Issue Number: 114
Waddesdon Manor brings together Chardin’s four versions of Boy Building a House of Cards to form the heart of an exquisite exhibition of this legendary artist’s genre paintings and works on paper, writes Lisa Hilton
Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, 'Boy Building a House of Cards', 1735. Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (Rothschild Family Trusts)/Photo Mike Fear/© The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor. Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779) is perhaps best known for his still lifes. Diderot dubbed him ‘the great magician’ for his compositions of everyday objects that enacted ‘a mysterious and wonderful optical process, occurring in space, between the picture and the spectator’. Chardin’s experiments in portraying people, beginning in 1733, are attributed by his biographers to a more prosaic source: an exchange with his friend Joseph Aved, who remarked that people were far more difficult to capture than sausages.
An intimate exhibition at Waddesdon Manor brings together for the first time the four versions of one of Chardin’s loveliest and most haunting subjects, a boy building a house of cards. Painted between 1735 and 1737 these versions (from Waddesdon, the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the National Gallery in London) reveal not only the technical triumph of Chardin’s handling of the figure, but the subtle radicalism of his portrayal of a domestic poetry. Nothing could be more different from the sensual, libertine art of the rococo than Chardin’s peaceful, absorbed interiors. Yet this show undermines the verdicts of both Chardin’s contemporaries and his later admirers such as Lafont de Saint-Yenne, who appreciated his ‘singular naivety’ and his apparent celebration of bourgeois values. When the four works are considered together, in the company of seven other genre compositions and 11 works on paper, Chardin appears as a supple and elusive artist, whose minimalism opens him to multifaceted interpretations.
Childhood and education were being reconsidered in the eighteenth century, under the influence of writers such as Locke and Fénelon, and they are explored more fully in Waddesdon’s companion show, ‘Playing, Learning, Flirting’, on the role of games. Without sentimentality, through the boy’s game Chardin’s picture explores the mystifying state of childhood, playing on the ephemerality both of innocence and worldly adult pursuits.
The boy’s apron, shown in three versions, suggests he is a servant, perhaps pausing in his task to play illicitly. Or is his occupation meant as a comment on the corruption of the world from which the picture briefly removes him? Gambling was rife in French upper-class society, while the heart card he holds intimates more sinful pleasures. Or are we merely seeing a child, his absorption in his task refusing interpretation just as his gaze both excludes and invites the viewer?
The Waddesdon Boy shows a jack card in the open drawer. Its almost crude rendering, where Chardin laid on the paint with his hands, is in glaring contrast to the realism which captivated Diderot. This tiny detail embodies the fascination Chardin possessed for later artists such as Cézanne, Matisse and Lucian Freud.
Like no other painter, Chardin seems capable of stopping time. To see his genre paintings is to be invited into another world, a window on the past whose immediacy lends it the psychological allure of the present. To see them at Waddesdon, an architectural homage to Chardin’s time, is to open a jewel box of pensive treasures.