If I were to say “Think of a great landscape painter.” or ” Think of a great portrait artist.”, you would probably have a few names spring immediately to mind. If I were to say “Think of a great still life painter.”, chances are better that you might draw a blank, or at least have to think for a bit to come up with a name.
Still life, though a respected form of painting, just isn’t very glamorous. It’s been a staple subject of artists for centuries and many artists today are doing wonderful work in the area; but historically, artists who paint still life and something else are usually remembered for the something else. Well, here’s a name for your list, even if it is a long hyphenated one: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. (I think the French just loved long hyphenated names so they could outdo the British at something else.)
Chardin was one of the great painters of the 18th Century. His unsentimental portrayals of his subjects, strongly influenced by the Dutch masters, were in sharp contrast to the opulently decorative and playfully erotic canvasses of other Rococo masters like Boucher and Fragonard. He was renowned for his portraits and genre paintings (pictures of everyday life), but in his case it is the still life subjects that get the attention.
Though the subjects are humble, often pots, ladles, jars and simple kitchen utensils, Chardin paints them with a richness and tactile vibrancy that is outstanding among all still life painters. He was particularly a master of texture, whether of beaten and polished metal, scuffed wood or the rough surfaces of walls and tables. You can feel the objects in his paintings, pick them and hold them in your mind, even though the way he represents them is painterly and not photorealistic. He often laid in parts of his paintings with rough chunks of color, smudges and and scumbling, letting the surface of the paint itself provide some of the texture.
If you have the opportunity to look at a Chardin painting in a local museum (see the listing on Artcyclopedia), you may find that you’ve unknowingly walked by it several times. Like most still life paintings, Chardin’s don’t scream for attention, but they do reward it. Contemplation of a Chardin still life can be an almost Zen-like exercise in the appreciation of the humble and immediate as sublime.
Don’t ignore his portraits or domestic scenes, he was a superb painter in all areas, but it’s his magically tactile still life subjects that are most memorable. You may come away with at least one name for your mental list of great still life painters.