While the Rococo raged around him in eighteenth century France, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin painted quiet genre scenes that would continue to speak to artists and art lovers through the centuries. Born November 2, 1699, Chardin painted perhaps the greatest still life of his century, The Ray (above, from 1728), one of the greatest treasures of the Louvre. Chardin imbued the dead ray on the wall with as much life as the skittish cat on the table. Chardin’s still lives abound with beautiful textures and nuances, which gives him a timelessness absent in his more dated contemporaries, such as Fragonard and Boucher.
What’s amazing about Chardin’s paintings is how much he got out of such simple subjects. In House of Cards (above, from 1736-1737), we see a young boy in period dress playing at cards, all very plain and above board. However, Chardin models the figure so beautifully, especially in his expression, which conveys his sense of intensity while building his house of cards. Beneath this simple exterior, Chardin uses the idea of a house of cards and that house eventually falling down upon itself as a symbol of mortality, a memento mori more pleasant and subtle than the dead seafood of The Ray and other still lives. These interiors appealed to the growing middle-class of Chardin’s time, who had the leisure and money to indulge in games and patronize the arts, especially painters who reflected their lives back to them. Chardin played a big role in the non-Rococo taste of the time, the art for the masses rather than the royals, by assuming a major role in the eighteenth-century French Salon as arranger of exhibitions and later as treasurer.
“We use colors,” Chardin once said, “but we paint with our feelings.” This feeling comes across in almost all of Chardin’s work, but perhaps never as much as in his self portraits, especially The Self-Portrait With Eyeshade of 1775 (above). The aging Chardin here protects his wearying eyes from the brilliant sunlight yet still has the dexterity to depict himself in pastels at a level of de la Tour. Manet, Cezanne, and Matisse, among others, would discover Chardin at the Louvre and embrace his spirit and feeling if not his technique. Marcel Proust, the novelist master of interiors and deceptive simplicity, found a kindred spirit in the work of Chardin. Chaim Soutine went so far as to hang a ray in his studio to paint in homage to Chardin, until the neighbors complained about the smell. In the often loud world of art history, Chardin speaks softly yet echoes resoundingly in the hearts of those who know him.