The artist

Jean Siméon Chardin was born in Paris on November 2nd, 1699, the son of Jean Chardin, a maker of billiard tables, and Jeanne-Françoise David.

Attracted to art since he was a child, at a young age Chardin became an apprentice in the studio of a painter of historical subjects. His training, however, was very different from that of his peers. While to some degree he followed the teachings of the Academies, he never travelled to Italy as many other young artists did, preferring instead to make his own studies by directly observing his subjects rather than learning by copying from the great masters.

Although his first attempts were with traditional subjects, Chardin decided to pursue his vocation for still life painting, or "hunting pictures" as they were then called. At the time, these were considered a minor genre in the hierarchy of painting and offered limited opportunities for career advancement. A turning point in his formation as an artist, according to sources, seems to have been when he came across a dead hare and was seized with the desire to paint it "with the greatest truthfulness" using a new style, forgetting, as the artist himself affirmed, "everything I have seen, and even the way such objects have been painted by others."

After a previous unsuccessful application in 1719, Chardin was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture on September 25th 1728 as a painter "skilled in animals and fruits." One biographer, Charles-Nicolas Cochin, narrated how the young artist had submitted his work anonymously, only admitting to his work once the judges had commented on it. A number of the academicians mistook the paintings as by the Flemish masters from the previous century and praised them for their realism, sophisticated use of colour and the extraordinary rendering of light that characterized the compositions.

Between 1730 and 1731, the first official commissions began with the restoration of the frescoes in the François I gallery at Fontainebleau, a project on which he worked alongside Jean-Baptiste van Loo. For Chardin, this was a period during which he broadened the range of his subjects and began experimenting with new compositional solutions. He loved painting domestic utensils, observing and reproducing their shapes, the variety of materials, their changing colours and reflections of light. As curator Pierre Rosenberg has affirmed, no one before Chardin had managed to reveal the beauty of these simple utensils, common and familiar, daily used; creating with his art unique works having "the grave, silent quality that encourages the onlooker to silent reverie."

At the beginning of the 1730s, Chardin painted his first compositions with figures. This was a genuine turnabout in his career which from 1737, the year in which he began exhibiting at the Salon of the Louvre, rewarded him with the definitive blessing of the public and the critics. This period resulted in a fresh and personal repertory in which the artist, avoiding the picturesque or anecdotal, created charming genre scenes in which the protagonists, the children or domestics of the French bourgeois, were portrayed going about their simple daily activities. From this period are masterpieces such as the celebrated Soap Bubbles from about 1734, of which Chardin painted several versions, the splendid Girl with Shuttlecock from 1737, and The Young Draughtsman from 1738.

In 1744, some years after the death of his first wife, Marguerite Saintard, in 1735, Chardin remarried Françoise-Marguerite Pouget. Through her bourgeois background, he came into contact with a whole new environment that richly inspired his career. Chardin created in these years a genuine alternative to the prevailing history paintings, becoming the spokesman for an alternative Paris, an alternative world, that of the lower and middle classes, a far cry from the world of the court. His pictures were unique in France at the time. Attesting to the amazement and fascination that his compositions drew from the public are the reviews of the exhibition at the Salon, Diderot foremost of all, who described the painter as a "great magician" and "a scientist of colour and harmony." To the esteem with which he was held by both critics and Enlightenment thinkers was soon added that of the king, Louis XV, to whom Chardin presented two of his masterpieces, The Diligent Mother and Saying Grace. In return, in 1757, he received the honour of living and working at the Louvre.

Recognition of the artist in academic circles was affirmed by his election in 1755 as treasurer of the Académie, followed in 1761 by the prestigious appointment of being responsible for hanging the pictures in the annual Salon at the Louvre. Throughout the 1760s, Chardin’s works became known abroad, and were reproduced and diffused by important foreign publications such as the British Magazine. His work was known as far afield as Russia where Catherine II commissioned several works for the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg.

Over these years, various personal tragedies affected the artist’s family. In 1762, his eldest son, Jean-Pierre, who had chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps, was kidnapped by pirates along the coast of Genoa during his return voyage after having attended the Académie de France in Rome. He survived the ordeal and moved to Venice in 1767, following the French ambassador to the Republic of Venice. On July 7th 1772, Jean-Pierre’s body was found floating in a canal, a possible suicide, as was suggested by various newspapers at the time.

In his last years, the artist’s eye sight began failing due to amaurosis, affecting his ability to paint in oils. However, his spirits remained high, and he began a new period in which he turned to working in pastels, bringing to life portraits and life-sized studies of heads showing an extraordinary psychological intensity. "My infirmities" wrote the artist in 1778 in a long letter to the Crown superintendent of buildings "had prevented me from continuing to paint in oils, and I have resorted to pastel which allow me to still gather a few flowers." It was these last few, touching masterpieces that drew the attention of the public and the critics attending the Salon, but also that of one of the king's daughters, Madame Victoire, who subsequently gave the artist a golden box, possibly in exchange for the offer of a pastel drawing.

At the age of 80, on December 6th 1779, Chardin died in his apartment at the Louvre.

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