French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin was born on November 2, 1699 in Paris. He apprenticed with painters of historical works, considered to be the most prestigious genre of the time. Chardin, however was best known for his still life paintings, in particular La Raie (The Ray), 1728. This was his reception piece into the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. Chardin became a devoted member of the Académie and actively participated in the Salons. He picked up commissions for whatever types of paintings he could get and showed himself more than capable in all of them. He began to receive an annual subsidy from the king that increased until he was paid more than all other members of the Académie.
La Raie is a rather gruesome painting of the belly of a dead fish that appeared to be leering at me. It didn’t exactly win my affections when I first saw it at the Louvre. I was taking a course and we focused on still lives one day. I was unenthused because I’d never seen much of interest in paintings of fruit or kitchen gadgets. The teacher explained that the purpose of still life paintings was sometimes to tell allegories, about the brevity of life, for instance, and always to show the technical mastery of the artist.
La Raie does both; the cat balanced on the shells speaks of the precariousness and uncertainty of life, and look at the extraordinary textures: fur, rough shells, the gleam of the metal knife, the terracotta jug, the folds of the linen cloth, all as true as life. As for the ray itself, the teacher explained that its texture was extremely difficult to paint. It still freaked me out, but I appreciated it more when I went to the musée Boudin in Honfleur that weekend. In one room, there was painting after painting of rays by various artists. They all looked pathetic compared to Chardin’s – all the artists were all trying to imitate the master and they all fell far short.
After still lives, Chardin turned to genre paintings – little scenes that were essentially domestic still lives. He had a gift for catching the small moments of life of maids and children. From the lives of the working class, Chardin moved on to the ascendant middle class. His paintings are a rich source of information about life in the 18th century. At the end of his life, he shifted to pastels, like the self-portrait above, due to his failing eyesight. Chardin died in the same city where he was born on December 6, 1779.
Today’s expression is a quotation from Chardin, “On se sert des couleurs, mais on peint avec le sentiment” (ohn suh ser day koolur, meh ohn paih avek luh sen-tea-mehn), which means “One uses colors, but one paints with feelings.” Even though I’ve been won over by Chardin’s skill, I still wouldn’t want a glutinous dead fish on my living room wall. I’m sure the Louvre is relieved that I’ll let them keep La Raie.
Learn more about the artist: Chardin