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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.2 (2001) 251-274
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A Picture of Chardin's Making
James D. Herbert
He's an ordinary lad, really (fig. 1). Not the sort of begrimed ragamuffin that the brothers Le Nain might have recruited a century before for one of their essays at picturesque poverty, nor a boy formally portrayed with the finery and bearing that in ancien régime France spoke of noble birth. A commoner, then. A commoner, but one who would go far. He--or, more likely, one of his two or three nearly identical clones--put in an appearance at the prestigious Parisian Salon of 1739 held in the royal palace of the Louvre (after which the brood scurried into various private collections). 1 Many of his peers, those figuring in the forty-odd genre scenes painted by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin in the years surrounding 1740, fared even better. The lass being prepared for public outing in The Morning Toilet (fig. 2) was spirited out of the Salon of 1741 by the Swedish ambassador Count Carl Gustaf Tessin (the Salon catalogue lists the work as belonging to him) and soon joined court life at the royal palace at Drottningholm. Closer to home, in 1740, Louis XV welcomed, as a gift from the artist himself, the children of Saying Grace (fig. 3) and The Diligent Mother into that always-growing crowd of dutiful subjects depicted within the paintings of the French royal collections.
By now, my opening conceit is showing its strains. Of course, not the children themselves but their painted images enjoyed elevation into social circles well above the apparent rank of the sitters, perhaps even to be revered there. The [End Page 251] transmutation into oils makes all the difference, for the canvas could well have functioned like an intervening curtain that protected viewers from any actual commerce with the viewed. We are all familiar with the social practice, proper in Chardin's day and in our own, of hanging paintings that represent all sorts of suspect people and things within the tasteful apartments of the most privileged. And yet my initial rhetorical gambit has it purpose: it highlights how quick the leap from depiction to depicted can be during a consideration of Chardin's paintings of children--perhaps in any discussion of simple genre scenes. It is as if the essential characteristics of a genre painting--its values, its meaning, its purpose--are in some manner selfsame with those of the people and milieu to which it gives pictorial form. Put another way: we quite easily assume that Chardin's pictures of children are basically about those children, and that, accordingly, an appreciation of the painting necessarily involves an appreciation, perhaps even an endorsement, of the way in which they live their lives. Bourgeois subject matter--to risk, for a moment, the lurking cliché--means bourgeois painting. And reciprocally (reciprocity being an indispensable aspect of this particular interpretation), bourgeois painting reflects the values of the bourgeois subject matter it portrays.
Painting as protective curtain, painting as reflective mirror: I've introduced two competing figures for Chardin's art in the previous paragraph, one close upon the other. We needn't, however, take on the task of sizing up the relative [End Page 252] merits of these two accounts and deeming one to be correct. The significance of Chardin's genre scenes--I will be using Soap Bubbles (fig 1 as the principal vehicle for my analysis--resides not in their authorization of one form of meaning over the other, but rather in the manner in which they allow for the possibility of a number of different interpretations, and thereby fashion a social relation between the audiences that ostensibly activated each. This essay will pursue such multiple meanings in two stages: first, by investigating the characteristics attributed by these pictures to their sitters; and second, by attending to Chardin's painterly technique. What to make of Chardin's Soap Bubbles? That which the painting makes of its variegated viewers, both anticipated and real. [End Page 253]