The Rationalist Passion (part IV)

View the scanned original illustrations

Chardin proves it. He is the son of a carpenter. He does not leave his street. He paints signs. He exhibits in the open air, at the Place Dauphine. Later on, to be sure, he sends to the Salon. But he has no contact with the world of fashion, none with the court, and little with the artists, the critics, and the collectors. He is an honest fellow, a worthy man. His life is that of the lower middle class. He is a good workman. That is all. Since he knows his trade as well as it can be known, he is indulgent toward those who do not know it, for he understands its difficulties. He does not paint much, because he paints slowly, with a laborious and passionate application. He has no models. His wife, his children, a few familiar animals, the every-day tableware and cooking utensils; and then there are meat, vegetables, bread, and wine bought that same day from the butcher, the meat-roaster, the baker, and the vegetable seller. With that he writes the legend of domestic labor and the obscure life; his images speak to us after the manner of La Fontaine's words, and he is, with Watteau and Goya, the greatest painter there is in Europe between the death of Rembrandt and the maturity of Corot and of Delacroix.

One must see how he lived, in the rooms of that time where there was but little light, and where, for a century, the family was organized and renewed amid the same objects. From the moment when he arises, while dressing, while at table, and in the little trips from the pantry to the dining room, and from the yard to the cellar, he looks, he meditates, and, to transport that which he has seen into the intimate poem which rises peacefully from his heart to his fingers, he need do nothing but awaken the sonorities in the things sleeping around him. Why should he take any other background than the bare wall, or any other air than the one he breathes with the remainder of his family? Everything will get its accent through its exact shadings and its transparence; the apparent monotony will concentrate in intimate silence the savor, the secret spirit, and the expressive force of things. "One uses colors, but it is with sentiment that one paints." Yes, indeed. The whole splendor resides exclusively in the voluptuousness of the act of painting which no one, except Vermeer of Delft, to be sure, ever possessed to that degree. The good painter Chardin performs his task with love, like a good carpenter, a good mason, a good turner, or any good workman who has reached the point of loving the material that he works in and the tool which saves him from tiresome uniformity, and which raises him to the dignity of knowing his means. There is no more love expended on the bare arm coming out of the rolled-up sleeve than on the napkin that it holds, and on the leg of mutton which fills the cloth and weighs down the fat, pink hand. In the "Bénédicité," it is with the same attention that he paints the little girl saying grace so diligently, in order to get her soup more quickly, the mamma who is going to serve her and watches her with amusement, and the harmonies of the middleclass home which surround the group—the aprons, the woolen dresses, the blue stripe running through the tablecloth, the tureen, the varnished oak furniture, and the shadow which circles round everything and caresses everything. He knows that all of these things harmonize, that the life of objects depends on the moral life of people, and that the moral life of people receives the reflection of objects. Everything existing deserves his tender respect. In France, he is, with Watteau, the only religious painter in this century without religion.

He animates his material with an inner flame, which he never allows to flash forth, and which he locks up in the things at the very moment when they are about to issue forth from him. He knows them all so well! Here is the tureen from which, each day, he sees arising the odorous steam from the cabbages and carrots which his wife brought from the market. That fish covered with slime and blood has just been cleaned so that it may be eaten that evening with sauce, with leeks, bread rubbed with garlic, and wine. Here is his glass. Here is his spectacle case. Here are Madame Chardin's thimble, scissors, work-basket, and balls of wool and of thread. She has been wearing for a long time that good, plum-colored dress striped with mauve and blue. By the way he has of placing that pipe on the table, one guesses that he smokes it every day. He expends so much application, love, and delicacy in painting it, that he seems to be afraid of breaking it. With that earthenware picture and with that milky porcelain, he incorporates the flowers painted on them, just as the sun and life mingle with fruits the color of their juice, and with flesh the color of its blood. Everything, the sinkstone, the oak table, the three eggs which have been deposited on it, the knife, and the copper water urn on which a silver plate is awakened by a reflection, take on, through his loverlike insistence, an appearance like that of fruit. One would say that stone and wood were first reduced to a powder in order to be mixed with that red liquor sleeping in the crystal, with the gleaming blue of that blade, with the varnished red or green of that apple which has just rolled on the table between that glazed cup and that ivory-toned chinaware, and then concentrated and rendered denser by the fervor of the artist as he caresses its grain. Mingled with blue, with rose, and with gold, the whites of the earthenware and of the table linen seem steeped in the light which bathes the palette and the brush. The sugar which autumn has condensed in the ripe fruits oozes from those heavy bunches of grapes and from those great pale peaches, and that hot bun, with the sprig of laurel on top of it, is fat with melted butter. That ivory top you see spinning, that pencil-holder halfway withdrawn from a bureau drawer, that white paper, and that goose quill seem a condensation of the material atmosphere. The pearly mist which composes it seems to thicken here and there into white feathers, into powdered hair, and into silk ribbons of vague color gently animating the motionless penumbra surrounding the inconceivable mystery of the form awakened by the mind and fashioned by the hand. In the limited space, all aquiver with gray dust, the merging reflections accumulate and reply to one another and come into accord so that, at a distance, they may create a harmony so measured that all its elements are effaced, and that it speaks with a single voice. Chardin paints each object with the combined reflections of all the other objects, foreseeing the living conquests of those who will come more than a century after he is gone, and he demonstrates, through the limpid purity of his style, that melody can contain the richest polyphonic tumult, as a single sentence spoken by a profound man can express the whole intoxicating complexity of the dramas he has lived.

All by himself he suffices to show that, by their attentive mind, their conscious honesty, their faculty of organization, and their combination of delicacy and vigor, the lower middle-class artisans of France are worthy to seize the power of the king. For the artist of fashion, with his adorable ease, can no longer build and preserve, any more than can the totally decadent class which caresses and feeds him. A dozen painters or engravers, Louis Gabriel Moreau, with his luminous, clear-cut landscapes, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, with his savory chronicles, Lépicié, a good craftsman in painting and in engraving, and Joseph Vernet, though he feels the need of excusing his transparent and golden vision of space by a Roman frame which cannot crush him, form, between Chardin and the artists of fashion, a kind of continuing chain in which one finds, to a greater or less extent and with all the intermediary degrees, the solidity of substance of the one, and the fugitive charm of the others. Ollivier, who has his qualities of gray, tender, and meticulous vision, seems indeed like a subtle emissary sent by him into the drawing-rooms of fashion to give an image of them which shall not be solely that of a psychologist or of a decorator. Houdon, to be sure, carries on. and far more visibly, the same fight as Chardin when he represents, with his spontaneous penetration, his subtle strength, and his ease, those who give to the Tiers-État the instrument which it needs. He entered far more deeply than Chardin into the intimate mind of women, and even into acquaintance with the adorable astonishment with which children look upon life. And yet, of all, Chardin is the one who best represents, and most exclusively represents, the essential task of the century. Houdon floats, and loses flavor as soon as he tries to deal with the goddesses of the Olympus of Versailles. There is a timid and mannered quality in the others which has caused them to be too quickly forgotten after having been too quickly loved. And it is through Chardin that we see that if the abyss is near, all those who act and work will have the power to cross it.

No comments: