Still life, that genre of painting with a name that seems a contradiction in terms, is, in itself, quiet.
Still life never receives the attention paid to more prominent types of paintings. Dramatic interpretations of Biblical, history or literary scenes, genre painting, portraits and even landscapes, overshadow it easily.
Still life is the Rodney Dangerfield of painting genres, liked, but not often respected, and the masters of the art are seldom the most celebrated names.
But still life, even more than other forms of painting, can often embody what I feel is one of the most important and valuable properties of art — the revelation that the ordinary can be extraordinary, if we only stop to see it as extraordinary.
A master of this message, and of still life painting in general, was the 18th Century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.
His is hardly a household name, though his influence on other painters has been considerable. His contribution is, I think, particularly relevant to the new generation of still life painters working today, whether they are aware of his influence or not.
His work is important not only in its mastery and quality, but in the approach he took in the application of paint and the character of the painted surface.
In a letter to his brother Theo in 1888, Vincent van Gogh wrote:
“The best pictures, and, from a technical point of view the most complete, seen from near by, are but patches of colour side by side, and only make an effect at a certain distance.
That is what Rembrandt stuck to, notwithstanding all the trouble it caused him (the honest citizens greatly preferred Van der Helst, because his work can also be looked at up close).
In that respect Chardin is as great as Rembrandt.”
Still life was not highly regarded in the time of Chardin’s early career, though he himself helped elevate the subject matter as his stature in the French art establishment grew over time.
In the middle of his career he took to painting portraits and genre pictures, focusing on aspects of French society as humble as the plain kitchen utensils of his still life paintings, another area not in keeping with the then accepted standards of Academic art. His style could hardly have been further form the flamboyant Rococo manner that was dominant at the time.
Chardin returned to still life later in his career; and even later, when his eyesight was failing, took up pastels and used them brilliantly.
The Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, Italy is currently hosting an exhibition, Chardin: Il pittore del silenzio, that is on view until 30 January 2011. The exhibition was curated in cooperation with the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, where it will be on display from 1 March to 28 May 2011.
There is also a selection of works online from an exhibition at the Met back in 2000 that I’m sorry to say I missed.
For more, see my previous post about Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.
Like Vermeer, Chardin dwelled in the quiet suspension of time, where the sublime qualities of light reveal the magic in commonplace objects.
19th/20th Century novelist Marcel Proust wrote of Chardin:
“We have learned from Chardin that a pear is as living as a woman, that an ordinary piece of pottery is as beautiful as a precious stone.”
“Everyday life will charm you once you have absorbed Chardin’s painting for a few days like a lesson. Then, having understood the life of his painting, you will have discovered the beauty of life.”