Monday, July 28, 2008

Masters of Modern Manners

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?

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.

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.

"Exhibition emphasizes collection of manners"
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.

Jean-Baptiste Chardin  - The morning toilet



Anonymous said...

There's something calming about viewing "ordinary activities" done well. I remember I used to love watching my mother work at the kitchen sink. When we visited her in Maryland last week I watched her clean off corn on the cob and she did it slowly and carefully, totally absorbed in the work. I told her she belongs to a race of women that have all but disappeared.

Linda said...

Thank you for this post and for these commentaries. Sounds like a fascinating exhibition! I hope that the enthusiasm for Chardin grows--the spirit of his paintings is much needed, no?

Enbrethiliel said...


Elena, I'm editing a textbook on Philippine History right now. I thought of this post when I got to a passage about how the proper appreciation of art and the careful investigation of the past should go hand in hand.

Catherine Delors said...

Thank you so much, Elena, for mentioning my post and bringing to our attention Eric Hester's comments. I cannot agree more with him about Chardin, in particular those of his works currently displayed at the Wallace.

elena maria vidal said...

You are welcome, Catherine. I had been planning to link to your wonderful post and then Mr. Hester sent me his article and so I decided to combine the two. You are so lucky to have gotten to see the exhibit!

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, SF and Linda, we need that serenity and simplicity that Chardin captures so well.

So true, Enbrethiliel. In order to understand art, it is vital to have a basic knowledge of history. Having a basic grasp of Scripture helps, too, as well as the Greek and Roman myths.