Magazine article The Spectator

Out of Step

Magazine article The Spectator

Out of Step

Article excerpt

' Messieurs, Messieurs, go easy,' thus Jean-Sim6on Chardin, according to Diderot, once addressed those passing judgment on the Salon in Paris. 'Find the worst painting that's here,' he went on, 'and bear in mind that 2,000 wretches have broken their brushes between their teeth in despair of ever producing anything as good.' Painting, in other words, is an extremely difficult art. Not that any of the works on view in the major Chardin exhibition now at the Royal Academy require any such allowances to be made (except perhaps because of the over-- cleaning to which some have been subjected). But it is worth bearing in mind, while looking at his work, how Chardin emphasised the sheer tough, cussed awkwardness of what he was trying to do.

It may in fact have been because he found painting so hard that he ended up by being so good at it. He began, it seems, by attempting to be a much more run-of-themill kind of French l8th-century painter, a specialist in histories and suave mythologies. At one point he was a follower of Watteau (an artist with whom he continued to have more in common than one might imagine at first glance). But he couldn't do that sort of thing, he found it too difficult. Even when he had found his own proper path, he continued to find painting agonisingly demanding. In his catalogue essay Pierre Rosenberg, director of the Louvre, suggests that Chardin gradually gave up painting genre scenes after 1751 because he no longer had the strength to persevere with these works which caused him infinite pains.

The fluid brilliance of a Fragonard or a Boucher simply wasn't in him - which is why he ended up a more profound artist than either. Chardin's was a different type of temperament, more akin to Cezanne or Lucian Freud, the sort that wins through by endless labour and dogged persistence. It is an approach that invents nothing, that struggles to evoke the presence and truth of the subject - that is, the people and things in front of the artist's eyes.

This perhaps helps to explain why Chardin was so unlike his contemporaries. French 18th-century art tended to eroticism and story-telling, often both at the same time as in the many pictures which record an erotic anecdote. Chardin never tells a story, and is completely unrisque. Even his large figure pieces contain no narrative. The little 'Girl with Shuttlecock' holds the equipment for a game of badminton, but she's not just off to play, she's posing in the studio, lost in thought. 'The Child with a Top' is simply watching his toy, 'The Young Draughtsman' thinking about his drawing. There is not much of an incident in the smaller genre scenes either - 'The Diligent Mother', 'The Return from Market' -just a vignette of domestic tranquillity, full, as in a Vuillard, of understated emotion.

It has taxed recent art historians, as is analysed in an interesting essay by Colin Bailey, to explain Chardin's out-of-stepness. But it was the anomalous Chardin who in many ways led the way to the future. It was he who introduced the theme which was to become a major element in French art until the days of Matisse: the domestic pleasures of ordinary middle-class existence. His still-lifes look forward to Cezanne and Braque, his interiors to Vuillard and Bonnard. Technically, his beautifully substantial impasto with visible brushstrokes looks much more like Manet or Corot than any l8th-century French painter.

Historically, his role was to act as a bridge between the northern interior and still-life painters of the 17th century and his French successors. But in what did his individuality consist? …

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