Jean-Simeon Chardin, was the ultimate outsider, the exception to an age of frivolity who seemed to escape the rules that govern art history. He is also one of the best artists that ever focused on children. Chardin was born into a humble Paris family of artisans. His farher encouraged him to pursue painting. He was eventually awarded a pension by King Louis XV. He is perhaps best known for the remarkable realism of his still lifes, but painted some wonderful, if sentimental, studies of children and families. It is these sudies of children that are among his best works. No French artist of the period came anywhere near Chardin's manner: supremely sophisticated, restrained, full of reminiscences of the towering figures of Dutch and Spanish art. Austere, yet light in his touch, he painted as if he had carried into art the legacy of the Jansenist thinkers of Port Royal. He was the odd man out in the France of Louis XV, charmed into accepting his gravity because it only took note of his elegance.
Jean Simeon Chardin was born in 1699 Paris, the son of an independent craftsman and master carpenter who specialized in making billiard tables. HBC has no details on his childhood. Given his father's trade, we suspect that it was a comfortable childhood, but probably not extravangant.
We do not know how Charles was dressed as a boy. We suspect that it was not too much different thatn the boy pictured here, although with a governess the boy here clearly came from an affluent family.
One interesting topic is the games boys played over time. We are collecting information on the games played in different countries, but have only limited information on France. Here un the 1730s we see this boys racquet, shuttlecock, and cards or are those blocks (figure 1). And to the right by his governess' sewing basket I think I see a top. These are wonderful insights as to how boys in the early 18th century, in this case a boy from a prosperous family, diverted themselves. I don't think these are cards depicted here. We know that French boys at this time did play with cards. Chardin devoted an entire painting to cards. He called it House of Cards and painted it about 1737.
Jean-Simone, while still a boy, expressed a desire to become a painter. His father enthusiastically sent him to the artist Pierre Jacques Crazes to learn drawing and to pursue an artistic career. Cazes did not belong to the fully approved artistic establishment.
Chardin by 1720, was working with the decorative artist Noel-Nicholas Compel, whom he assisted by painting the still-life accessories in his canvases; and by 1724, Chardin had entered the Academy of St. Luke, at that time the rival institution of the Royal Academy.
Louis XIV's art dictator Le Brun in the 17th century used the Academy to impose extremely rigid constraints on French artists and this influence continued into the 18th century. Perhaps Chardin's artisan background instead of formal artistic training as well as Crazes instruction helped Jean-Simone escape the academic formalism of other French artists of his age. Chardin came to bloom during what we call the Rococo period in French artworking opposite artist such as Francois Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Horore Fragonard. His work, had it reflected the prevailing style, would have beenlight, frilly, pretty, sweet, decorative, and perhaps slightly erotic, all terms, both positive and negative, that we have come to associate with French Rococo painting. unlike his contemporaries, he painted only on a small scale, meticulously, and slowly, just a few simple objects, exploring subtle differences in shapeand texture, totally absent any moralizing or complex compositions. Though exquisitely done, his still lifes of simple foods, fruits, kitchenware, etc., lacked anythingone could in any way consider elegant, frilly, or frothy. It was NOT Rococo.
Young Chardin did not even have the decency to perform the obligatory pilgrimage to Italy. Arcadian landscapes did not interest him, nor Greek mythology. Pierre Rosenberg, the great historian of 17th- and 18th-century painting in France who curated the show, concludes in the mportant book that goes with it, that the artist was "subversive without knowing it." Subversive, undoubtedly. But unwittingly? One wonders. Chardin gave nothing away. Diderot, who admired him, would later remark that no one ever watched him painting. He worked his way to the top in a manner we know little about. The still quite young Chardin by 1724 had succeeded in joining the Academie de Saint-Luc, a kind of painters' superlative guild, and 4 years later was admitted into "L'Academie" itself, the prestigious French royal academy. Yet until about 1728, his activities are lttle about his life are recorded.
Chardin had a long and successful artistic career. We notice several shifts over time in the focus of his works. Most of his genre work with depictions of diomestic scences are from the 1730s and 40s.
Chardinís earliest-known painting is a sign he made for a friend of his father who was a surgeon. The most notable French artist of the day, Antoine Watteau, hadsimilarly worked painting signs, and Chardin was perhaps inspired to do same by Watteauís example. Chardin regularly showed his works at the annual Salon exhibition and the Exhibition de la Jeunesse, an open-air show held in June at the Place Define. He gathered some impressive reviews, with perhaps the most impressive given by author and philosopher Denis Diderot.
Chardin wanted to be a history painter and paint grand imposing scenes. Unfortunately he was very good at it. He took up still-life painting. A contemporary source quotes him as saying: "I must forget all I have seen, including even the manner in which these objects were handled by others." The young man fully succeeded. Some time before 1728, he painted a wicker basket filled with fruit, a silver beaker and a bottle of wine set on a ledge against a brick wall. The break with tradition is astounding. Gone is the search for harmony and balance through elaborate compositions. The objects give the impression of being seen through a camera closing in on a detail. No attempt is made at ironing out irregularity. A radical change in perception had befallen European art. Conscious of the novelty of his approach, Chardin tried it out in several compositions in which the silver beaker recurs. In an admirable picture in private hands, the vessel and fruit are set on two steps, creating a receding effect into an unfathomable background. A decisive moment in Chardinís career came when the artist was asked to paint a hare. The resulting work was such a huge success that he almost immediately received a commission to paint a duck, and his future as a still-life artist was secure. The still-life paintings were done in the style of Dutch paintings and very often depicted dead animals and other things connected with hunting that were highly prized by the aristocracy. After he had success with The Ray Fish, which he had exhibited at the Exposition de la Jeunesse in 1728, he followed the advice of fellow artists and submitted it and The Buffet to the Royal Academy as diploma works. As a result, Chardin was made Associate and Academician on the same day--no small achievement for a 28-year-old. Chardin in 1730 met his first important patron, Count Conrad-Alexander de Rothenbourg, who was appointed Ambassador to the Court of Spain after an illustrious military career.
Feeling that he had fully mastered his craft, Chardin turned his attention to humans. Chardin in his 30s, began applying his skills as a still-life painter to small domestic scenes. Chardin abandoned his still-life work in favor of genre painting--female figures, portraits of children or a combination of the two--made in the style of Dutch painters such as Vermeer and Gabriel Metsu. Chardin's genre paintings provide some wonderful examples of 17th century children's dress. The earliest of these works by Chardin is The Lady Sealing a Letter/Femme cachetant une lettre, exhibited in 1734. Chardin's mastery in rendering the woman seated at a table, bending as she raises a stick of sealing wax between two fingers, points to years of practice--yetvit was his first genre painting. He followed with paintings such as Woman at the Urn and The Laundress and his genre paintings were best represented perhaps by The Diligent Mother and Saying Grace, both from 1740. Chardinís style stood in contrast to the Rococo style of Francois Boucher and Jean-Honore Fragonard, both popular 18th-Century painters. One particularly notable study is of a young man seated on the floor copying a sketch pinned on a wall suggests that Chardin studied the masters of the past. Despite the title, Un jeune ecolier qui dessine, this is no schoolboy. It is a youth copying a master drawing in keeping with the time-honored practice of European artists training in a studio. The small gem has every appearance of being a kind of self-portrait in retrospect. Chardin in 1737 produced his ultimate masterpiece, La Fillette au volant, and here too his indebtedness to the past can be detected. The little girl of 7 or 8, holding a badminton racket as she tilts forward with a pink glow of pleasure on her round cheeks, gives a stare of dreamy wonderment. Once more, time seems suspended a la Vermeer, and a reminiscence of Velazquez is perceptible in the poise and the stare. His genre works explore the quiet lives of everyday, middle-class families, predominantly women, domestic servants, and children. Here is the genius of Chardin. He draws us into his subjects. One art historian writes, "... Chardin had the capacity to evoke sympathy for hios objects and to get them to project tenderness and discrimination." [Johnspn, p. 412.] Somehow his paintings convey a warmth and intimacy that involves us with his subjects. In the image here we feel sympathy for the little boy being admonished, The Governess is, however, no evil creature. She is patiently dealing with the boy and we understand the importance of her efforts to teach her charge diligence and attention to his school work. Again there was a Dutch quality to his work but with a distinctively French flavor. His paintings would seem almost to be miniatures of that which his fellow Parisian artist were doing at the time. Perhaps it was nostalgia, perhaps the novelty of them, whatever thecase, his work had an appeal to the aristocracy of the time, and even to royalty. In fact, they bought so MANY of them it kept Chardin busy constantly painting copies or variations of his most popular works. Probably his most popular subject was one of a teenage boy, at a window, quietly blowing soap bubbles. A 1745 version of Soap Bubbles, now in the National Gallery in Washington, is typical. In it, Chardin has added a smaller boy peering up over the edge of the window trying to see what the older boy (his brother perhaps) is doing. Even to this, simple scene, the French typically attached moral strings--the boy's wasting of precious time blowing bubbles which represent the fragile, fleeting nature of human life. Can't anyone have any FUN anymore?
At the height of his fame in 1751, he suddenly returned to still-life painting. No one knows why. One can assume that he decided that was his calling. Perhaps ot was criticism at the Academy. [Johnson, p. 413.] He was also awarded a pension by the King in 1752 and given an apartment at the Louvre. His duties at the Academy now included that of hanging the paintings for the Salon exhibits. His new still-life works were different, however, and he experimented with oval canvases. Diderot praised The Olive Jar from the Salon of 1763 and duly noted the praise of artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Chardin by 1770 began suffering from an eye paralysis caused by the lead in his lead-based oil paints. He nevertheless began submitting pastel work to the Salon, including his own portrait and that of his second wife in 1771.
Chardin by 1731 was making a good living from his painting and could begin thinking about a family. He married Marguerite Saintard and they had two children: a son, Jean, and a daughter, Marguerite-Agnes, who died young. I do not have details on his domestic life or how Jean-Pierre was dressed as a boy. Tragedy struck in 1767, Chardinís son Jean-Pierre committed suicide by drowning himself in a Venice canal. Jean-Pierre had been a respected painter as well and had won prizes with his work. Chardin after his first wife died remairred. Chardin died at the age of 80, in his apartment at the Louvre.
Chardin's painting of La Gouvernante, now hanging at Tatton park in Cheshire. It was exhibited in the Salon in 1738 and would have been painted at about that time. Despite the title, the lady depicted is more like a nanny, commending to her young charge the serious aspects of childhood represented by the books tucked under his arm as opposed to the racquet, shuttlecock and cards, symbols of carefree play. Several hair style and clothing details are notable.
The boy in gigure 1 looks to be wearing a dtress, but actually it is a jacket or coat, not unlike what his father might have worn. Note the very large cuffs and buttons on the jacket.
In the painting you can just make out metal buckles on his knee breeches. Unfortunately the resolution of the available image is not adequate to view details of his breeches.
It should be noted that Chardin's genre paintings in the 1740s and 50s recorded the last generation of boys' that were dressed identically with their fathers. After the mid-17th century it became fashionable to dress boys (but not yet girls, in specialized children's clothes that were more suitable for the young. This convention was strongly promoted by Rosseau abd led to the skeleton suit, open necked shirts and blouses as well as long trousers.
Note the quque or pig tail and rather large bow. Most bows I have noted in 18th century drawings are smaller. The quque was not a childish hair style. That was the style being wiorn by men, often as part of their wigs. Perhaps the child's bow could belarger than that of his father or perhaps this is a French style. I'm not sure about that. One strange feature is the side burn or lock of hair hanging down at the side. This is not a style an adult would have worn, although he also painted a teenager with a similar style (figure 2).
An HBC contributor wrote, "Notice the width of the skirt (coat) and what looks to be leggings. I know HBC says that specialized children's fashions did not start as early as this painting suggests, but to me it does seem that this is an outfit a child rather than an adult would wear. Do you agree with this assessment?
Yes it does look like a skirt, but it is in fact a coat. I think the artist is doing a bit of characture here. AS bit odd as so nuch of his work is realistic. L have seen men drawn this way in contemprary illustrations. The one that most commonly comes to mind is Ichabod Crane (in Washington Irving's Sleepy Hallow), which has recently been produced as a movie. He of course was slender like many children and was often picture in a long coat coming well down toward the knees. The book is set at about the same time this Chardin work was painted. Note Washington's discription of Ichabod:
Ichabod was a suitable figure for such a steed . He rode with short stirrups, which brought his knees nearly up to the pommel of the saddle; his sharp elbows stuck out like grasshoppers'; he carried his whip perpendicularly in his hand, like a sceptre, and as his horse jogged on, the motion of his arms was not unlike the flapping of a pair of wings. A small wool hat rested on the top of his nose, for so his scanty strip of forehead might be called, and the skirts of his black coat fluttered out almost to the horses tail. Such was the appearance of Ichabod and his steed as they shambled out of the gate of Hans Van Ripper, and it was altogether such an apparition as is seldom to be met with in broad daylight.
Johnson, Paul. Art: A new History (Harper Collins: New York, 2003), 777p.
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