In an age of excess, Jean-Siméon Chardin was a miracle of sobriety. The sugary confections of the rococo did not sweeten his art; the high-flown rhetoric of history painting did not aggrandize it. Instead, Chardin (1699-1779) gave himself to the still life, regarded in those days as the lowest genre of painting, and to the depiction of quiet interior scenes of harmonious domestic life. And yet no one in the history of art is more admired among painters and serious connoisseurs; they find in his rendering of pots and pans, plums and rabbits, governesses and children, something ineffably important and mysterious. What accounts for this passionate admiration? Excess is usually more seductive than sobriety, and in the hands of most artists, the restraint of a Chardin would become the occasion for ostentatious displays of humility or sentimental sermons about “what really matters” – in short, for earnest moralizing.
The exhibition Chardin, which recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to explore this unassuming artist’s powerful claim upon the imagination. Any explanation of his effect begins – but does not end – with his genius for rendering. The show of 66 works, which was selected by Pierre Rosenberg of the Louvre, includes examples from both his early and his late still-life styles. Though a trained artist and academician, Chardin – from the beginning – did not simply depend upon the tricks of the trade to depict an object. His eye did not require those filters. He painted directly from life, with the rabbit or dish of peaches in front of him, as if to discover for himself what lay there. As a result, he seemed, like all great artists, fundamentally self-taught. He would discover in his own way the lacy texture of a cantaloupe or the dusky purple of a ripe plum. He would explore with a disinterested rigor the clotted fur in the wound of a dead rabbit: It was a challenge to convey that sensation of damp and dry.
There’s nothing of the dead mirror in his sensibility; Chardin never just copied the appearance of things with the use of a tight, possessive brushstroke. Instead, with a few flicks of color on the brush he would capture the copper pot or a piece of fruit. In his early masterpiece The Ray, the guts of the sea creature appear extraordinarily vivid. But if you draw close to the painting, you will find that the actual rendering is not a literal description of the entrails but instead a truthful evocation. The same is true of Bouquet of Carnations, Tuberoses and Sweet Peas, which many consider the greatest of all flower paintings. In this picture, there is no pedantic description of the flowers. They are painted freely enough for you to smell them. Chardin’s lively brush awakens the flowers, much as cut flowers come to life as your hand arranges them.
This miraculous way of depicting objects has important moral and philosophical implications – but not of the kind usually assigned to “bourgeois” painters. Traditional still-life painting is often regarded as typically middle-class, representing the desire to possess and control the objects of daily life. Chardin’s work is not like that. If he does not slavishly copy appearances, he also does not dominate the objects with his own personality; there is no brag in his brush, no need to impress with his gifts. The things depicted in his art therefore become strangely evocative and free. They are contemplated rather than owned, touched but not possessed. There is always enough air in the picture. To put it another way, there is no greed in Chardin. He relishes fruits, jars, and the sensual joys of the world but is not dominated by his appetites. In fact, no desire seems to tyrannize him. There are blooms of rich color in his pictures, but they do not call heightened attention to themselves or disturb the even, contemplative tone of a larger composition. In Chardin, you will not even find the hubris of seeming perfection. He would doubtless admire Vermeer but would not himself venture to create such idealized light, textures, and compositions.
Chardin also freed himself of the relentless need to deliver a lecture that characterizes much bourgeois art. A picture of a young man blowing a soap bubble traditionally conveys a message about the transience of life. It may do the same in Chardin’s version of the subject, but only as a small afterthought; the charm of the picture far transcends the moral. Even the famous painting Saying Grace, in which a governess waits for a little girl to finish reciting the blessing before serving the meal, does not appear too sticky. The intense meeting of the eyes between the adult and the child – an instinctive form of concentration known to every parent – is so brilliantly realized that nothing else seems as important. Chardin is one of the few painters who can convey the whimsy and innocence of children without milking the theme. He does not sell ideas or emotions. He observes too closely for that.
It is rewarding to study the edges in Chardin. They never merely separate one object from another; they are also ways of connecting. The edge of a Seville orange, for example, will soften almost imperceptibly into its shadow, integrating the fruit into its surrounding atmosphere. Or its curved edge will make a connecting rhyme with a cup. There is no alienation in Chardin’s world. Every object seems naturally well placed without having been forced into any artificial composition. Every object appears to converse with the environment around it, as the children do with the adults. Of course, the subdued palette of Chardin conveys a certain pleasurable melancholy. A few petals fall from his flowers: All great still lifes anticipate the final stilling of life. In a way, Chardin is a spiritual teacher; he can find all that’s necessary in a pot. How he sees is how to be.
There could be no better contrast to Chardin than John Singer Sargent. If Chardin rarely moved from Paris, creating art that seemed to grow ever more still, deep, and profound, Sargent (1856-1925) had a glancing and impatient eye that relished surface effects. And you would not want Sargent any less superficial than he is, for his art becomes wooden whenever he tries to be important or grave, as in the pictures occasioned by World War I. He matters most when he gives himself to the momentary, for that’s when he creates an intoxicating dream of stylishness – a paradise unbothered by what lies behind the makeup and the pleats. In Chardin’s day, Sargent would surely have been a great rococo painter, a master of fashion and the aphoristic twist of the brush. Not surprisingly, he has proved particularly popular in our own period of moneyed style and mannered exaggeration. In the past decade, there has been a Sargent boom, the latest example of which is the Met’s John Singer Sargent Beyond the Portrait Studio: Paintings, Drawings, and Watercolors from the Collection.
During his lifetime, Sargent maintained a warm relationship with the Met, giving and selling the institution pictures. In 1950, his sister gave a large cache of the artist’s work to the museum, including many of the luscious studies he made during his journeys across Europe. Sargent is best known as a portrait painter, of course, but he was also a born tourist who loved the quick visual hit and exotic glimpse. Many of his most charming works are smaller studies dashed off during trips around the Continent. No one was better at capturing fleeting effects: the cool shadow on the bleached white of a Mediterranean house, the shimmer of light around an ancient escutcheon, the liquid glitter of a stream. He was often at his best when depicting buildings. The architecture provided him with a taut geometric structure, then his quick brush loosened whatever seemed too strict. Sargent found visual wit and drama wherever he looked. He liked a sharp crop that surprised the eye. He emphasized the stagy splash of light and the oblique angle. Not surprisingly, the bejeweled stage set called Venice inspired some of his best pictures. In one image, he depicts a mysterious Venetian passageway – which is as exciting to the imagination as a darkened stage door – leading up from the canal. You can almost hear the whispers and the plash of water against stone.