Notes on Writing Chardin

Edmund Hardy

Bachaumont in 1767 wrote of Chardin, "His method of painting is singular. He poses his colours one after another, almost without mixing them"; in a letter to his brother Van Gogh thought of Chardin's "touches of colour laid down side by side". These poses or touches, as we stand back, become a thing intangible – reflection, filled transparency, light – a process which Renaud Temperini enacts when he describes a detail in the Self-Portrait (c. 1779): "A strong, raking light falls on the length of blue ribbon". When the Goncourts (in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts) looked at the Basket of Wild Strawberries (c. 1760), instead of raking they saw a bloom: "These two carnations, for example; they are nothing but a scattering of white and blue dots, a kind of sprinkling of silvered enamelings in relief. But when we stand back from the picture, the flowers seem to rise up from the canvas; the foliate pattern of the carnation, its heart, its soft shadow, its crinkled, lacinate substance, all coalesce and blossom." The illusory surface retrospectively formulates the brushstrokes: in the early matted fur studies (of dead hares and rabbits), the strokes are "kneaded" (Max Kozloff, 'Chardin's Truth'), like a material-animal creation, or else provide a ringing variation on "stabs and scumbles" (Sarah R. Cohen, 'Chardin's Fur'), which then turn into a general sense of a Chardin "mosaic" technique (John Gage, footnote in Colour and Culture) in which staggering of patches produces softness or brightness, and 'colour-spread' gives surface-effects such as burnishing or rosy glows.

Back with the basket, and looking at the strawbs themselves Angelika Breitmoser (Tradition als Problem in der Stillebenmalerei J.-B. Siméon Chardin) casts the distancing process away into wondering:– first how a pyramid of strawberries may relate to the architecture of the French revolution, then, more simply, how "everything that a strawberry is or ever could be is represented by a series of red patches." This idea of infinite duration continually haunts Chardin reception like a critical glaze. Before he, too, applies it, Robert Hughes (Nothing If Not Critical) finds the strawberries to be "a glowing red cone, compressing the effulgence of a volcano onto the kitchen table, balanced by two white carnations and the cold, silvery transparencies of a water glass".

"On the table the working knives, which go straight to their targets, repose in menacing but inoffensive idleness. But above you hangs a strange monster, still fresh like the sea through which it undulated, a ray-fish, the sight of which combines, with gluttonous desire, the curious attraction of the sea, in calm or in storm, of which it was once the fearsome witness, causing as it were a memory from the Zoo to pass through a flavour from a restaurant. It has been laid open and you can admire the beauty of its huge yet delicate architecture, tinged with red blood, with blue nerves and with white muscles, like the nave of a polychrome cathedral. Next to it, in the abandon of their death, fish are coiled, in a stiff and despairing curve, face down, their eyes bulging. Then a cat, superimposing the obscure life of its knowing and more conscious forms on this aquarium, the brilliance of its gaze fixed on the ray-fish, manoeuvres the velvet of its paws with slow haste over the unpraised oysters, revealing both the prudence of its character, the covetousness of its palate and the temerity of its undertaking. The eye, which loves to play with the other senses and to reconstitute, with the help of a few colours, more than a whole past, a whole future, can already sense the freshness of the oysters that will wet the cat's paws and one can already hear, at the moment when this precarious pile of fragile mother-of-pearl gives beneath the weight of the cat, the faint cry of their splitting and the thunder of their fall."
--Marcel Proust, 'Chardin et Rembrandt' in Contre Sainte-Beuve.

Chardin's friend Charles-Nicholas Cochin told ('Essai sur la vie de M. Chardin', 1780) what has become the primary Chardin anecdote, "One day, an artist was proudly expatiating on the methods he followed in order to purify and improve the paints he used. Growing impatient at so much verbiage coming from a man whose talent lay – as he saw it – solely in slick and lifeless execution, Chardin said: 'Since when does one paint with colour?' 'Why, with what else?' came the astonished reply. 'We make use of colours, but what we paint with is feeling,' concluded Chardin." Thus anyone interested in the colour fields of Chardin's work immediately gets a knock on the head. However, in Glass of Water and Coffee-pot (c. 1760) the glass and pot provide two truncated cones; from dark shadings to white highlights there is a circuit of building up and falling - the whiteness of the garlic, refracted in the glass and in possible condensation, roughly brushed around the rim, echoed on the coffee-pot, fading in the brown background's shadings from right to left, brought back by the foreground fennel - which is complex and which is also a feeling, a restlessly calm affect, "That glass — the water is always fresh, isn't it?" (Josipovici)

Diderot seems to suggest that the pencil of The Young Draftsman Sharpening His Pencil (1737) has a particular point: he reports (Salon de 1765) that Chardin had said, "At the end of so much training in the schools, still artists feel at a loss before the world, just as the first time they picked up a pencil. . ." We have, then, spent too much time at the drafting table attending to lines and shavings – but this point is turning, the young draftsman's concentration similar to the boy absorbed in a top which is spinning on his desk. "Let the child do nothing because he is told; nothing is good for him but what he recognises as good. When you are always urging him beyond his present understanding, you think you are exercising a foresight which you really lack." (Rousseau, Émile) Absorption is not didactic, it is already a fullness - which is why the paintings are not "timeless moments" but closer to being reserves of time given as fully as possible to the spectator; the large pin in The Schoolmistress (1736) with which the elder girl is teaching her younger sister the alphabet looks as if it is about to tear the canvas.[1]

[1] Incidentally, in this mode of showing education, there is Chardinesque cinematography in the Rohmer short, Véronique et son cancre / Veronica and Her Dunce (1958), in which Véronique, a private tutor, tries to get her charge to do some mathematics and then a little creative writing ("Think about what you did this morning"), when what he wants to do is bounce a football around on the black and white tiled floor.

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