Art that stays a while
I like the phrase used by Andre Gide to describe Chardin's painting: "substantial gravity." Even a house of cards painted by Chardin (and he did, incidentally, paint a house of cards more than once in his long career) does not seem momentary -- about to topple. Even such an uncertain construction has substantiality and is part of the solidity and fixedness of things. Chardin paints objects as if they were immortal.
Nobody had quite envisioned objects before as he did.Things are invested with their own life, their own painterly purpose and identity. He is the kind of artist who, apparently narrow in his experience of the world, goes deep instead of wide, concentrating with such understanding on the ordinary and familiar that it becomes an end in itself.
If education prevented him from the becoming a painter of noble historical dramas (the academic convention of 18th-century painters), something more innate must have stopped him from painting the elegant pleasures of the rich but neither restricted his determination to bring nobility to humble domesticity. His painting developed out of "still life" to include sensitively portrayed figures whose unpretentious attitudes he seems to grasp perfectly. The "Scullery Maid" (one of three beautiful Chardins in the newly opened Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow) is an excellent example of the way in which he could make things and people inhabit the one world, a world in which there is specific character and composition to each separable object and yet uncanny unity among them all. Each has clear function, and, more important for the painter, clear form. Each has its own weight and surface and material -- copper, clay, wood, iron. "The Scullery Maid" is painted with the same attention to different weights and substances -- shoes, skirt, apron, skin. But this carefully built world of many items is not in any way fragmentary. Everything has the same painterly value, is described with the same comprehension. Compositional balance is such, in Chardin's paintings, that each object seems to rest, with exact inevitability, just where it has been firmly placed: it could be nowherer else.
The concavity, convexity, roundness of form of so many commonplace utensils and containers are treated with an investigative candour, and a relish above mere observation. To you or me the roundness of a pot or pan is its utility. To Chardin it seems more a matter of profound sensibility and appreciation. Like the potter he feels, though with brush and paint, the outside, and the inside, of casserole or vase: he feelsm their rims and lips and handles.
Seventeenth-century Dutch painting must be ancestrally related to Chardin's art, of course. There is a picture by Gerard Dou (a pupil of Rembrandt) even entitled "Woman Cleaning a Saucepan." Vermeer or de Hooch are also not too distantly related to the later French painter. They also managed to avoid the sentimental, the moralistic or the anecdotal. But Chardin was more consistent in this respect. Peter and Linda Murray put it neatly: Chardin's "genre scenes are . . . redolent of the simple domesticity of everyday bourgeois life . . . not rendered picturesque by any concessions to low-life, or titillating by excursions into modish society." Just so. These scenes also -- in the intriguing way places and periods are linked by quite diverse artists -- remind one of Velasquez's early pictures, like "Woman frying Eggs." But the Spanish artist might well have been illustrating a proverb or a fable in such paintings.
Painting seems to be the art form best able to confer significance on the ordinary.* The novel can do so to a degree, but music, sculpture, dance, drama, opera, even poetry, rarely do. The reason may be that painting has to exist in a world of competing objects -- it has become just on part of the furnishing of a house: the picture on the wall. Was Chardin aware that his small pictures of objects had to establish their own reality in the face of similar or other objects? Not that his pictures would have been hung in the kitchen. But he must have wanted his kind of art to be more down-to-earth, more substantially grave, than the sugary, frivolous drawing-room decorations his rich clients enjoyed: less transient and fashionable than a Boucher or a Fragonard, less wistfully evanescent than a Watteau. Chardin presents a world made of objects -- and people -- that cannot easily dissolve or vanish.