Catherine Delors has recently written beautifully about an exhibit on the eighteenth century French artists Boucher and Chardin at The Wallace Collection in London. As Catherine remarks:
... The Chardins are amazing. In Lady Taking Tea, (above) the red lacquer of the table stands out against the dull greyish-beige background, strangely shifting the emphasis to the subdued lady. Is she Chardin's ailing wife, pondering the frailty of human existence and the pr ospect of approaching death?On July 20, The Catholic Times ran an article on the exhibit by retired headmaster and freelance journalist Eric Hester, reprinted here with permission from the author. Mr. Hester explores the connections between art, faith, and culture.
Chardin's subjects don't look at us, or even in our direction. They are often pensive profiles, absorbed in the quiet dignity of the most menial tasks. Chardin suffuses everyday life with understated emotion. He is a worthy successor to Rembrandt, and his Cellar Boy (to the above left) brings to mind the power of Watteau's Gilles and eerily anticipates some portraits by Soutine.
"Exhibition emphasizes collection of manners"Share
by Eric Hester
The Wallace Collection is one of the least known of the great London art galleries. It is smaller scale, but contains some of the world’s masterpieces and it has been said that its exhibitions, like this one, are like great chamber music.
Boucher? Was he not the one who did those erotic paintings? He certainly did some, but they are not in this exhibition, which is founded on just two pictures: his "A Lady on her Daybed" and Chardin’s "Lady Taking Tea." Again, in England Chardin is not so well known as he ought to be, with the National Gallery having only three of his pictures; he is often thought of as a painter merely of still-lifes but he did so much more. In fact, as in the pictures in this exhibition, Chardin was a very moral painter and he especially liked the motif of the idea of discipline or the benefits of education and training as is well shown here. Paul Johnson, the celebrated Catholic columnist in The Spectator says of Chardin in his most readable and educational book, Art, a new history, that he was “an ultra-realist who added a metaphysical dimension."
The emphasis of the exhibition is of manners in the broadest sense. Chardin’s "Lady Taking Tea" (above) is a haunting picture, the subject said to be the painter’s wife when her health was declining. She has a distant look in her eye and an air of melancholy. By contrast, Boucher’s lady is a forward piece, gazing out from the canvas at us with a bold stare and appearing to be not all that she ought to be. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the Wallace Collection to juxtapose these two pictures. Others are exhibited, too, to give us a real insight into the times.
Chardin’s "Morning Toilet" (below) ought to be celebrated as a great picture of Catholic domesticity. It depicts a mother getting her little daughter ready, attending to her hair while the girl has her muff in her hand. And where is the girl going? To Mass. The nearby chair has a missal all ready, and the clock has the time of ten past nine. The candlestick on the little side table makes it look like a possible altar. It is sometimes suggested that in the eighteenth century most of France was already waiting for the Revolution, agog to follow Voltaire and Rousseau in their anti-Catholicism. This exhibition supplies part of the evidence that this is the opposite of the truth. The heart of France was Catholic and supported tradition: the Revolution when it came was alien, just as was the Reformation in England.
Chardin’s "The House of Cards" makes an interesting study since it is thought to have been a pendant to "A Lady Taking Tea" and so the two are reunited for the first time since the eighteenth century but it has great interest in itself. It is another moral picture with a young man assembling the usual house of cards, which most of us have done, but he seems to be reflecting on his life: is he a gambler who has lost? Are the cards a metaphor for other things at stake?
Nowhere does the genius of this exhibition show itself more than in the choice of prints of Hogarth to contrast with all this French rococo “froth”: stages from, “Marriage a la mode” and “the Harlot’s Progress." Here, the pragmatic and satirical English Hogarth makes fun of French decoration. By this brilliant juxtaposition, one sees more into all the pictures concerned. And there are even teapots on display to show the importance of tea drinking at the time. I was fortunate enough to hear a brilliant lecture on the exhibition by a French lady who seemed to have a thorough understanding of the history of French Catholicism as well as of the artists. These lectures are every Thursday and Saturday at one o’clock.
This exhibition and the whole of the Wallace Collection would make an excellent part of any day out in London for a family. The exhibition and the lecture, which are free, go on until 7th September.