Chardin – Still Life: Various Utensils

A genuine taste for still-life painting is one of the surest signs of a direct appreciation of pictorial form. There the external, secondary appeal of story and human associations is slight, and the principal appeal, if any, must be made through the more intrinsic qualities of the design itself. Especially in the case of Chardin, there is comparatively little tendency to choose objects interesting for their associations, such as quaint old musical instruments, dead game and the like (the inferior Monkey Antiquary, 97, is an exception). Commonplace utensils, fruit and plain dishes serve his purpose quite as well. Nor does he rely on the other, somewhat specious appeal of literal, microscopically exact representation: tiny drops of dew on a leaf, or tiny cracks in a bowl, to win applause for his virtuosity. He paints, on the whole, rather broadly, leaving out small surface details and trying to bring out, rather, the distinctive, deep-lying qualities of each substance, and its relation to the whole design. In a general way, he relies somewhat on our past experience: if we had not seen and handled many peaches, we could not appreciate how well he expresses the essential qualities of a peach in Basket of Peaches (102). More vividly than in any actual peach, we are made to notice here the dull gray, furry bloom on its surface, the blended reds and yellows of the skin, the firm, soft roundness underneath. The bowl and pitcher in Various Utensils are far from photographic, yet their distinctive texture is somehow realized and contrasted with those of the box and pipe. In this deeply realistic painting of textures, as well as in his genre scenes of homelike intimacy (e.g., Grace, 92), Chardin is the heir of the 17th century Dutch, especially Vermeer, de Hooch and Terborch. His reliance on plain, simple strength, without ostentatious ornament, expresses the spirit of a sturdy middle-class, in marked contrast with that of the other 18th century French painters.

The appeal of such a picture as Various Utensils is not only realistic but decorative. A small, detached fragment of it would be treasured for its rich tints even though its representative meaning were unknown. Greatest of all is its appeal as an organized design. Each object is distinctly set in its own small bit of space, at its own relative distance from the eye. Linear themes are repeated and contrasted: the straight lines of the box, pipe-stems, pitcher and bowl; the short curves of the pitcher-handle, pipe-bowls, glass and silver cup. The flat rectangles of the box and shelf are opposed to the rounded planes of the dishes. In color, the themes are the dull blue of the box-lining and the streaks of pitcher and bowl, the reddish and grayish browns of glass, bottle and shelf. So strongly built is the architecture of the group that not a detail could be altered, one feels, without spoiling it. Emphasis and subordination (often missing in a poor stilllife) are preserved throughout: some few parts, here the pitcher and bowl, are always raised by light and color to a climax, while others are plainer, darker, duller in various degrees.