Self-portrait at the Easel by Jean-Siméon Chardin

Self-portrait at the Easel by Chardin (c.1776)

Another day, another French painter.  Today I wanted to look at the French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and My Daily Art Display for the day is his pastel on blue paper Self-portrait at the Easel which he painted around 1776.  It is currently housed in the Louvre, Paris.

Chardin, the son of a cabinet maker, was born in Paris, in 1699.  He lived on the Left Bank of the River Seine, close to the church of Saint Sulpice, which has, along with its “Rose Line”, recently gained notoriety because of the film The Da Vinci Code.    He studied art under the tutelage of the French History painters Pierre-Jacques Cazes and Noél-Nicolas Coypel and in 1724, aged twenty-five he became a master in the Acadèmie de Saint-Luc.  A year earlier, he entered into a marriage contract with Marguerie Saintard but it was not until eight years later that the couple married in 1731 and that year his son Jean-Pierre was born.  Two years later the couple had a daughter, Marguerite-Agnés.  Sadly his wife died in 1735 and two years later his daughter passed away.

In 1728 he presented two of his painting, The Ray, and The Buffet to the prestigious Acadèmie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture and they were of such quality that he was accepted into this hallowed society.  For fifty years, he regularly attended the Society’s meetings and during which, served as counsellor, secretary and treasurer.  He consistently exhibited at the Salon each year and he proved to be a “dedicated academician.  Chardin earned money from his artistic talents in any way he could.  His paintings were not restricted to any single genre; it just depended on the whims of his clients. 

In 1744 he married for the second time.  His second wife was Françoise-Marguerite Pouget. The following year their daughter, Angèlique-Françoise, was born, but she died in 1746.  In 1752 Chardin was granted a pension of 500 livres by Louis XV.  Beginning in 1761, his responsibilities on behalf of the Salon, simultaneously arranging the exhibitions and acting as treasurer resulted in a slow-down in the productivity of his painting.   In 1763 his services to the Acadèmie were acknowledged with an extra 200 livres in pension. In 1765 he was unanimously elected associate member of the Acadèmie des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts of Rouen, but there is no evidence that he left Paris to accept the honour. By 1770 Chardin was the ‘Premiere peintre du roi’, and his pension of 1,400 livres was the highest in the Academy.

Chardin rarely travelled far from his Left Bank home, just occasionally making the short trips to Versailles and Fontainebleau.   In 1757 he finally moved house as Louis XV granted him a studio and living quarters in the Louvre.  Five years later more tragedy was to enter his life with the death of his artist son, Jean-Pierre, who was found drowned in Venice.  The belief was that he had committed suicide.  Chardon carried on painting and his last known painting was dated 1776, just four years before his death in 1780 at the age of 80.

Chardon was secretive about his methods. No one saw him painting; he had no pupils or followers. He seems to have worked slowly, in a style that is evocative rather than literally descriptive. He made few, if any, preparatory drawings. His contemporaries observed that his still-life paintings, which on close inspection seemed to be just a flurry of strokes, were in fact paintings of a startling immediacy and naturalism.   He portrayed household and family routines and children at play in genre scenes with a touch that was tenderly true to life.  These were engraved and claimed the imagination of a wide public. The subject matter he chose for his paintings was unassuming.  They were also often small in size.  Chardin’s paintings are supremely colourful and his work has long been admired by artists and critics alike.

Throughout the eighteenth century there were two competing hierarchies of painting genres.  On one side, one had the history painting genre and on the other side there was the portraiture and still-life genre paintings.  Chardin,  who painted many still-lifes including many which featured food, never attempted portraiture until 1837 when, according to Nicolas Cochin’s 1737 book Essay on the Life of Chardin1737, wrote of Chardin:

‘….A remarkable occurrence led him to try his hand at this new genre.  Monsieur Avid, a portraitist, was a great friend.  He often asked Monsieur Chardin for advice, which he found beneficial.  However one day when Monsieur Chardin criticised him too keenly, Monsieur Avid sharply retorted: “Do you suppose that it is as easy to paint as your stuffed tongue and saveloys?”  Monsieur Chardin was extremely vexed at this remark…’

Today’s pastel, Self-portrait at the Easel by Chardin sees him standing at his easel.  He stands before us at a time when his eyesight was failing and his health was deteriorating.  He gives us an unflattering and unsentimental vision of himself.  It is, in some ways a disturbing sight.  His enormous prince-nez have slipped down to the end of his nose as he peers over them at us, his viewers.  His eyes do not sparkle.  They look tired and dull.  This was to be one of the last paintings from the artist who seems weary and aware of how the passing years have affected him both physically and mentally.  Although he had many successes in his life, he also experienced many tragedies and one can see that they have taken their toll on him.  His faded skin with its slight ruddy tinge has a look of roughness about it.  His lips have a slight upward turn to them as he forces himself to smile at us.  What is he thinking about?  Around his neck is a multi-coloured scarf, a mixture of warm reds balanced by cool blues and grays.  Such colours can also be seen in his well-worn coat and reflected in his face.

Unfortunately for Chardin, public taste in paintings changed in the mid 18th century and there was a desire to see historical paintings once again come to the fore.  This was not Chardin’s painting genre and he fell from favour with the Academy.  His pension was reduced and slowly his duties at the Academy shrank.  It was not until a hundred years later that the paintings of Chardin came back in vogue and his works are now coveted by the top museums and the wealthy collectors.  Chardin influenced many of the great artists that followed, such as Manet and Cezanne.   Henri Matisse ranked Chardin as one of his most admired painters.