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One of the greatest still life painters of all time was Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779). Chardin spent almost his entire life in Paris creating still life paintings of common kitchen and household items (and occasionally painting domestic scenes of maids, servants, and children). In an age dominated by Rococo excess and opulence, his works exalt the simple beauty of quotidian subjects. Additionally, he painted very slowly and turned out only 4 or 5 pieces a year. Chardin is one of Marcel Proust’s favorite artists and anyone who has read “Remembrance of Things Past” will recall long lyrical passages praising paintings such as “The Ray” (one of the Louvre’s prized masterpiece–which Proust saw often). Proust found a kindred spirit in Chardin—someone who found transcendent beauty, grandeur, and meaning within daily life. Chardin’s exquisite little works make a large aesthetic point about the nature of beauty and of truth—which are as often found in the servant’s little room as in the viscount’s vasty palace. A little hanging duck is as lovely as the goddess of the dawn.
I have chosen to show three paintings of fowl by Chardin (ranging from least, at the top, to best at the bottom). All are kitchen paintings of dead birds about to be plucked and cooked. The first is a simple brace of gamefowl hanging in the kitchen. The second work shows a splendid duck with one cream colored wing extended, the last is a magnificent turkey amidst copper pots and vegetables. Each of these paintings have a deep sense of longing: the melancholy of the dead birds is somewhat abated by the viewer’s hunger and by the wistful nostalgia created by a limited palette of grays and browns (with a few little flourishes of pink, orange, and yellow). Their very simplicity makes them rich and complex (although Chardin’s incomparable brushwork certainly is anything but simple).
The nymphs, clowns, and jeweled mistresses of 18th century French art seem to come from a world unimaginable—a world which even today’s jaded pop stars and sybaritic billionaires would find decadent. Chardin’s art however comes from some eternal place—a kitchen which we have all walked into in childhood. There in the plain light we are confronted with humble pots and pans and perhaps a bird or fish—but we are also confronted with the absolute beauty of the everyday world.
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this troubling allegorical panel of melancholia in 1532 at the end of the era of gothic painting. A shrewd but withdrawn angel sits on dark cushion and whittles a long stick into a toy for nude children who are trying to push a large globe through a hoop (the globe may or may not fit). In the middle ground, a silky white spaniel sits on the window sill above a mated pair of partridges. Is one of the birds to become the dog’s dinner?
Beyond the window, the painting’s background offers a terrible spectacle: armed opponents kill one another in a craggy Saxon landscape of walled towns and hill castles. In the skies above the battle, wild pagan deities ride the storm. Astride boars, hounds, and rams, the grim deities relentlessly pursue their hunt with casual indifference to the bloodshed below.
The painting is symbolic of the collective destiny of humankind. The angel’s mien, the animals, and the dark background all suggest that, even with heavenly assistance, the new generation will not succeed at their serious game but are condemned to a circle of violence.