Chardin’s World

August 30, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

PAUL SOLMAN: 18th century France, home of the baroque and rococo in art: The courtly music of composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, the idealized country scenes of painter Antoine Watteau; the fluffy portraits of Jean-Honore Fragonard. The natty nobility here was top dog at a time when France itself was on top of the world.

PHILLIPE DE MONTEBELLO: This is the age of the excess of pure luxuriance and self- indulgence — in a sense, the artificiality of the 18th century at its peak just before the revolution.

PAUL SOLMAN: The director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Phillipe de Montebello.

PHILLIPE DE MONTEBELLO: You enjoy this, but you enjoy it very much on the surface. Whereas with Chardin, you penetrate into a very different world.

PAUL SOLMAN: The main show at the Met this summer has featured a very different sort of 18th-century artist: Jean-Simeon Chardin, now considered France’s greatest painter of that era and, by many, one of the greatest ever. Chardin made his name in still- life, the lowliest genre in 18th century art. But he managed even back then to draw adjectives that transcended time, and have become clichés for his work: Honest, magical.

SPOKESMAN: Well, he vas called by his contemporaries a magician in the way he conveys the reality of simple objects and transforms them into a noble statement, while at the same time, allowing God’s creatures, if it’s a domestic interior, or simply an apple, an orange to be itself. He takes an external subject– simple, ordinary subject– and turns it almost into an inner experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: The inner experience of a boy so utterly absorbed in blowing a soap bubble so impossibly thin, it might seem as if only a magician could have painted it, fruit rendered so honestly with the fuzz of the peaches so palpably fuzzy that the still is in some sense nearly brought to life. Now, when it comes to life in 18th century France, still or otherwise, perhaps no one knows more than Princeton and oxford historian, McArthur genius grantee Robert Darnton. So, in place of the typical art appreciation tour, we asked him if he could use the honest images of Chardin to transport us to the world of the 1700’s.

ROBERT DARNTON, Historian: I think everything was different in the 18th century. It’s the strangeness, the otherness of life in the 18th century that I think we need to appreciate. It’s too easy for us to say, “well, they were just like us excepting they had wigs and silver buckles on their shoes.” I think they inhabited a different mental world.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Darnton thinks even when you’re looking at a still life with a gutted ray– this picture was Chardin’s first success, and hangs in the Louvre– if you look hard and long enough, you can get a sense of 18th century France. Darnton started as the artist did with a few simple household objects like this silver goblet.

ROBERT DARNTON: They’re everywhere in the pictures. They were his old friends and he painted them with a kind of knowledge of their quality as objects that makes them eloquent.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you kept these things basically your whole life?

ROBERT DARNTON: Oh, yes. People… A silver goblet would be very, very valuable. But people were not consumers the way we are today. You would inherit things, you would keep them, and you would try to prevent breaking them as much as you could.

PAUL SOLMAN: Unfortunately, you couldn’t always prevent servants from stealing them. The good old goblet, brilliantly reflecting, as usual, the items around it, was for a time, borrowed by a domestic temp who worked for the Chardins.

ROBERT DARNTON: Almost everyone had servants. Workers had servants.

PAUL SOLMAN: When Darnton says everyone had servants, he means that 10% to 15% of the French population who were either aristocrats or the small businessmen and professionals of the newly emerging middle class, like this artist friend of his. Nearly all the rest of the people were peasants working the land in the country, or, when they came to the city, hiring out as domestics.

ROBERT DARNTON: A woman like this will be putting aside this pittance she gets at the end of the year for her dowry. Her whole purpose in life, or at least one of them, is to accumulate enough dowry so that she can get married and set up a household on her own. It wasn’t easy. Often they’re seduced by the men of the household and slip to prostitution. Domestic service and prostitution are the two biggest categories of employment in Paris at this time.

PAUL SOLMAN: As to the work of service, there was little to work with– pewter plates, for instance, because ceramic dishes broke too easily. As for what went on those plates, well, in this economy, most people really did live by bread alone.

ROBERT DARNTON: People did not go to the local bakery and just buy a baguette, which they would eat immediately. Although the baguette is just invented around this time, actually the middle of the 18th century, they typically bought this four- pound loaf of bread. The would boil water and they would then chop up bits of bread into it. Sometimes they would rub garlic or lard around the kettle when they boiled it. And they would make it into a kind of broth, hence in mother goose, you know, you say “Pease porridge hot, Pease porridge cold, Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old.” Nine days old. I mean, you took this loaf of bread, made it into porridge, and for nine days you were eating it.

PAUL SOLMAN: That large loaf is the four- pounder, and cost about half a day’s wages, some $25 to $50 bucks today. “The longer and harder you look,” says Darnton, “the closer you get to 18th century life.” Here, for example…

ROBERT DARNTON: A scullery maid cleaning a pot, but she doesn’t clean it with the water flowing. She cleans it with straw. Water, like bread, in the 18th century, was a very valuable commodity.

PAUL SOLMAN: This copper cistern is where the Chardins stored their water, hauled laboriously from the river. The item appears in several paintings. Clothes were also pricey, says Darnton, especially for the servants, who wore hand-me-downs from their mistresses. And where the typical Chardins fan dotes on muted harmonies, the interplay of light and shadow, Robert Darnton notices something else.

ROBERT DARNTON: There’s a little slit under her arm. That was common in pieces that were round the body because people sweated a lot. They rarely took baths. Some people thought it was very unhealthy to bathe. So you should imagine a world in which the smells as well as the sights were quite different from what we expect.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now isn’t that… Which century is it where John… The woman says to dr. Johnson, “sir, you smell.” And he said, “no, Madame, you smell; I stink.”

ROBERT DARNTON: That’s exactly the same time, maybe 30 years after this picture was painted. People used a lot of perfume and the perfume trade is booming in Paris at this time.

PAUL SOLMAN: The time was 1733. In what’s now Germany, Bach was writing this sonata and beginning his “B” Minor Mass. In England, the industrial revolution was just revving up. George Washington was celebrating his first birthday, and in France, Chardin, having turned 34, had finally figured out how to make a good living: Devoting himself to popular household, so-called genre scenes.

ROBERT DARNTON: Because the genre paintings were the kinds that engravers engraved. They never engraved still lifes. And you’ve got a commission in effect or a royalty, a part of the share of the sales of engravings in the 18th century.

PAUL SOLMAN: Chardin was a member of the academy, ran the annual salon exhibit for the king, had income from his wife’s dowry, and plenty of collectors. But he painted too slowly to make real money. The engravings were his one shot at a broader market.

ROBERT DARNTON: The engravings always had these little poems, and they turn the pictures into stories.

PAUL SOLMAN: “Slyly, sis at brother laughs who at his prayers does stammer, he hurries on, despite his gaffes, his appetite the hammer.” The translation is ours. The poem, says Darnton, an invention of the engraver’s.

ROBERT DARNTON: Is that what’s being shown in the picture? I don’t really think so. I mean, here you’ve got a very tender feeling, especially in the expression of the mother.

PAUL SOLMAN: Chardin’s own children actually caused him great pain. His two daughters died before the age of three; his son committed suicide as an adult. Life was always something of a struggle for Chardin. Never a facile draftsman or painter, he spent months on each picture, working in total secrecy, just turning out enough work to keep living in the material world of the bourgeoisie.

ROBERT DARNTON: He’s not an artist as we think of the artist in our post- romantic manner: A sort of creative genius or a revolutionary or a bohemian. He lived a fairly ordinary life. He collected a pension. He married, had children, the children died, his wife died. He married a widow; he got a bigger house. He finally got his apartment in the Louvre. He moved up in the world, but not very far up.

PAUL SOLMAN: On the other hand, Chardin earned something like today’s $100,000 to $200,000 a year and lived to the ripe old age of 80, working on his art till very near the end. If he’d been more productive, he’d have made more money. But Darnton quotes him as having said:

ROBERT DARNTON: “I don’t finish a painting until it’s perfect.” And this has been taken up, I think probably rightly, by those who admire Chardin as the genius speaking, someone who understands that he’s the great master of the 18th century.

PAUL SOLMAN: In his later years, Chardin returned to still life. As the author Marcel Proust wrote of this work more than a century later, “everyday life will charm you once you have absorbed Chardin’s painting for a few days like a lesson. Then, having understood the life of his painting, you will have discovered the beauty of life.”