Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 23, 2000
Pierre Rosenberg Chardin Exh. cat. Yale University Press, 1999. 360 pp.; 99 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300083483)
Royal Academy of the Arts, London, March 11–May 29, 2000; in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 27–September 3, 2000.

Emblazoned on the cover of the Louvre’s new Chardin exhibition catalogue is the image of a girl child holding a racquet and shuttlecock but curiously made-up and dressed like an adult woman. Her cheeks are rouged, her hair is powdered and she wears a circlet of ribbon tied enticingly around a slim white neck. In contrast to the solemn abstract beauty of Basket of Wild Strawberries splashed on the Louvre’s 1979 Chardin exhibition catalogue, this detail, taken from Girl with Shuttlecock, cuts a different sort of figure, one speaking directly to the sensibilities of the 1990s. Chardin’s representation of an infantilized woman or an eroticized child is exactly the type of image that makes us stop and look, as Anne Higonnet has shown in her Pictures of Innocence (1998).

This perspicacious choice of cover image raises hopes that the new Louvre exhibition, rather like Higonnet’s book, will challenge the idées reçues attached to its subject, but this is not the case. The Chardin packaged in the 1999 catalogue is the same Chardin packaged in 1979. Pierre Rosenberg’s entries for eighty-two of the ninety-nine works by Chardin included in the exhibition (only seventeen were not shown in 1979) are for the most part summaries of the entries he wrote for the 1979 catalogue. Although accompanied by bibliographies, the entries themselves rarely reflect and never engage important Chardin scholarship of the past twenty years, thus appearing to discount such pivotal scholarly contributions to the subject as Philip Conisbee’s Chardin (1985). This catalogue, in short, is not a revision of Rosenberg’s catalogue of twenty years ago. Instead, it is quite the contrary; the Chardin of the catalogue entries remains the simple good fellow of humble origins and humble ambitions delineated by the Goncourts in the nineteenth century. And like the Goncourts, Rosenberg draws most of his documentation from the tradition of the petit histoire, the personal anecdote, especially Cochin’s Essai sur la vie de Chardin, written in 1780.

Students and scholars be forewarned that the 1999 catalogue is careless in its references. On page 186, Rosenberg mistakenly attributes a long passage to Mariette that was in fact written by Cochin (an error further compounded by a misprint that dates the Mariette to 1794 instead of 1749). And it is Cochin, not Mariette, who states that Chardin had not attempted to represent human figures before 1737 (186). Rosenberg’s tendency to present undocumented assertions as fact further compromises the trustworthiness of this text. For example, he writes that “it has been suggested, we consider correctly” that the artist used his wife as a model in A Lady Taking Tea (216), a claim, by the way, repeated by more than one reviewer of the 1999 exhibition as unequivocal truth. This is precisely where the reader needs a footnote providing the evidentiary base for Rosenberg’s supposition. From the commentary we are given, we infer the link rests on a resemblance between the teapot and the table depicted in the picture to items listed in the estate inventory of Chardin’s wife taken in 1737. Even if the teapot could be proved to be the one owned by Madame Chardin, it does not follow that the figure represented in the painting using it must be Madame Chardin. (The Vermeer inventory included a fur-trimmed, yellow satin jacket, yet scholars do not assume that every female figure painted by Vermeer dressed in such a jacket represents his wife.)

Nearly two-thirds of this volume consists of catalogue entries, each one accompanied by a color illustration. The remainder of the catalogue is composed of essays written by Pierre Rosenberg, Marie-Laure de Rochebrune, Antoine Schnapper, Katie Scott, Colin B. Bailey, and René Démoris. René Démoris’s contribution, “Chardin and the Far Side of Illusion,” seeks to place Chardin’s art within a framework of late seventeenth-and eighteenth-century esthetic theory. Imitation of a nature “unveiled” is the broadly construed theme Démoris sets out to explore along a choppy trajectory of critics and art theorists beginning with Félibien and ending with Diderot. Colin B. Bailey’s essay, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes: Recent Writings on Chardin,” is a survey of the arguments that Michael Baxandall, Norman Bryson, Thomas E. Crow and Michael Fried have put forth about Chardin’s achievements. Marie-Laure de Rochebrune’s fascinating “Ceramics and Glass in Chardin’s Painting” shows how surprisingly receptive the artist was to imitating the latest fashions in Meissen ware, soft-paste porcelain from Chantilly, Imari jars imported from Japan or ewers produced in China for European export. A profile of the artist’s finances is presented by Antoine Schnapper in his article, “Chardin’s Property and Sources of Income.” In a conceptually far-ranging study, “Chardin Multiplied,” Katie Scott discusses the prints and the replicas made after Chardin’s paintings. Pierre Rosenberg has also written an interpretive essay for the catalogue entitled “Chardin: the Unknowing Subversive?” In it, Rosenberg formulates the artist as an “unknowing subversive” because he believes Chardin challenged the Academy’s hierarchy of genres, rejected his own time and opened “the door to modernity” (35).

Yet certain conclusions reached by the other essayists, in particular, Schnapper and Scott, undermine Rosenberg’s thesis. Antoine Schnapper’s study, “Chardin’s Property and Sources of Income,” yields a rather startling impression of Chardin and his second wife living “almost luxuriously” after 1757 at state expense in their accommodation at the Louvre. Schnapper’s Chardin, documented on the basis of archival sources, is hard to square with Rosenberg’s subversive Chardin. For one thing, the generous royal pensions that Chardin demanded and received do not suggest any undue prejudice held against the artist by directors of the Royal Academy because he specialized in still-life and genre subjects. (Chardin’s requests for money begin to be denied only after 1770 when Jean-Baptiste Pierre, who disliked Chardin, became director of the Academy.) This essay sheds some light on another mystery associated with Chardin, too. Why did he produce so few works over a long lifetime? One answer to that question implied by Schnapper’s research is that after his second marriage, he no longer had to paint for a livelihood. Schnapper deems the economic circumstances of the Chardins “a situation that was quite unusual” in that they could live “almost luxuriously” on pensions and other gratuities from the royal treasury augmented by their investment income in the form of annuities (58). Apparently Chardin lived more like a noble and less like the working middle class than the Goncourt would have us believe.

Moreover, when he did decide to paint a picture, he often painted a replica of an earlier work rather than create a new image, a practice that violates the most central tenet of modernism—to be original. Whether the subject matter was still-life or genre made no difference. Three versions of The Return from Market, for example, are included in the exhibition. In her exceptionally intelligent essay, Katie Scott shows how the questions rhetorically posed by Rosenberg in his catalogue entry for The Return from Market—"Was one of them a first version painted from life, from a model (if so, which one)? Was the artist recopying?" (234)—are questions that no one in the eighteenth century would have thought to ask. To understand Chardin’s practice, we have to dispense with the vocabulary of “first version” and “copy” attached to the concept of the original in Romantic and post-Romantic art theory and come up with a different way of thinking about repetition. Scott’s attempt to ground the concept in eighteenth-century definitions of imitation is not wholly convincing, but her discussion of the issues involved is filled with insights. By showing how repetition manifests itself for Chardin as a practice, as a formal device, and even as a theme in the subjects he favored, she establishes repetition at the very center of an historical understanding of the motives that drew Chardin to his easel.

Paula Rea Radisich
Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Whittier College