Chardin, Jean-Siméon

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Chardin, Jean-Siméon (1699-1779): French, Painter.

Jean-Siméon Chardin was one of the major artists of still life paintings and genre scenes (the depiction of ordinary people in everyday life) in the eighteenth century. He was admired by Diderot, Denis for the seriousness of his subjects, which inspired virtue and refined manners, and it is believed that he educated Diderot in his understanding of art and aesthetics.

Chardin came from a well-to-do family of craftsmen and spent his entire life in Paris. He learned the basic skills of figure painting and received most of his commissions in genre scenes. He developed a unique approach to this subject by depicting a few introspective figures in austere settings, perceived by his audiences as the ideal lifestyle of the middle class, a moral alternative to that of the corrupt aristocracy.

Chardin began still life paintings about 1725. Like the genre scenes, they portrayed kitchen utensils and food in simple, rustic, middle class settings. Partridge, Bowl of Plums, and Basket of Pears are from this period and show his characteristic paint application. He rendered, with optical veracity, beads of moisture on the surfaces of fruit and vegetables. It is believed he arranged the objects and painted them directly from observation, much as do modern artists.

By 1728, Chardin was accepted into the Royal Academy as a painter of animal and fruit subjects, the lowest category for the official art world. Despite the low regard held for his subjects, he enjoyed respect from all levels of French society and even received commissions from the European aristocracy.

With the promise of a successful career, Chardin was free to paint figurative genre scenes and reached the pinnacle of success between 1735 and 1750. The Governess (1738) shows the teacher scolding her young upper-class charge. The boy has playthings at his feet, while a sewing kit is at hers. The implied message, not lost on his audience, contrasted the virtue of industry and the unproductiveness of self-indulgent play.

The honest virtue of the middle class was a recurring theme in Chardin's work. In Saying Grace, of 1740, an austere home is the backdrop for a scene representing a mother teaching her child a prayer at the dinner table in appreciation for their humble meal. Unlike other genre painters of the time, Chardin portrayed women with dignity and gave them an important role in the perpetuation of family values. Also valued were children, who represented hope for a better society. In House of Cards, a boy builds houses out of playing cards, a symbol of the uncertainties of life and his struggles he will face as an adult.

After 1770, artistic tastes turned toward the new Neo-Classical style, and he received fewer commissions. At about the same time his eyesight failed, forcing him to turn to the medium of pastel. Pastel was admired for its inherent delicacy and pale hues, and his painting technique translated to this medium well. His most famous work in pastel is Self-Portrait with Spectacles, of 1775, in which he rendered with rich textural surfaces an insightful self-analysis. Chardin remained a dedicated and active member of the Royal Academy but died in obscurity in Paris in 1779. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries his refined compositions inspired still life painters.

Further Reading:

Pierre Rosenberg, All the Painting of Chardin, 1983.

Marianne Roland Michel, Chardin, 1994.

Lynne Lokensgard

Lamar University