Magazine article The Spectator

Only the Best

Magazine article The Spectator

Only the Best

Article excerpt

You can tell a great deal about a nation from its greengrocers' displays - or so it struck me as I was walking down a Parisian street this spring. On the pavement, were set up boxes containing different fruits and vegetables, all arranged with careful precision, the courgettes, for example, in orderly rows like columns on a classical temple.

Compare an English equivalent, in which the produce is slung down any old how, or an Italian market stall, which somehow manages to give the effect of an overflowing cornucopia. In some ways one can see the same mental attitude at work in the still lives of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, on show at the Grand Palais, Paris, in a grand Chardin retrospective (a version of which comes to the Royal Academy next March).

It is not merely that Chardin places his fruit and veg, and the rest of his subject matter in orderly geometric arrangements (though, in a more sophisticated fashion than that greengrocer, he does that too). It is more that he gives the pure essence of the subject, sensuous but simple - indeed, sensuous because simple.

In French restaurants one used to get vegetables as a separate course in a way that seemed to say, `Concentrate on these beans, or this spinach, taste how good they are, just in themselves.' Similarly, Chardin seems to say, `Look at these plums, these peaches, this pear. See how beautiful they are (and how good to eat they would be).' On the whole he is at his best when he is painting a few fruit with, perhaps, a glass, a jug. But what he paints is manifestly of the best quality, a prelude to discriminating pleasures at the table.

Neither the best quality, however, nor the gastronomic delights were part of his background, which was relatively humble. He was born, in 1699, the son of a master cabinet-maker, a maitre-menuisier. He was received at the Academic in 1728 as a painter of animals and fruit - not, that is, in the noble, academic field of history painting, but in a mundane genre, previously the speciality of Northern artists.

When the painter Nicolas de Largilliere saw some Chardins he judged them very good, but surely by some Flemish painter. In fact, the domestic vein in French art, the interest in flowers, food, the kitchen which can be seen in Manet, Braque, Matisse and many others - begins with Chardin. With Poussin and Watteau, he is among those who formed French painting. If not to his contemporaries, at least in

retrospect he seems highly Gallic. His art is a matter of reason and skill, the refined arrangement of the elements of the composition, the brilliant mimicry of textures and surfaces - the hazy bloom of the plums, the glints and gleams of silver and glass, the gelatinous translucency of raw fish.

But it is also more than that. The objects in a Zurbaran still life are so simple, and so isolated, as to seem transfigured. They encourage historians to imagine - perhaps rightly - that they may conceal some religious allegory. Chardin isn't quite that spiritually intense. But every object he paints is treated with due gravity and dignity. And this feeling of serious attention being given to everything in view - the soft crustiness of a brioche, for example, which is the hero of one picture - gives to the paintings themselves a contemplative feel. …

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