Chardin and Social Commentary in 18th-century France
Jean-Siméon Chardin was one of the most important French artists of the 18th century, celebrated for his still lives and scenes of daily life – types of painting that were popular, but often seen as trivial by many critics at the time. He exhibited regularly at the Salon, the annual event organized by the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture, the official body of French artists. The Salon was the most important venue for contemporary art and a major event in the social calendar. Among the paintings exhibited by Chardin in 1739 were two canvases which were hung as a pair, and are today in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. They were quickly bought by the Chevalier Despuechs, a banker, and then by Prince Joseph Wenzel I von Liechtenstein, Imperial Ambassador to France at the time and an important collector.
The Return from Market, dated 1738, was originally titled La Pourvoyeuse, meaning a woman charged with provisioning a household. She is shown setting down her cumbersome purchases from the butcher and baker. Her attention is caught by a conversation in the next room, between a young maid and a man at the open door. He may have simply delivered the provisions, but Chardin’s depiction of the scene – which emphasizes the maid’s attentiveness to the conversation – may suggest some intrigue. We cannot know and, to some degree, interpreting the narratives of such paintings was part of the experience, particularly at the Salon in private and public discussions.
This ambiguity is well represented by the verses accompanying a print that reproduces the painting, made with Chardin's approval and available in two "states." In one version, the text archly suggested that the pourvoyeuse pilfered from the household to pay for her finery. In this state, the verse reads: "From your air, my dear girl, I suspect and am sure that you pilfer the money for your clothes from the household." She was evidently conspicuously overdressed for a kitchen servant, with her matching stockings and ribbons. In the other state, a perhaps more universally appealing but blander verse was substituted, speaking of the need for emotional, as well as physical nourishment. In this version, the verse reads: "We dedicate all our efforts to nourish our body – our spirit groans from it, our heart is distressed by it – both have their own needs. We know this! Why do we neglect them?"
The Governess, dated the following year, was the more celebrated and is said to have made Chardin’s reputation. He explores the relationship of a trusted servant and a member of the family, contrasting the differences in status, sex and age of the two figures. The scene shows a governess gently admonishing a boy for playing when he should have been getting ready for school. Some critics read the boy’s attitude as one of true remorse, others suggested any apparent regret would be temporary. Although the boy’s attitude is unclear – frequently true in real life – the scene is self-contained and focused on the relationship between governess and the child. This directness stands in contrast to The Return from Market and may have been one reason for its popularity. Most critics directly addressed the subject, praising Chardin for his honest depiction of bourgeois life and for his subtle exploration of emotion.
Such domestic scenes were a staple of Dutch 17th-century painting, and Chardin presented his audience with a contemporary, socially relevant version with which they could engage on many levels. By hanging the two paintings as a pair, Chardin encouraged viewers to conceive of them together. Both addressed day-to-day interactions in what could have been the same bourgeois household, but at different, complementary social levels. Both paintings contained enough ambiguity that contemporaries could not agree on their interpretation – capturing something of the complexity of life within a society where social status was a defining factor.
The two paintings by Jean-Siméon Chardin are on view in Room C208 at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.