The French painter Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) is considered by modern critics one of the most important artists of the 18th century as well as one of the most distinguished painters in the history of French art.
Jean Baptiste Chardin was born in Paris on Nov. 2, 1699, the son of a cabinetmaker. He studied painting with Jacques Cazes, Nöel Nicholas Coypel, and Jean Baptiste Van Loo. In 1728 Chardin was admitted to the Royal Academy as "a painter of animals and fruit," not a high rank in the academy but one which satisfied the unpretentious artist. The two paintings which won him admission into the academy were The Rayfish and The Buffet, paintings of fish, fruit, jugs, and other objects decoratively assembled in rather rich compositions enlivened by the presence of animals; both works are in the tradition of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish still-life painting.
After about 1730 Chardin began to paint the genre subjects for which he is best known: small, humble scenes of the everyday life of the Parisian lower middle class with which he was so familiar and to which he belonged. These paintings depict women working in kitchens, children playing quiet solitary games, mothers serving meals; they are simple scenes of ordinary domestic events presented without drama and without emotional flourishes, but Chardin invests them with dignity and humanity. They reveal an aspect of 18th-century French life never seen in the work of the fashionable artists who were patronized by the court and the aristocracy and who produced decorative, elegant, sensual, and light-hearted paintings in the dominant rococo style established by Antoine Watteau in the early years of the century.
By the late 1730s Chardin's value as an artist was recognized, and he began to enjoy success in spite of the fact that his work set him apart from the mainstream of French painting. Connoisseurs and collectors purchased his work, and engravings of his paintings became extremely popular. Good examples of his genre paintings are The Grace (ca. 1740), which King Louis XV purchased; Child with Top (1738); and Back from the Market (1739). Chardin is equally famous for the still-life paintings which he did throughout his career. The best of these are arrangements of a few simple objects such as copper kitchen utensils, a wineglass, a pottery bowl, a peach; examples are Still Life with Pipe and Kitchen Still Life.
Chardin's style is one of restraint, understatement, and a simplicity that approaches the severe. His colors are often subdued and cool, and many of his later still lifes have an almost austere formality. Chardin cannot, however, be wholly divorced from the rococo style or from the traditions of his century, although he was never a decorative rococo painter like François Boucher or Jean Honoré Fragonard. The 18th century was fond of the small and the intimate, and Chardin's works have these qualities. The subtle complexity of his compositions, his love of refined textures, and his perception of the trembling tonal values of light are also manifestations of contemporary artistic taste. Chardin's style is uniquely his own, but analysis of it reveals the extent to which he belonged to his period.
In 1757 Chardin was granted an apartment in the Louvre, which was not used by the kings of France as a residence at that time and which housed the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1768 King Louis XV gave him a pension. By that time public taste had turned from Chardin's modest scenes to an enthusiastic reception of the melodramatic, sentimental, and moralizing peasant genre of Jean Baptiste Greuze. Chardin continued to paint, however, although during the 1770s his eyesight weakened; he turned to the use of pastel and during the last few years of his life produced impressive work in this difficult medium. He died in Paris on Dec. 6, 1779.
Further Reading on Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin
The most comprehensive work on Chardin in English is Georges Wildenstein, Chardin (1969), a combination and translation of his two earlier works, in French, of the same title (1933 and 1963). Other works in English include Bernard Denvir, Chardin (1950), and Pierre Rosenberg, Chardin (1963; trans. 1963), which contains many excellent illustrations. An older but useful work is E. Herbert and A. Furst, Chardin (1911). Roger Fry, French, Flemish, and British Art (1951), contains an analysis of Chardin's work by an important modern critic who admired it without reservation. An excellent and sympathetic examination of Chardin in the context of 18th-century painting is presented in Michael Levey, Rococo to Revolution: Major Trends in Eighteenth Century Painting (1966). References to Chardin can be found in Arno Schönberger and Halldor Soehner's handsomely illustrated The Rococo Age: Art and Civilization of the 18th Century (1959; trans. 1960).
Additional Biography Sources
Conisbee, Philip, Chardin, Lewisburg N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1986. Roland Michel, Marianne, Chardin, New York: Abrams, 1996.
Rosenberg, Pierre, Chardin, Geneva: Skira; New York: Rizzoli, 1991.