National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: 18th-Century France — Chardin and Portraiture

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The Academy

The Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was established in 1648 to centralize control over the arts, and in eighteenth-century France it dominated artistic life. Only members could receive royal commissions or participate in the official Salons, the Academy's influential exhibitions.

Full membership required the Academy's acceptance of an artist's "masterpiece." Painters were received as specialists in a particular type of painting. In the strict hierarchy promoted by the Academy, "history painting," which included religious, mythological, and historical subjects, was the most highly esteemed. Next came portraiture, then landscape and still life. This ranking suggested that some types of painting required an artist to use his mind as well as his eyes.

Chardin: Great Magician of the Everyday World

Although held in low esteem by the Academy, still lifes and scenes of everyday activity were quite popular. The greatest painter of these subjects was Jean Siméon Chardin. Denis Diderot, the period's foremost critic, called Chardin the "great magician," suggesting the seemingly effortless harmony of color and composition with which Chardin imparted gravity to ordinary objects and occupations.

Chardin had already acquired a considerable reputation when he was accepted by the Academy—the same day he applied—as a painter of "animals and fruit." After a friendly gibe from a fellow artist about the lowly status of his work, Chardin began about 1730 to paint figures, mostly women and children, engaged in simple acts of middle-class life. His treatment of the domestic world was unprecedented in France. Lively Dutch and Flemish scenes of peasant life, with embedded morals about vanity and the impermanence of worldly goods, had long been popular with French collectors. Chardin, however, depicted a more contemplative and self-contained world, painting moments of arrested motion. His subjects, absorbed in activities that require quiet concentration, take on the quality of still life.

Chardin worked laboriously from arrangements directly in front of him and rarely made the detailed drawings that were standard academic practice. Slowly building up thick layers of paint, he created colors of depth and complexity by mixing different hues and varied his brushstrokes to match the texture of each surface.

Because his technique was slow and difficult—and the prices brought by his subjects low—Chardin copied his compositions often. In his time, creativity was in an artist's original conception, so subsequent copies were no less valuable. Many of the works here exist in several versions, all painted by Chardin himself.

Portraits and New Patrons

Portraiture grew in importance during the eighteenth century and attracted larger numbers of first-rank painters. It was so lucrative that the Academy sought to discourage its popularity—which came at the expense of history painting—by lowering official prices. Demand stemmed largely from a new and wealthy middle class. There was, in addition, a growing interest in individual psychology, as Enlightenment thinkers made man and his perfection the focus of systematic inquiry. This was reflected not only in the sheer numbers of portraits produced but also in the evolution of new portrait types, which from about 1740 presented pensive sitters in surroundings that reflected their interests as much as their incomes.

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