(b. 1699, Paris, d. 1779, Paris)
The House of Cards1736-37
Oil on canvas, 60 x 72 cm
National Gallery, London
At a time when large-scale heroic narrative painting was thought to be the most meritorious, Chardin, thwarted by his lack of academic training in drawing, became one of the greatest practitioners of the 'lowly' art of still life. Born in Paris, where he spent most of his life, he first trained at the guild school of Saint-Luc, before gaining admittance to the French Royal Academy in the category of a still-life and animal painter. By the end of his life his works were to be found in most of the great private collections of the time. Although totally dependent on observation and on working closely from nature, Chardin evolved methods of painting at a distance from the model, so that he was able to reconcile particular detail with a more generalised effect. While some critics deplored his inability to paint more 'elevated' subjects others, like the influential philosopher Diderot, praised the 'magic' of his brush: 'This magic defies understanding...it is a vapour that has been breathed onto the canvas...Approach the painting, and everything comes together in a jumble, flattens out, and vanishes; move away, and everything creates itself and reappears.'
In the early 1730s, perhaps in response to the amicable taunt of Joseph Aved, a portrait-painter friend, Chardin also turned to small-scale figure painting, influenced by the Dutch and Flemish seventeenth-century masters of everyday scenes. Encouraged by the success of these homespun compositions of kitchen maids and serving men at work, he moved from the sculleries of the bourgeoisie to their living quarters. By narrowing the focus to the half-length figure, he was also able to enlarge it in scale, as he does here. In this wonderfully intimate and contemplative picture, he portrays the son of his friend Monsieur Lenoir, a furniture-dealer and cabinet-maker.
The House of Cards owes its subject to the moralising vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century. The verses under the engraving of the picture, published in 1743, stress the insubstantiality of human endeavours, as frail as a house of cards. But the painting tends to undermine the moral. Its rigorously geometric and stable composition gives an air of permanence which contradicts the fugitive nature of the boy's pastime, and of childhood itself. Chardin's 'magic accord' of tones envelops the scene securely in its warm and subtle light, at once direct and diffused. His technique remained secret, although it was suspected that he used his thumb as much as his brush. We can well believe, however, his response to the enquiry of a mediocre painter, 'We use colours, but we paint with feeling.'