Essays

The Existential Experience of a Chardin Still Life

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, “Seville Orange, Silver Goblet, Apples, Pear and Two Bottles” (1750), oil on canvas, 14.96 x 18.11 in (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, “Seville Orange, Silver Goblet, Apples, Pear and Two Bottles” (1750), oil on canvas, 14.96 x 18.11 in (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Lines divide a surface, colors fill it. This age-old art-school adage neatly sums up the relationship between drawing and painting, while glossing over its inherent contradictions. Does drawing define, and color merely decorate? Or is drawing just the menu, and color the meal?

Artists have historically been split between the two camps. In the Renaissance, Venetian colorito countered Florentine il designo. In the 19th century, Ingres (“Drawing is the probity of art”) opposed Delacroix (“Painters who are not colorists produce illumination, not painting”). The 20th century saw the rivalry between superb colorist Matisse and supreme draftsman Picasso. But a handful of artists appear to have been equally adept at line and color. Brueghel and van Gogh come to mind, as does another master who left us very few drawings but some 200 paintings in which colors and lines brilliantly inflect each other. This is Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), and until October 15, New Yorkers will have a rare treat: his “Seville Orange, Silver Goblet, Apples, Pear and Two Bottles” (1750), on loan from a private collection, will grace a wall in Gallery 615 at the Metropolitan Museum.

This small still life has obvious virtues. It positively glows in its exquisite modeling, rich atmosphere, and confident brushwork. But Chardin, who was much admired by the likes of Manet, Courbet, Matisse, and Picasso, usually brings to the table (so to speak) a lot more than evocative technique and atmosphere. “Seville Orange” is no exception.

Indeed, the painting provides something of an existential experience. For more conventional artists, painting representationally means starting with a recognizable enough rendering and then adding the “art”: suggestive brushwork, stylistical flourishes, quirky details. It means, in short, a kind of likeness that assumes our powers of recognition and then entertains them: “Watch how feathery a petal can be. Who knew a peach could glow so brightly? Can you believe it’s just paint?” But spend a few minutes with the Chardin, and you’ll experience something more elemental: patches of color optically shifting and jostling, provoking dislocations across the canvas. Forms possess a primal energy, and in fact become recognizable only to the extent that their energies are distinct. It’s as if Chardin was seeing his subject for the first time.

A glance tells us that several apples and a huge pear lie at the bases of two bottles and a silver goblet. But look closer: the apples are as vigorously modeled as sunlit planets, weighing heavily upon the shelf. Excise any square inch of them, and the color patches suggest the spiritual journey of a Rothko, moving palpably between states of inward, earthy glow, to simmering equilibrium, to a floating exuberance. This is the transformative power of light, which Chardin keenly transcribes into color. On the pear’s upper portion, a patch of red rests, like an outflung tablecloth settling over a tabletop. The pressures of apples and pear locate the shelf tangibly below, where it anchors the skyscrapers-like rise of the goblet and bottles. The low-keyed masses of the bottles resolve, with Cézannesque deliberation, in asymmetrical shoulders. A wholly different animal, the goblet — all sleek, high-contrast reflections — culminates in fragmented highlights at its rim.

Contradictions abound. The bottles seem to push in front of the pears they’re actually behind, and the pear presses before the apples. The goblet’s rim expresses not our preconception of a circle but the actual optics of a mirrored hoop, “borrowing” and combining discordant elements from all around. Chardin’s colors faithfully capture the effect of descending light, but they also propel the drawing, weighting the intervals across the canvas and differentiating each form. By this process, a form, endowed with a personality, finally becomes an object. The painting is the truest kind of portrait, a comprehensive invention as strange and varied as life itself.

If an academic painter teases our preconceptions, Chardin tells us what it means to see. And you only need to glance around the gallery to see how relatively weightless and meaningless are the gestures in Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre‘s huge “Death of Harmonia” (ca. 1740–41), hanging opposite.

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Installation view, Chardin’s “Seville Orange, Silver Goblet, Apples, Pear and Two Bottles” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Chardin’s contemporary Denis Diderot — often considered the first art critic — described the artist as the “finest colorist” of the time, noting how he energized, rather than simply inventoried, his motifs: “One can’t make things out from close up, while as one moves away the object coalesces and finally resembles nature…” Two years later, in 1767, Diderot wrote, “We stop in front of a Chardin as if by instinct, like a traveler weary of the road choosing, almost without realizing, a place that offers a grassy seat, silence, water and cool shade.”

These words bear more than a passing resemblance to Matisse’s, who wrote nearly a century and a half later, in 1908, that he dreamed of an art “for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

Coincidence? Likely not. In 1912, Matisse revealed to an interviewer that he studied Chardin more than any other artist at the Louvre. (He had, in fact, copied four paintings by the master in the museum, spending more than six years just on the famed “The Ray.”)

How much did the 20th century’s greatest colorist learn from his 18th-century counterpart? Make a quick detour to Gallery 330 to see Matisse’s “Chapel of Saint Joseph, Saint-Tropez” (1904), dating to just a year after he completed his copy of “The Ray.” Colors push and forms expand in “Chapel,” catching the optical pressures of a scene: broadly rising façade, spreading plaza, remote rim of mountains, all revealed by the primeval actions of light. Matisse’s colors may be more high-pitched than Chardin’s, but they reflect the same brilliant weighting and energizing of intervals. There’s no better proof that styles, temperaments, and techniques all change, but not the elemental eloquence of line and color.

Chardin’s “Seville Orange, Silver Goblet, Apples, Pear and Two Bottles” remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 15.

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