Chardin was notoriously secretive about his working methods and we know relatively little about how he achieved the extraordinary range of subtle effects in his paintings. Even today, when we can examine pictures using a range of sophisticated scientific and technical procedures, it seems safer to agree with the eighteenth-century philosopher Diderot who described the ‘magic’ of Chardin’s brush that ‘defies understanding’. At first sight this painting of flowers seems to be simple and almost artless; some flowers are arranged in a blue-and-white Delft vase which sits on a shelf or ledge at the centre of the composition. It is only as we study the work that we gradually become aware of the sophisticated handling of colour that brings this picture to life. The neutral background, for example, is actually a range of delicate, pale greys that animate the background and provide a perfect foil for the brighter colours of the flowers. With time we start to notice how the artist manipulates effects of light and shade; for example, how the lighter parts of the vase are set off by a darker background while the shaded areas are placed against a lighter tone, enhancing a sense of volume. We can identify the flowers (carnations, tuberoses, lilies, sweet peas and crocuses) but the details are diffused in a soft atmosphere of delicate harmonies.
Throughout his career Chardin specialised in painting still lifes and simple domestic scenes. Although such subjects were generally held in low regard by the artistic establishment, the exceptional nature of Chardin’s talent was recognised and he enjoyed a high reputation among collectors and fellow artists. He was admitted to the French Academy in 1728 as a painter of ‘animals and fruit’; from 1755 until almost the end of his life he took on the highly contentious task of organising and hanging the Academy exhibitions at the Paris Salon, a responsibility that indicates the level of trust and respect that he enjoyed among his peers.
Chardin is known to have painted a small number of flower pieces but this is the only one that now survives. It is undated but is probably a late work, dating from the 1750s. It is striking how little the picture has in common with long-established traditions of flower painting; there are no flamboyant effects of realism to deceive our eyes, nor are there any obvious layers of meaning or symbolism attached to the choice of flowers. Modern observers have not been able to resist comparisons with later artists, seeing parallels for Chardin’s approach in the near-abstract still lifes of Cézanne or the cool, silent compositions of Giorgio Morandi. It is certainly true that the final effect is restrained, intense and curiously detached. Somehow Chardin is able to imbue a simple subject with a sense of quiet dignity and resonance. As the artist himself said, ‘we use colours but we paint with our feelings’.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.