Jean Siméon Chardin was an artist of the early 18th century. At this time the predominant form of art was Rococo, mostly associated with merriment and pleasure. Paintings of elegant carnivals, erotic nudity and romantic trysts were abundant, while reality seemed all but absent from the world of art, which is precisely what makes Chardin’s works stand out among the rest of the eighteenth century. His still-lifes are plain and unembellished, and depict the real world that he saw around him, rather than a Rococo fantasy.
Chardin was born in 1699 in Paris to the family of a master-carpenter. He lived his entire life in the district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where he was also christened at the Church of Saint-Sulpice. He left the city only twice: once to work at Versailles in 1729, where he took part in making the scenery for a fireworks display held in celebration of King Louis XV’s newborn son, and once to help at Fontainebleau in 1731, where he assisted in the restoration of sixteenth-century Italian frescos in the gallery of François I.
Chardin’s father and younger brother, Juste, ran the family business, which mostly consisted of making billiard tables which they supplied to the Royal Household. Chardin was sent to study with Pierre-Jaques Cazes (1676-1754), a presently little-known artist, from whom he learned how to paint. By 1720 Chardin was assisting Noël-Nicolas Coypel (1690-1734), one of the renowned Coypel dynasty of artists, by painting still-life accessories in his canvases. In 1724 Chardin was accepted into the Academy of St Luke, a rival to the Royal Academy, though lacking the latter’s royal patronage.
Even though today he is best known for his still-lifes, Chardin started his artistic career by painting subjects from everyday life. One of his earliest works is a large shop sign which he painted for his father’s friend, a surgeon and apothecary. It is speculated that he was inspired to paint it by the success of Watteau’s Gersaint’s Shop Sign (1720). Watteau was one of the foremost artists of the time and his painting was widely admired in Paris. Chardin, as a budding young artist of 20 years, could have easily been inspired by this piece.
In the 17th Century the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was essentially the dictator of fashion for all artists. It had established a hierarchy of genres in painting, classifying subjects from the Bible, history and literature as part of the ‘grand genre’ because they were considered moral or ennobling. All other subjects, including still-lifes, portraiture and landscape, were categorized as ‘petit genre’, which was deemed to be much inferior. As a result, artists were likewise classified according to the subject they painted, and Chardin, who was a ‘petit genre’ painter, found it an uphill struggle to be recognized and gain lucrative commissions. In fact, with his second-rate formal education and no conventional art training, he is said to have felt a severe sense of inadequacy throughout his career. Even in his older years, he was acutely upset by the criticism of a fellow artist, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1713-89), who said that Chardin had never practiced the ‘grand genre’.
However, the beginning of the eighteenth century saw the Royal Academy’s influence begin to wane in light of a steady change in taste. Absolutism in matters of artistic style disappeared with the death of Louis XIV, the absolute monarch. He was succeeded by Louis XV, then a child of five. His regent, Philippe II Charles, Duc d’Orléans, favored the Palais-Royal, the royal residence in Paris, to Versailles. As a result of his move there, the aristocracy followed him to the capital, where they set up local residences. As part of this trend, there was a renewed interest in Dutch cabinet pictures, which were more fitting for their new style of décor.
It is said that a turning point in Chardin’s artistic career came when he was requested to draw a picture of a hare. The painting was a great success and he was immediately commissioned for a still-life of a duck. After this he continued painting still-lifes, the first ten or eleven of which he showed at the Exposition de la Jeunesse in 1728. Among the works displayed was the now famous painting The Ray-Fish (1725-1726), which was widely praised for its realism. The same year, at the urging of his fellow artists, Chardin submitted this painting and The Buffet (1728) to the Royal Academy, and was accepted and almost immediately made Associate and Academician, which was quite a rare achievement for any artist, let alone one who had not actually studied at the Academy.
By 1731 Chardin was so well established that he was able to earn a living off his painting alone, and so decided to marry his fiancée, Marguerite Saintard, with whom he had had a marriage contract since 1723. They were wed at the Church of Saint-Sulpice where Chardin had been baptized as a child. They had a son, Jean-Pierre, in the same year and a daughter, Marguerite-Agnès, in 1733. Marguerite-Saintard died two years later, followed shortly after by Marguerite- Agnès, who died between 1736 and 1737.
Although his still-lifes were widely praised, Chardin eventually abandoned this genre in the 1730s due to a growing scarcity of buyers among the aristocracy and the nouveaux riches; bankers and financiers who were building and decorating their new houses in Paris. Instead he returned to the genre painting he had tried his hand at in the very beginning of his career. Thus when the Salon opened in 1737, after a prolonged closure due to lack of funding, most of the paintings Chardin exhibited there were genre subjects.
The height of Chardin’s achievements in genre painting are considered to be the two works The Diligent Mother (1740) and Saying Grace (1740), both of which were displayed at the Salon in 1740 and received critical acclaim. The same year, when Chardin was presented to Louis XV at Versailles by his Minister for Culture Philibert Orry, he made a gift of both paintings to the king.
In the next few years Chardin’s work began to make fewer and fewer appearances at the Salon, first due to a serious illness he suffered in 1742 and then because of his being elected Adviser to the Royal Academy in 1743, a job he was very devoted to and which left him little time for painting. A year after his second marriage to the widow Françoise-Marguerite Pouget in 1744, their only daughter, Angélique-Françoise, died at the age of six months. Chardin, who was known to have painted primarily for his own enjoyment, was influenced by all these events, which contributed to his paintings’ growing scarcity and the air of melancholy that can be seen in some of his work for this time period.
Despite all this, Chardin’s genre paintings were a great success and found many buyers among the aristocracy in Europe. Some of his works from this time include The Morning Toilet (1741), The Bird-Song Organ (1751) and The Butler’s Table (1756). By 1751 his work had received royal approbation and the revenue from sales assured him a steady income. In 1752 he was awarded a pension by Louis XV and five years later in 1757 he was given an apartment at the Louvre. It was this year that Chardin’s son Jean-Pierre, who was then a student and First Prize-Winner for Painting at the Academy — not surprising given his father’s standing — had a vehement dispute with his father over his mother’s will and left for Rome as a result.
In the meantime Chardin’s workload at the Academy was increasing. In 1755 he was appointed Treasurer and in 1761 he was put in charge of arranging the Salon exhibition, a rather undesirable and bothersome task because he was obliged to satisfy all the exhibiting artists with the arrangement. Although Chardin continued to exhibit at the Salon himself, most of the works he displayed were either paintings he’d displayed in a previous exhibition, or had been painted some years beforehand.