An Unforgettable Fish From Honest Chardin

When you enter the first room of the Chardin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the large still-life painting on the opposite wall, called simply The Ray (1725-26), is likely to cause a shudder if you haven’t seen it before. Indeed, it is a painting that remains a little shocking no matter how many times one has seen it. For its dominating image is that of the fish the French call raie but is better known to us as the skate, which in its raw state is surely one of the ugliest sea creatures that adorns our tables.

The Ray ‘s ugliness was a subject of wonder in Chardin’s day–even Diderot, who praised Chardin’s realism, called it “disgusting”–and it has remained so for later writers. Among them is Pierre Rosenberg, the director of the Louvre who is also the curator of the current exhibition at the Met. “The gutted ray dominates the composition, a hideous, bloodstained fish with a human face, ‘a terrifying face,’ to quote Raymond Queneau,” writes Mr. Rosenberg in the catalog of the exhibition. Yet, as he also reminds us, Proust spoke of the way this “strange monster” had been transformed by Chardin into “the nave of a polychrome cathedral.”

With memories of his gentler, more poetic paintings of still life and domestic interiors in our heads, we tend not to think of Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779) as the kind of artist who deliberately sets out to shock our sensibilities. But The Ray was clearly conceived to be a painting that would command attention, and it succeeded in that endeavor. Although official opinion considered still life inferior material for great painting, and Chardin compounded the risk by concentrating his attention on an especially lowly subject–food preparation in the kitchen– The Ray was nonetheless one of the paintings that won the artist his entry into the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture at the age of 28.

This was not what usually passed for great painting in the reign of Louis XV, yet the king soon became one of Chardin’s patrons. Chardin had won his wager, and he’d won by remaining faithful to his own sensibility–a sensibility that rejected the rococo elegance of his era in favor of a more modest and what now seems to us a more modern conception of the art of painting.

That conception was not yet fully developed in The Ray , however. It was more by dint of its subject matter than by the style of its execution that Chardin declared his independence in The Ray . Its style still owed much to the meticulously observed conventions of Flemish still-life painting, to which Chardin added a note of in-your-face provocation to separate the picture from the very conventions it embraced. And those conventions continued to be observed, but minus the obvious provocation, in many of the early still-life paintings of dead rabbits and dead birds–not, in my view, his happiest accomplishment–even as Chardin was beginning to achieve a greater mastery of his own distinctive painterly style in still-life pictures of plums, peaches and a variety of goblets, jugs and carafes.

It is not until we come upon the marvelous Bowl of Plums, a Peach and Water Pitcher (1728-30), from the Phillips Collection, that we are given our first glimpse of the masterly painter of still life who was to emerge in full glory in the pictures of the 1750’s and 1760’s. Beginning in the 1730’s, however, Chardin began to vary his production of still-life paintings with so-called genre pictures–scenes of domestic life and private pastimes that are both seductive in their charm and wholly original in the quality of their light and in the highly poetic touch he brings to their execution.

It has sometimes been said that the figures in these genre paintings have something of the character of still-life objects, and when you compare the lovely Girl with Shuttlecock with The Smoker’s Case , or Pipes and Drinking Vessel (both from 1737), they are indeed very similar in feeling. They are enclosed in the same domestic atmosphere and painted with the same magical combination of rigor and delicacy. Yet the narrative character of certain genre paintings–especially The Embroiderer (1733-34), The Scullery Maid (circa 1738), The Return from Market (1739), The Governess (1739) and The Morning Toilet (1741)–add a historical dimension to these pictures that can hardly be ignored. For they introduce into the high art of the French 18th century a radical new subject–the domestic life of the bourgeoisie–that was as revolutionary in spirit as Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro (1784), and accord it an aesthetic gravity as fine, in its way, as the music Mozart wrote for the opera based on that play.

When, in the last decades of Chardin’s life, he resumed his concentration on still life, he produced some of his greatest masterpieces. If only for the Bouquet of Carnations, Tuberoses and Sweet Peas … (circa 1755) from Edinburgh, the Basket of Plums … (1759) from Rennes, The Jar of Apricots (1758) from Toronto, the Basket of Wild Strawberries (1761) and the Basket of Plums with Walnuts, Currants and Cherries (1765) from anonymous private collections, this exhibition would be an event not to be missed–an exhibition that every lover of painting will want to revisit many times.

There have been many attempts over the years to describe the special quality of Chardin’s work. My own favorites are two passages from Roger Fry’s Characteristics of French Art (London, 1932). In the first, the artist’s medium is described as “that miraculous substance, that magic paste which Chardin could control with his caressing touch,” and then Fry goes on to speak of Chardin’s color–”his color which glows so radiantly, so seductively and enchantingly and which is all the same so elusive, so shy and retiring. For Chardin seems almost afraid to say what his incredible penetrating vision discerns in the crockery and vegetables that lie on the kitchen table with the gray light of a narrow Paris street filtering in through the window. He is afraid you will think he is exaggerating. He takes infinite pains to modify and correct his statements. He sees a kind of blueness in that white pot, just where the angle is right to get a colder light than the rest, but to say blue outright would be an exaggeration; blue, yes, if you like, but ever so much modified and diminished by other colors. And yet, with all these modifications, the color is never dirty or confused; that would be the worst lie of all. And so, with his infinite simplicity, Chardin gains our confidence, we will trust him anywhere, we know he will not try to impress us, that he will never embellish his account in any way, and we yield ourselves unreservedly to the charm of his story, we are ready to take his slightest hints at their full value. We need discount nothing.”

In the second passage from Fry, he takes up the issue of Chardin’s character–an issue rarely discussed in criticism today. “I am sometimes inclined to think,” Fry wrote, “that honesty is the only one of the moral qualities that affect an artist’s work–this is an exaggeration but there can be no doubt that it is of the greatest importance and that the temptations to depart from it are continual. The temptation of an artist is, of course, to try to make people believe that he has had more interesting, more original, more remarkable visual experiences than he really has … Chardin was a supremely honest artist, so honest that he never strained his powers in the least, never even attempted what lay outside his little territory–the territory of his own home and what fell under his contemplative gaze within that. And, cultivating so small a field, he dug very deep and explored the inmost recesses of his own visual response.… His pictures are among the most striking proofs that arrangements of form have a direct and profound effect on the mind quite apart from what the forms may represent.”

The Chardin exhibition remains on view at the Met through Sept. 3.

An Unforgettable Fish From Honest Chardin