Important Art by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Considered by many as his first masterpiece, The Ray, presented together with a later work, The Buffet (1728), earned Chardin his place at the Académie. As a bold declaration of both his abilities as an artist and of the expressive capacities of still life painting for which Chardin came to be renowned, this painting was intended to dazzle and shock. At the work's centre, a gutted ray (also known as a skate) hangs suspended, its wound and translucent flesh revealing its inner anatomy. The critic Denis Diderot was struck by the realistic way in which Chardin paints the ray, writing, "It is the fish's very flesh, its skin, its blood!," describing how its "terrifying face" bears an uncanny resemblance to a human expression. The gaunt lifelessness of the fish's form is thrown into sharp relief by the juxtaposition of the small cat to the left, its back arched and fur prickling as it steps lightly upon scattered oyster shells.
Marcel Proust would later take notice of The Ray's haunting beauty, praising the painter's ability to take a "strange monster" and turn it into "the nave of a polychrome cathedral." This sculptural, even architectural property of Chardin's masterpiece is accentuated by the stark contrast between the left and right sides of the picture plane. The assembled subjects, both alive and deceased, all congregate on the left, as if representing an interior, much like Proust's 'nave'. The assortment of kitchen utensils on the right is more like an exterior. Here Chardin demonstrates his skill at depicting light reflections, while the cooking objects remind us of the work's context and the intended fate of the fish. Smooth and highly polished, these inanimate objects provide a three-dimensional sense of completeness to the work against the flatness of the ray and even of the foreshortened cat, while the bunched table linen, half-suspended knife and upended bucket unify and preserve Chardin's message of fragility and precariousness.
Exemplary of his early experiments in still life, The Ray has remained one of his most admired works. It has been copied by modern masters such as Henri Matisse, who translates the scene into quasi-abstract geometric planes, and Chaïm Soutine, whose deep interest in somewhat bloody still lifes of game has a sustained dialogue with his eighteenth-century predecessor.
Scenes such as The Washerwoman are exemplary of Chardin's later turn towards domestic genre painting. After his admission to the Académie, Chardin began to expand his repertoire to include the human figure, which was at the time still considered to be an essential skill for successful painters. Genre scenes such as this were also more profitable than still lifes, as they were more highly valued due to their perceived difficulty and sophistication, but also because of the recent surge in popularity of seventeenth-century Dutch genre paintings.
Looking off to the side in a moment of mild distraction, a woman's ruddy cheeks catch the light, her hands submerged in a basin full of linens. A young boy sits on a low stool beside her, solemnly blowing a bubble, a classic vanitas image that speaks to the fragility of life. Though his domestic perspective, as was inherent to Chardin's style and to the success of works such as The Ray (1725-26), has here widened to incorporate human subjects and their daily activities, Chardin's Washerwoman retains his striking attention to light and surfaces where his canvas reads as an encyclopedia of textures: the gleam of the boy's bubble, the calico fur of the cat, the straw-strewn floor, the cascade of fabric of the woman's apron and bonnet. The painter imbues his humble subject with a visual richness that lends the scene a sense of dignity. What is more, the woman's work of scrubbing the linens clean, with the ritual completed by a second woman in the background tending to a washing line, suggests that Chardin was keen to convey a sense of propriety in these domestic scenes. Rather than a single figure tending to her chores in solitude, Chardin paints a production line, which brings with it a sense of community and shared respect for their everyday, essential task. The influence of Dutch genre paintings on Chardin is also made evident through his compositional strategy, as he makes use of the Dutch technique of the doorkijkje - the view through the doorway - in order to expand his representational space and include another figure. The use of such a device further speaks to Chardin's eagerness to demonstrate his talents at this pivotal point in his career.
As with his paintings of everyday kitchen tools or domestic figures, in his Soap Bubbles, Chardin lends subjects that might otherwise be dismissed as trivial a sense of dignity. A young boy leans on a windowsill, his face fixed in concentration as he blows a bubble at the end of a straw. His companion, fingers gripping the edge of the sill, looks on in rapt fascination.
There has been much debate among scholars concerning whether or not Chardin intended his image to have an allegorical meaning about the fragility of life. Certainly, soap bubbles were understood at the time to act as symbols of ephemerality, though whether Chardin had this in mind remains unclear. Less questionable, however, is the striking naturalism with which he represents his figures and their surroundings, from the play of light and shadow on his subjects' faces, to the replay of greens in the reflection on the central bubble, presumably from the nearby foliage.
As Chardin developed his talents as a genre painter, he began to incorporate figures from the middle and upper classes, perhaps to appeal to a wider audience. Children's play was a subject of particular interest to him, and he would often feature children in his work, playing with their spinning tops, card games, reading, and here blowing bubbles. But even scenes of leisure like this are orchestrated with Chardin's typical sobriety: the composition is laid out in a series of strong, pyramidal configurations, and his use of mostly earth tones lends the canvas a sense of groundedness. The confluence of the boys' gazes on the bubble betrays utter concentration and seriousness about their task; the younger of the two studying the actions of the elder, as if hoping to emulate him.
Édouard Manet would go on to see another version of this painting at its sale in Paris in 1867, inspiring him to paint his own Soap Bubbles in the very same year. That Manet was fascinated by Chardin's expert rendering of the collision between light and surface speaks to the latter's resounding influence on modern painting well beyond his time.