Chardin is so obvious and yet inscrutable.
Paradoxical this may sound, these are closely related impressions. His still lifes just sit there and say little. They lack delectable colors to allure us; there are no interesting deformations to puzzle us. Lighting is flat and neutral. These paintings offer little that we can easily characterize as exciting. True, the rabbits are dead and show blood; the subject is brutal but death is presented simply as a matter of fact.
Chardin's figures are aloof, if not downright inert. They are just there. They have no narrative to tell, display no drama to stir our emotion, and deliver no obvious morals. There is no bravura in his works; there is no show of meticulous virtuosity; there are no readily recognized artistic innovations. His paintings fail to address the viewer in almost every way we expect paintings to do. They are obvious because they offer little beyond what they show; and they are inscrutable because the artist gives us none of his thought or emotion that would allow us an entry into his mind. We are left on our own, and that, I believe, is the point of his art.
His paintings show little beyond what they show but, if we look intently, and only if we look intently and spend a lot of time looking, we begin to see that there is a lot in what they show about how he achieves what they show.
If we look closely at the way the fur is painted on any of his rabbits, we find that he scratches his somewhat dry brush all over the surface in every which way. The markings are chaotic but there is no frenzy. On the other hand, there is no such consistency in the brushwork as to make them projections of the artist's individual personality. They arouse interest in the craft of painting. We marvel how he succeeds making a rabbit look like one without markings that simulate the apearance of a rabbit. This is one aspect of the statement that Chardin is the artist's artist; his art is quietly exciting for anyone who paints or had attempted to paint at all. In a sense, he demands that the viewer look at his paintings as a painter.
We must recognize, however, that Chardin's art is more than technique. His brushwork is an index to his notion of the art of painting. We admire technical virtuosity of Van Eyck and Velazquez as a means to achieving a certain kind of realism. Velazquez is, in fact, Chardin's precursor in the magical brushwork when he depicted lacy collars with precise blurs. On the surface of it, Chardin, too, achieves the effect of the visual object without attempting to copy it brush by brush. But his objective is not quite the same; it is not to replicate reality. He acknowledges that our vision is imperfect, and we never see what something actually is but only as much as our vision allows us to see of that thing. In other words, his interest is less in the rabbit as we perceive it but the nature of our perception in seeing that rabbit. This, I claim, is no quibbling.
His still life paintings are not about objects depicted in them but about our seeing vision, and that is what he explores as he paints the same subject over and over. Chardin's still life subjects derive from Dutch painting of the previous century. But Dutch artists were painting objects, and they were placed in proper worldly setting. Chardin simplifies the setting; he even removes, as Manet later did, the line that separates the wall from the floor or tabletop on which objects are displayed. The reality of the objects as objects is secondary, we might say, to the mystery of our act of seeing them. By extension, Chardin's subject is the art of painting; it is art about art. It may be more accurate to speak of the humble craft of painting, remembering how he portrayed himself in his self-portraits. This was before the introduction of the noble notion of art defined by German idealists.
Still, his humility does not diminish his accomplishment. It was essentially questioning what it is that he as a painter does when he makes a painting and then answering the question in painting. He discovered that it is more than reproducing reality, toppling the underlying academic tenet inherited from Alberti's Renaissance that art is imitation of nature. He caressed his panels and canvases with dull colors and produced surfaces intriguing in their complexity of layers of colors. The backgrounds of his still life arrangements are as arresting as the objects in them. Gazing at them we partake in the painter's vision in which objects and the space that surround them are experienced as one single painted world of vision. No other painter quite did with so little, quite created so much interminable interest with such humble subjects.
His half-figure compositions, charming to some but insipid to others, are still life paintings, too. The figures have individualized features, surely; but they lack individual presence. Their complexion glows but the body lacks life -- like a mannequin. It is as though by design and by sheer determination, Chardin strove to distill life out of them and succeeded. These are stilled lives. The painter, in his effort to capture his active perception, stilled them. Life is in the painting, not in the figures. Reproductions cannot adequately show the magic of the brush markings in these paintings. The figures are engaged in anecdotal activities -- making a house of cards, watching a top spin, sipping tea -- whatever the moralizing captions on the engravings made after the paintings may say. But the paintings are not anecdotal; the characters are just there, totally removed from our living world, inscrutable. It is easy to read into them whatever expressive meaning we like to infuse in their mind -- concentration, innocence, detachment, curiosity.
In Soap Bubbles, accurately described by a contemporary as "a head of a young man blowing bubbles," that is to say, nothing more nothing less, the young man totally ignores the peeking boy, who is obscured in half shadow and who can, in reality, barely see the bubble. The absence of action and drama, despite the highlight on the man's forehead, seems the painter's calculation. He take a potentially narrative subject but eliminates anecdotal possibilities and sets the figures in an indefinable spatial setting, and thus draws our attention to the painting qua painting. It is tempting to speculate how these paintings of Chardin might have struck the contemporaries. To those who knew how to "read" them they must have struck as curiously fresh and liberated -- free of the patina of literalism.
The portraits, that is to say, the figure paintings that are nominally portraits, are hardly portraits in the conventional sense; they are, so abstracted as to be successful evocations of the sitters. They may be characterized, in fact, as anti-portraits in analogy with anti-heroes.
One may expect Chardin's full figures to be perhaps narratively richer and even allegorical. To the contrary, despite the narrative possibilities, they are also stilled into a posture. The woman, back from market or peeling a turnip, poses, but not for us. Her glance distracts our attention. She refuses to engage us, and yet, while suggesting there is something outside the picture that catches her attention, Chardin leaves inscrutably a mystery as to what that thing is or what motivates her attention. These figures are devoid of psychological clues. In The Turnip Peeler, the vegetables on the floor are as tenderly painted as the figure, or, rather, vice versa, to be true to the artist's aspiration. Chardin dares to make figures into objects of the still life and succeeds.
There is no narrative action either in the compositions of multiple figures, like Saying Grace, despite the title. It is instructive to compare this painting with something like Jan Steen's The Prayer Before the Meal, with its panoply of narrative and allegorical props. Inaction and silence characterize Chardin's scene, and it may be tempting to see them as analogues of prayerfulness. The 19th century saw an embodiment of the virtuous middle class family in this Chardin; but a moralist reading was possible only because Chardin made the figures narratively and psychologically ciphers. Silence, on the other hand, recalls Vermeer's interiors. But Vermeer impregnates his interiors with a quiet drama by lighting, postures, and, however limited, actions. Call these paintings tableaux-vivants, if "still lifes" sounds downscaling, except the figures are hardly "vivants." They were simply tableaux -- paintings.
For Chardin multiple-figure compositions with narrative subjects were very likely the greatest artistic challenges; for they were most difficult to extricate from the fundamental assumption of what art had always been conceived to be -- imitative and narrative. If we approach Chardin with the assumptions of Velazquez and Vermeer, we only see inadequacies. If we learn to see his art in his own terms, that is to say, as a painter trying heroically to recording the act of painting in the act of painting we begin to see in it the precursor of Degas, Manet, and the best of Vuillard. But being a prophet is not an artist's mission. Chardin's greatness is in stating in painting what painting can be other than what it had long been established to be. We see this most clearly in the artist's last still life paintings, above all those of his rabbits.
T. Kaori Kitao, 08.31.00