Come 18th century, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin would become one of the formidable painters of the French Rococo period. He was an acknowledged maven of still life painting, with children, maids and homey activities as a subject matter. He would paint these subjects in a well-balanced structure, lighting effect and Impasto painting technique. Clearly, Chardin may have opted to paint simple subjects but the way he executed these into painting was simply exceptional.
Jean Chardin was one of the few French painters who have developed their craft by self-taught. He admitted to taking inspiration from the works of the realist artists of his time, most of which were small-scale genre paintings. Chardin’s works mainly display soberness and sophistication plus the obvious harmony in all of the details. Through his revolutionary works, he put still painting into a higher level of importance in French art.
Works like Still Life with Ray-Fish and Basket of Onions (1731), Boy with a Top (1735), and Woman Cleaning Turnips (1737) have shown emphasis on how important it is to depict the typical domestic life in the country. The works served as a historic document of 18th century France so observing a typical man, woman and children at the time would not have been hard. This kind of contribution makes him one of the greatest still life artists of all generations.
Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin was born on November 2, 1699 in Paris. His father had supported his needs and studies by making cabinets in the city. He grew up and stayed somewhere near Saint Sulpice until 1757, and left the household to stay in a studio in Louvre that King XV awarded him.
His earliest masters were Noel Nicholas Coypel and Pierre Jacques Cazes, both of whom were istoria painters. There, he was taught how to draw figures from sculptural works of the classical masters and from a live model. On the contrary, as he grew up, he developed a keen interest in painting nature-landscapes and portraits.
By 1720’s, he would have begun painting still life images of simple objects. The objects will vary in shapes, sizes and textures depending on what he observes around him. Art historians also believe that Chardin tried to make a distinction of himself and his art as they looked comparable to the works and subjects of Jean Baptiste Oudry who portrayed partridges and deceased rabbits in the paintings.
Nevertheless, Chardin had been having a quite successful career stint during the 1720’s. In fact he was appointed as master at the Guild of St. Luke in the city by 1724. His membership with the said academy was brought about by his first major art work in 1728, The Ray, which is a still life painting of fishes and a feline animal.
Chardin’s The Ray painting was well-received by his colleagues. There he became famous for painting fruits and animals although still life painting at the time was still considered as the lowest kind based on the Hierarchy of Genres. The hierarchy favors history and classical paintings as the grandest form of painting even after the French classicism period.
Fortunately, Jean Chardin had never lost his motivation to producing masterpieces-like art works. He remained prolific that he was able to attract as many patrons as he could. In fact, the popularity of his works were close to what enthusiasts could describe as ubiquitous for lots of his paintings had been circulating the market throughout the century. Chardin became a well-known specialist of still life, genre and domestic life painting.
Chardin must have love the academy so much to remain loyal to it. By 1737, he’d conduct some exhibits of his works at the Salon which was an annual art exhibition of the academy. His loyalty was also shown by attending to most of his appointments at the guild which lasted for about five decades. He also served as a committee at the time and then was appointed as the guild’s treasurer by 1755.
Jean Chardin started being popular around 1730’s when his works were reproduced in an engraving format. They were engraved by PL Sugurue and FB Lepicie, who also helped the artist become marketable. Chardin earned money through the royalties he’d receive from the said engravers. This provided him stability that he was able to experiment with his art; he tried his luck with painting figures.
However, Chardin remained simple in his subjects because he did not want them to be grand and majestic such a theme that is popular in history painting. Instead he painted figures of ordinary people as they do their domestic activities, also referred to as genre art. He popularized this kind of painting in the academy that his colleagues and audience at the Salon would feel delight by observing them.
And because of the commonality in his subject, even the middle-class Parisian families could have afforded it. He married again in 1744 to Francoise Marguerite Pouget and one year after they bore a daughter named Angelique Francoise but the child died in 1746. There is little document that can illustrate how the death of his first wife and daughter with his second wife affected his professional life.
As a matter of fact, in 1752, Louis XV granted him 500 livres worth of pension. He continued doing exhibits in the academy, one of which was in 1759 when nine of his paintings were part of the Salon exhibition. Denis Diderot made a review about it and he got nothing but praises for Chardin’s creations.
Jean Chardin had taken his professional life quite slowly. He did only produce around 200 paintings in total, which translates to 4 paintings yearly. This could be caused by his commitments to the French academy but he undeniably still made a huge impact to the country’s artistic development.
Rococo painting was on the verge of emergence at the time, but Chardin had little influence on it because he opted to focus on still life and genre scenes. He made a successful attempt at elevating the importance of still painting as a form of art, though, as evidenced by the popularity of his works.
However simple and innocent the still life may look like, the art behind it is unarguably masterful. Chardin was able to capture the realistic expressions; facial, gesture, ambiance and mood, of the characters that was well-received by his audience. It has a timeless characteristic so to speak, and it can easily resonate with the domestic life of the audience.
He initially painted fruits and animals, and then moved onto painting figures and other objects like kitchen utensils. Some examples include Woman Sealing a Letter in 1733 and The Copper Cistern in 1735. Apparently, he depicted simple interior scenes enhanced with balance and harmony.
Towards the latter end of the 1730’s, he executed The Governess, one of his rare bourgeoisie-themed paintings. But until then, in 1756, Chardin made a comeback to painting still life objects and subjects. He also changed his medium around 1770’s when his eye sight deteriorated. He became adept at doing art in pastels by which he would paint self-portraits and pictures of his wife.
In 1761, he would still have been an active committee of the French academy, working as a treasurer and exhibit organizer. This however disabled him to produce as much works as he could like in the previous years. This could not have bothered him for the academy gave him a 200 livres increment to his pension.
In 1765, he was appointed as an associate member of more academies such as the Belles-Lettres et Arts of Rouen and Academy of the Sciences. His reputation as an academician grew solidly throughout his advanced years. He was elected to be the Premier Painter of the King by 1770, which earned him a lot more increment to his pension and it was worth around 1,400 livres.
Jean Chardin believed to have painted his last major work in 1776 and retired from the academy in 1779. He grew old and sickly during the late 1970’s until the inevitable happened on December 6, 1779 when he died due to an unknown disease.
Because Chardin’s works at the academy and for the king’s court has been documented, the later generations are able to take inspiration from it. Edouard Manet’s Boy Blowing Bubbles portrait have traces of Chardin’s influential still life painting technique, and even Paul Cezanne’s still life paintings showed some evidence.
Henri Matisse used to copy some of Chardin’s works in Louvre when he visited the country. Other still life painters like Giorgio Morandi and Lucian Freud acknowledged the works of Chardin as the source of inspiration to their art works. To an extent, philosopher and literary theorist Marcel Proust paid homage to the French painter by mentioning his works in Search of Lost Time, particularly in “How to Open Your Eyes” chapter.