Text by Geoffrey Smith
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A girl, perhaps in her teens, is teaching a child to read. There might perhaps be a hiatus in the teaching process; a charged silence prevails — a quintessential element in many of Chardin’s pictures. No background detail distracts us from the relationship between the two protagonists and Chardin has miraculously captured the look of intense (but nevertheless slightly baffled) concentration on the face of the child. Perhaps the child’s mentor betrays a trace of irritation with the progress of her charge, but this is leavened with a stern but unmistakable sympathy.
Chardin came from a relatively modest background but his family were prosperous enough to enable him to study at the Académie Royale. He specialised as a still life painter for a number of years and had some success, becoming a member of the Académie Royale in September 1728. Not long before this picture was executed he also began to produce figure paintings, maintaining the small scale which he had generally favoured for his still life work. In his choice of subject and canvas size he was following in the footsteps of the great genre painters of the Dutch golden century, who were avidly collected in France during his lifetime. In particular, the way Chardin manages to fill such simple interiors with such charged atmosphere is reminiscent of Vermeer. However, he brings his own distinct French vision to this tradition; in his hands the prosaic pastimes and duties of everyday life attain a timeless, majestic quality.
The simplicity of Chardin’s compositions also serves to highlight the fact that his work was considerably at odds with the prevailing Rococo court style epitomised by his contemporary, Boucher. However, this did not stop his genre scenes from becoming very popular at the Salon and from entering the collections of the wealthy and of royalty (including the Queen of Sweden and Louis XV). As his fame grew, a great many of his compositions were engraved, often accompanied by moralising verses, and in this way his work became available to the general public.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1735 Giambattista Tiepolo: Jupiter and Danaë, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
c1735 Canaletto: The Feast Day of St Roch, London, National Gallery
1740 William Hogarth: Portrait of Captain Thomas Coram, London, Foundling Hospital