. Chardin – Still Life: Various UtensilsClassic Painting – Greuze And ChardinJean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (1699-1779)Jean Baptiste Simeon ChardinAntique Prints: French Eighteenth Century EngraversChardin, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon @ WebMuseum