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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jean-Simeon Chardin

Every era in art has those artists that seem to, march to the beat of a different drummer. Today that might be an artist painting wall-size landscapes on canvas, or painting grandiose history paintings, or perhaps genre, or surrealism. Such an artist would seem to be "out of touch," so to speak. Perhaps one of the best examples of just such an artist would be Jean-Simeon Chardin. Born in 1699, he came to bloom during what we call the Rococo period in French art, working opposite artist such as Francois Boucher, Jean-Antoine Watteau, and Honore Fragonard. His work, had it reflected the prevailing style, would have been light, frilly, pretty, sweet, decorative, and perhaps slightly erotic, all terms, both positive and negative, that we have come to associate with French Rococo painting.

Silver Cup, 1768, Jean-Simeon Chardin

Yet strangely, Chardin's work is none of these things. First of all, during much of his life, he painted only still-lifes and even then more in a Dutch style rather than any manner seeming the least bit French. In fact, one could almost say he brought still life painting to French art where there had been practically no tradition of it in the past. And unlike his contemporaries, he painted only on a small scale, meticulously, and slowly, just a few simple objects, exploring subtle differences in shape and texture, totally absent any moralizing or complex compositions. Though exquisitely done, his still-lifes of simple foods, fruits, kitchenware, etc., lacked anything one could in any way consider elegant, frilly, or frothy.  It was not Rococo.

Dressing Table, Jean-Simeon Chardin
In his forties, Chardin began applying his skills as a still-life painter to small domestic scenes, especially those exploring the quiet lives of everyday, middle-class families, predominantly women, domestic servants, and children. 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 the case, 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.

Soap Bubbles, 1754, Jean-Simeon Chardin
Probably the most popular subject was one of a teenage boy, at a window, quietly blowing soap bubbles. A 1745 version, 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?

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