Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was an 18th-century French painter. He is considered a master of still life, and is also noted for his genre paintings which depict kitchen maids, children, and domestic activities. Carefully balanced composition, soft diffusion of light, and granular impasto characterize his work. Chardin was born in Paris, the son of a cabinetmaker, and rarely left the city. He lived on the Left Bank near Saint-Sulpice until 1757, when Louis XV granted him a studio and living quarters in the Louvre. Chardin entered into a marriage contract with Marguerite Saintard in 1723, whom he did not marry until 1731. He served apprenticeships with the history painters Pierre-Jacques Cazes and Noël-Nicolas Coypel.

Upon presentation of The Ray in 1728, he was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. The following year he ceded his position in the Académie de Saint-Luc. He made a modest living by "producing paintings in the various genres at whatever price his customers chose to pay him", and by such work as the restoration of the frescoes at the Galerie François I at Fontainebleau in 1731. In 1735 his wife Marguerite died, and within two years Marguerite-Agnès his daughter had died as well. In 1744 he entered his second marriage, to Françoise-Marguerite Pouget. In 1745 a daughter, Angélique-Françoise, was born, but she died in 1746.

Beginning in 1737 Chardin exhibited regularly at the Salon. He would prove to be a "dedicated academician", regularly attending meetings for fifty years, and functioning successively as counsellor, treasurer, and secretary, overseeing in 1761 the installation of Salon exhibitions. His work gained popularity through reproductive engravings of his genre paintings, which brought Chardin income in the form of "what would now be called royalties". Chardin worked very slowly and painted only slightly more than 200 pictures (about four a year) total. He's work had little in common with the Rococo painting that dominated French art in the 18th century. At a time when history painting was considered the supreme classification for public art, Chardin's subjects of choice were viewed as minor categories. He favored simple yet beautifully textured still lifes, and sensitively handled domestic interiors and genre paintings.

Largely self-taught, Chardin was greatly influenced by the realism and subject matter of the 17th-century Low Country masters. Despite his unconventional portrayal of the ascendant bourgeoisie, early support came from patrons in the French aristocracy, including Louis XV. Though his popularity rested initially on paintings of animals and fruit, by the 1730s he introduced kitchen utensils into his work. Soon figures populated his scenes as well, supposedly in response to a portrait painter who challenged him to take up the genre. Chardin frequently painted replicas of his compositions—especially his genre paintings, nearly all of which exist in multiple versions which in many cases are virtually indistinguishable. Beginning with The Governess, Chardin shifted his attention from working-class subjects to slightly more spacious scenes of bourgeois life.

At the Salon of 1759 he exhibited nine paintings; it was the first Salon to be commented upon by Denis Diderot, who would prove to be a great admirer and public champion of Chardin's work. Beginning in 1761, his responsibilities on behalf of the Salon, simultaneously arranging the exhibitions and acting as treasurer, resulted in a diminution of productivity in painting, and the showing of 'replicas' of previous works. In 1765 he was unanimously elected associate member of the Académie des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts of Rouen, but there is no evidence that he left Paris to accept the honor. By 1770 Chardin was the 'Premier peintre du roi'. In 1772 Chardin's son, also a painter, drowned in Venice, a probable suicide. The artist's last known oil painting was dated 1776; his final Salon participation was in 1779, and featured several pastel studies. In the 1770s his eyesight weakened and he took to painting in pastels, a medium in which he executed portraits of his wife and himself (see Self-portrait at top right). His works in pastels are now highly valued. Gravely ill by November of that year, he died in Paris on December 6, at the age of 80.

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