Chardin at the Royal Academy

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Chardin at the Royal Academy


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


THE current exhibition at the Royal Academy was arranged last autumn by Pierre Rosenberg of the Acad[acute{e}]mie Francaise, Pr[acute{e}]sident Directeur of the Mus[acute{e}]e du Louvre and the doyen of contemporary experts on Chardin, to commemorate the tercentenary of the painter's birth. As one would expect, the pictures are admirably selected and the catalogue, largely Rosenberg's own work, is a signal contribution to scholarship. The exhibition began its travels (which will end at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the summer) in the Grand Palais in Paris. The Royal Academy suits Chardin's pictures better than the austere, pallidly functional corridors and partitions of the Grand Palais, which differs so much from the Edwardian Baroque extravagance of its outside. The painter himself would have felt at home as he mounted the grand stairway, the flights divided by Corinthian columns and the well decorated with mythologies, now somewhat faded, by Sebastiano Ricci. He would have paused at the long twis ting ramp (Piranesi in fibreglass) that followed but, a dogged man, would have shunned the lift and tramped onwards to enter the Sacker Galleries, casting a sceptical glance at the row of neo-classical statues outside. Once within, he would see his works hung on primrose-yellow wails, which suit his umbrous backgrounds, and lit by artfully directed spotlights fixed in the curved ceiling: an attic-studio more splendid than he had ever possessed.

Jean-B aptiste-Simeon Chardin was the son of a master-carpenter who vainly hoped that his son would take over his workshop. In spite of his father's moderate wealth, Chardin was largely self-educated. Even as a painter he learnt the rudiments of his art, after an inadequate apprenticeship, as a jobbing assistant to such ceiling-decorators as Carle Vanloo and No[ddot{e}] Nicolas Coypel. He knew little, even less than Watteau and far less than Boucher and Fragonard, about the myths versified by Ovid and depicted by the flighty polychromatic cloud-scapers of Versailles. It was a blessing for art that this honest parishioner of St Sulpice (like Watteau, who narrowly missed the Prix de Rome) never visited Italy. Boucher and Fragonard rather survived than profited from the French school in Rome. The experience did not change Boucher. He merely learnt about a few Ovidian predicaments into which he could insert his plump nudes. Fragonard was saved by his native whimsicality and returned to Paris without alteration t o his libertine merriment. Watteau and Chardin were both too serious to laugh off the course of instruction, which would have been dire in curbing their consummate individuality. Chardin never travelled beyond the environs of Paris. He left his side-street in what is now the rue de Seine only during the last quarter of his life, when Louis XV granted him an apartment in the Louvre.

Chardin's dominant qualities, humility and prudence, which he exalted in his anecdotal pictures, are readily observable in his unassuming self-portraits: his face ruddy, worn but trusty, bulbous, as battered as the copper cistern which was a favourite feature in his paintings. The exhibition includes two of the three self-portraits in the Louvre, works of his later years, and so in pastel. He took to pastels, with which his friend Maurice-Quentin La Tour had enjoyed great success, when the fumes of oil-paint began, in his seventies, to hurt his eyes. With the disillusioned introspection of advancing years, the portraits, in his studio garb of coif and scarf, are almost self-mocking. His eyes are asymmetrical: in the version of 1771, when he was seventy-two years old, the right eye seems to be mild and passively registering; the left, twinkling around his heavy pince-nez, sharply judgmental. A brisk look is diffused over the whole face by his alert and measured smile. His portrait with the eyeshade, from 1775, is utterly without grandiloquence. He had no concern for his appearance; no personal vanity. …

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