Jean-Siméon Chardin (French, 169 9-1779) was accepted into the Académie Royale in 1727 as a painter of “animaux et fruits,” on the strength of his two large still lives, La Raie and Le Buffet, and in the early part of his career, still-life painting predominates.
Challenged by his friend the portraitist Jacques-André Joseph Aved, in 1733, he began painting and exhibiting genre scenes exclusively. Exhibited for the first time at the Salon of 1737, the figural pictures were an instant success. The demand for his genre scenes required him to paint multiple copies, sometimes years after the original, and they were reproduced in print form, often accompanied by moralizing verses written by the engravers.
Children are ubiquitous in Chardin’s scenes of bourgeois life (and almost entirely absent in his pictures of servants). They are always depicted either in the act of learning, mastering a skill, or receiving instruction. The educating and aculturating of these children is performed exclusively by women.
To a great extent, Chardin paints figural scenes as if the were still-lives—his figures tend to be at rest, in between tasks, pausing to reflect, or observing intently and they rarely speak. These static and silent compositions paradoxically lend themselves to the understated depiction of emotional relationships. Chardin’s figures register complex states of mind and emotions like patience, encouragement, approval, warmth, and concern through subtle adjustments of posture, inclination of the head, gaze, hand gestures, and proximity, whereas his contemporaries Fragonard and Greuze rely heavily on dramatic action and theatricality to convey much simpler emotions like anger, fear, joy.
Chardin’s paintings were avidly collected by educated aristocrats and high-ranking officers of the royal administration. These cultured viewers admired and understood the subtlety and understatement of the genre scenes. The engravers, fearing Chardin’s reticence was beyond the comprehension of their bourgeois clients, frequently made adjustments to them when transferring the image to the plate, using the burin to sharpen or darken facial features of Chardin’s figures, thereby transforming a complex emotion like disappointment into a simple one like displeasure. To the altered images were appended moralizing and didactic verses, the coarseness of which Chardin cannot possibly have endorsed.
The change in mode of 1733 is more a bridge from one stage of the artist’s career to another than it is a rupture. The pictorial concerns Chardin mastered as a painter of (very) still life were continued and extended into his genre painting. A fellow academician included this anecdote in a publicly-delivered eulogy for Chardin:
… Un jour, un artiste fait grand étalage des moyens qu’il employait pour purifier et perfectionner ses couleurs. M. Chardin, impatient de ce bavardage de la part d’un homme à qui il ne reconnoissoit d’autre talent que celui d’une exécution froide et soignée, lui dit : “Mais qui vous a dit qu’on peignît avec les couleurs ? — Avec quoy donc ? répliqua l’autre, fort étonné. — On se sert des couleurs, reprit M. Chardin, mais on peint avec le sentiment.”
It is entirely plausible to think of Chardin as a painter of sentiments, if ones doesn’t expect sentiments to be loud and obvious.
In 1756, Chardin resumed still life painting and, apart from several portraits and self-portraits made in pastel made at the end of his career, he never painted the human figure again.