"What the painters Watteau, Nattier, Boucher, Fragonard did in commemoration of the court life of their century, Chardin did for the life of the lower class"
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (November 2 1699 – December 6, 1779) was an 18th-century French painter. He is considered a master of still life, and is also noted for his genre paintings which depict kitchen maids, children, and domestic activities. Carefully balanced composition, soft diffusion of light and granular impasto characterize his work. Chardin worked very slowly and painted only slightly more than 200 pictures (about four a year) total.
Chardin's work had little in common with the Rococo painting that dominated French art in the 18th century. At a time when history painting was considered the supreme classification for public art, Chardin's subjects of choice were viewed as minor categories.
He favored simple yet beautifully textured still lifes, and sensitively handled domestic interiors and genre paintings. Simple, even stark, paintings of common household items (Still Life with a Smoker's Box) and an uncanny ability to portray children's innocence in an unsentimental manner (Boy with a Top nevertheless found an appreciative audience in his time, and account for his timeless appeal.
Largely self-taught, Chardin was greatly influenced by the realism and subject matter of the 17th-century Low Country masters. Despite his unconventional portrayal of the ascendant bourgeoisie, early support came from patrons in the French aristocracy, including Louis XV. Though his popularity rested initially on paintings of animals and fruit, by the 1730s he introduced kitchen utensils into his work (The Copper Cistern, ca.1735, Louvre).
Soon figures populated his scenes as well, supposedly in response to a portrait painter who challenged him to take up the genre. Woman Sealing a Letter (ca. 1733), which may have been his first attempt, was followed by half-length compositions of children saying grace, as in Le Bénédicité, and kitchen maids in moments of reflection. These humble scenes deal with simple, everyday activities, yet they also have functioned as a source of documentary information about a level of French society not hitherto considered a worthy subject for painting.
The pictures are noteworthy for their formal structure and pictorial harmony. Chardin has said about painting, "Who said one paints with colors? One employs colors, but one paints with feeling."
Chardin frequently painted replicas of his compositions—especially his genre paintings, nearly all of which exist in multiple versions which in many cases are virtually indistinguishable. Beginning with The Governess (1739, in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), Chardin shifted his attention from working-class subjects to slightly more spacious scenes of bourgeois life.]
In 1756 he returned to the subject of the still life. In the 1770s his eyesight weakened and he took to painting in pastels, a medium in which he executed portraits of his wife and himself. His works in pastels are now highly valued. Chardin's extant paintings, which number about 200, are in many major museums, including the Louvre.
Self-portrait, 1771, pastel, Musée du Louvre, Paris.