Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin—always and only referred to simply as Chardin—has one of the greatest last names in the history of art. It fills the mouth with this wonderful, rhythmic sensation, rolls off the tongue, a combination of charm and garden, then takes a floral turn into a singsongy incantation: Chardin.
And his art is as resonant as his name. Lately, there’s a lot of reverence toward the supposed purity of Chardin. Words like miraculous, mysterious, silence, and serenity crop up. Proust and Matisse loved him; a wonder-struck Diderot, in mock suspicion, observed that no one had actually ever seen Chardin paint. Even theory guys like Michael Fried, Norman Bryson, Michael Baxandall, and Thomas Crow venerate him. Indeed, you can find yourself thinking, this is the best copper pot I’ve ever seen—the best glass of water, or sheen on a plum.
“The Good Chardin,” as he is often called, was born in 1699 to a cabinetmaker. He spent nearly his entire life in his birth city of Paris. There, unfortunately, he went to the lesser local art school, Académie de Saint-Luc. Worse, he excelled not in history painting, but still lifes and genre scenes. It was like wanting to be a great postcard photographer.
But Chardin bloomed early and flowered long. In a once-in-an-eon move, the all-important Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture accepted him the same day he applied for membership, at the age of 29. For 19 years he oversaw the hanging of their salons and exhibited regularly in those shows. He was held in high esteem, made good money, and died at the age of 80. Not bad for a still life/genre painter.
The eight-room exhibition at the Metropolitan is great; it’s just not all great. Chardin can be repetitious and boring; his space can get cramped and dark. When he ventures into allegory, as he does in several paintings here, things get hollow. You wonder if you’d even notice a few of these paintings if they were hanging amid the collection of some fancy château.
The components of Chardin’s art are cups and crockery; fruit, dead rabbits, and more rabbits; people preoccupied, suspended between moments; time slowed down to something like a standstill; an infinite variety of browns, ambers, and rust; a dry, inexplicable touch. In the words of the French poet Francis Ponge, what sends people about Chardin is the way his “least pretentious still life is a metaphysical landscape. Time flows, and yet nothing ever happens.”
A classic passive, Chardin is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind artist, very hit-and-miss. His touch is never aggressive or insistent, unlike Rembrandt’s, though the painters are often compared. His color isn’t as gorgeous, or his light as spellbinding as Vermeer’s, and he lacks the emotional depths of Watteau. However, when you do alight on a Chardin that does it to you, it really does it. I melted in front of the best basket of wild strawberries I’ve ever seen. Chardin can make you experience the utter simplicity of it all, and provide an absolute affirmation of life’s little joys. At the same time, his paintings of death, and there are many, make death exquisitely, hypnotically visual, never cruel.
Coming upon one of his dead hares at the Met is like discovering an animal carcass in the woods: startling and intriguing. Chardin completely invades the privacy of death. You gaze at his rabbits, partridges, thrushes, or ducks in ways you could never look at a dead person. It’s so voyeuristic and intimate it takes your breath away. You linger over matted, molding fur; trace a bullet wound, a trickle of blood with your eyes; note rigor mortis setting in; and weigh the physicalness of death. The best of these pictures make you feel the heartbreak of death and the staggering beauty of life simultaneously—what Ponge called the “meritorious ground between peacefulness and fatality.”
The painting that got Chardin into the Royal Academy, The Ray (1728), is wild and overrun with stuff, but you can already see his feeling for light, his lack of fussiness, and the maniacal Babette’s Feast attention he lavishes on food and cooking utensils. There’s a casserole, jug, knife, ladle, vinegar carafe, scallions, a couple of carp, some oysters stalked by a pretty kitty, and—hanging from a chain—the surreal, Soutine- meets-Ensor ray, the best I’ve ever seen.
Chardin’s “formalism”—the way he constructs his pictures, his color, composition, and textures—makes time spent with his work unlike that spent with almost any other painter. Look at a heart-stopper like Girl With Shuttlecock, in which a young girl stares into space as she gingerly cradles a badminton racket on her hip and rests her hand on a chair. You can get lost in the multicolored feathered shuttlecock, feel the moisture in the interstices between her palm and the wooden chair, savor the succulent olive background and the wrinkles of her billowy dress.
The closest thing to looking at a Chardin might be contemplating the almost-monochromes of Ad Reinhardt. At first you think, “Not another one of these”; then you start to see things, or think you do. Tonalities change, the light flickers. You pick up minute shifts in the direction of a brush stroke, an inconsistency of surface. Before long, what started out mundane transforms itself into something ravishing.
Unfortunately, there are none of the late pastel self-portraits on hand to humanize Chardin. In the catalog, they’re captivating. At first you think he’s in drag, some sort of goofball swami. Outfitted in glasses and bundled in some kind of turban or headdress, he’s a strange combination of Ed Wynn, Ben Franklin, Bea Arthur, and a kindly uncle.
Writers almost always add that Chardin paints love, not sex. As if ardor would soil the purity and the “goodness” of his art. But there’s lots of sex in Chardin. It’s that tingly, sensuous, voluptuous buzz you feel standing in front of his best work. It’s what we mean when we say we love Chardin: He paints our rapturous infatuation with life.