Jean Chardin
Biography of Still Life & Genre Painter of the 18th Century.

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The Ray (1728)
Louvre Museum, Paris.

Jean Chardin (1699-1779)


Early Life and Works
Member of the French Academy
Still Lifes and Genre Paintings
Later Years and Legacy


Woman Cleaning Turnips (1738)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.


The French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin is considered one of the finest exponents of still life painting in the history of art. Largely self-taught and influenced in particular by a down-to-earth realism, he produced highly polished small-scale works of still life as well as numerous examples of genre painting evoking a sober, simplistic harmony. Although both his background and his subjects were humble, he became one of the most important and influential contributors to French painting of the 18th century, raising still lifes and domestic scenes to a new level of importance. In particular, look out for his still-life arrangements of basic kitchen utensils and ordinary foodstuffs, as well as his domestic scenes featuring children and servants occupied in work and play - all based on direct observations and a natural style of painting, with no surprise effects or hidden meanings. His notable works include The Ray (1728, Louvre, Paris), Still Life with Ray-Fish and Basket of Onions (1731, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC), Boy with a Top (1735, Sao Paulo Museum of Art), The House of Cards (1736-7, NG, London), and Woman Cleaning Turnips (1738, Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Chardin remains one of the great Old Masters of the 18th century and one of the best still life painters of all time.

Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
Still life painter from Antwerp.
Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78)
Interiors, genre works, still lifes.
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
Flower painter, still lifes.

Georges de La Tour (1593-1652)
French genre paintings.
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)
Noted for candlelit genre scenes.

For the finest works, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Early Life and Works

Born in Paris, the son of a Cabinet-Maker, Chardin's whole life was spent in Paris, between the Rue de Seine, where he was born, the Rue Princesse and the Rue du Four, where he lived in a number of places, and the Louvre, where he lived from 1757 until his death. He apprenticed under the history painters Pierre-Jacques Cazes and Noel-Nicholas Coypel. In his lessons he learned to draw from classical sculpture and from a model. However, his interest in observing nature closely and recording what he was doing soon became apparent. He produced his first still lifes in the 1720s, though it is difficult to know exactly when, since many of them are not dated. He chose simple, everyday objects, enjoying the variety of textures and shapes that even these ordinary items provided. He may also have been attempting to paint different subjects than those of the already established still-life painters, such as Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755), who depicted dead rabbits, partridges and other game. In 1724 Chardin became a master at the Academie de Saint-Luc (school for the guild of painters and sculptors).

Member of the French Academy

His first major painting, The Ray (a still life of various fish and a cat) was exhibited in 1728, and received a warm reception. On the basis of this work he became a member of the French Academy, where he was received as a "painter of animals and fruits". This was considered the lowest kind of painting by the Academy, according to its Hierarchy of Genres, which preferred grand paintings with classical or historical significance. In fact history painting was deemed to be the highest form and still life the lowest. Nevertheless, Chardin's output during this period was prolific, and several versions of his paintings exist, suggesting there was a good market for his still lifes, domestic interiors and genre paintings. Moreover, he remained a loyal member of the Academy: from 1737 onwards he exhibited regularly at the Salon (the exhibition held every year by the Academy) and served on the organising committee, becoming its treasurer in 1755.


Still Lifes and Genre Paintings

Chardin married in 1731, and began to receive commissions from rich patrons. As he became more successful, he decided to paint figures. He did not choose grand and historical subjects, but instead rather like his simple still-life subjects, depicted ordinary people, usually in domestic roles. These "genre" scenes became very popular with the viewers at the Paris Salon and Chardin soon had a rich international clientele. Less wealthy clients bought engravings of his work. In this way he reached an extremely wide public and became recognized as one of the best genre painters of the age. Following the death of his wife in 1735, he married a widow in 1744. In the 1750s he returned to painting still-lifes, both kitchen objects and also game subjects. Among his best-known still life pictures are: The Silver Goblet, (Louvre), The Silver Tureen (c.1728, Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York); The Meat Day Meal (c.1731, Louvre); A Lean Diet with Cooking Utensils (1731, Louvre); Pipes and Drinking Pitcher (1737, Louvre); Still-Life with Jar of Olives (1760, Staatliche Museum, Berlin) and Still-Life with Dead Pheasant and Hunting Bag (1760, Staatliche Museum). Chardin mainly used earthy tones in his work, and was a master of texture and the soft diffusion of light. Earlier masters of the genre included the Dutch artists David Bailly (1584-1657), Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83), Harmen van Steenwyck (1612-56), Pieter Claesz (1597-1660), Willem Kalf (1622-93) and Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1681).

Chardin's paintings of children were especially popular as they portrayed children in an innocent yet unsentimental manner. Among his greatest genre paintings are: The Young Schoolmistress (1736, National Gallery, London); The Soap Bubble (1739, Metropolitan Museum of Art); The Governess (1739, National Gallery of Canada) and The Prayer before Meal (1740,Louvre). His domestic scenes are almost poetic, and capture the most simple of daily tasks: a woman writing a letter, a man playing cards, a maid peeling vegetables. His themes show the influence of the Dutch Realist Jan Vermeer who had also painted similar peaceful interior scenes just fifty years previously. In a similar way, Chardin depicted a closed world, one that is frozen in time, displaying restful intimacy, childish pleasures and simple easy-to-understand symbolism. Important works in this area include: The Return from the Market (1739, Louvre); Girl with Racket and Shuttlecock (1740, Uffizi, Florence); Boy Playing with Cards (1740, Uffizi); Sending the Letter (1733, Schloss Charlottenburg, Berlin); The Draughtsman (1737,Staatliche Museum, Berlin); The Attentive Nurse (1738, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); Girl Peeling Vegetables (Alte Pinokothek, Munich); The Canary (1750, Louvre) and Self-Portrait with Eyeshade, 1775 (Louvre). Another exceptional French genre painter of the 18th century was the highly popular Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805).


Later Years and Legacy

In 1752 Chardin was granted an annual salary by King Louis XV and went on to receive further stipends for his work in organising exhibitions at the Salon. A few years later, his eyesight began to weaken and he took to painting in pastels. In fact his Self-Portrait with Eyeshade was executed in this medium. Chardin’s later life was marred by tragedy, when his son, also a painter, drowned in Venice. It is believed that he committed suicide. The artist's last known oil painting was created in 1776, although he continued to paint and draw in pastels until his death, at the age of 80.

Chardin's influence on future generations has been well documented. The portrait of a Boy Blowing Bubbles by Edouard Manet and several still lifes by Paul Cezanne show a direct influence. The Fauvist painter Henri Matisse admired his work and copied several when he visited the Louvre. Many other famous painters, including the still life virtuoso Giorgio Morandi, and the portraitist Lucian Freud, cite Chardin's work as an inspiration to their painting.

Still lifes by Chardin can be seen in the best art museums across the world.

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