Take Two Eggs [Ldots]
Wilson, Bee, New Statesman (1996)
BEE WILSON develops an appetite for Chardin's still lifes
Even raw kidneys are beautiful when painted by Chardin. They become shining pairs of purple-brown. From across the room, they might be black grapes or plums. But close up, their anatomical nature is unmistakable. As part of The Meat Day Meal, along with a slab of meat on a hook and dark red wine, these kidneys are somehow, surprisingly, luxuriant. You can't associate such plump delicacies with the poor offal of a butcher's shop, though they are realistic down to the core. You want to, pick them straight off the canvas, but you also want to leave them just where they are, looking immaculate.
The Chardin exhibition now at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is a delight for anyone who enjoys looking at food as much as eating it. Jean Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) was one of the finest observers of fruit and dead animals who ever painted. At the start of his career, this talent was something of an obstacle. When he was accepted into the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture at the age of 27, still life was seen as a lesser form of art. Chardin's delicate masterpieces of peach, pear and plum were to change this utterly.
At the salon of 1763, the philosopher Denis Diderot rhapsodised over Chardin's picture of "an old Chinese porcelain vessel, two biscuits, ajar full of olives, a bowl of fruit, two glasses half-filled with wine, a Seville orange and a pie". It was the honesty that Diderot loved: "For this porcelain bowl is made ofreal porcelain; these olives really do look as if they are floating in water; these biscuits are just waiting to be picked up and eaten; this Seville orange to be split open and squeezed; this glass of wine to be drunk; this fruit to be peeled; this pie to be cut into. …