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Portrait of a Boy
(Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin)

Description

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Paris 1699-1779

Portrait of a Girl
Pastel
17 ¾ x 14¾ in. (45.1 x 37.5 cm.)
Signed and dated lower left: Chardin/1777

Portrait of a Boy
Pastel
17 ¾ x 14¾ in. (45.1 x 37.5 cm.)
Signed and dated lower right: Chardin/1777

Provenance:

Princess Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904);
M. Foulon de Vaulx, Paris;
Mr. and Mrs. Lester F. Avnet, Great Neck, New York;
Wildenstein until c. 1985;
Private Collection, Japan;
From whom acquired by Matthiesen Fine Art Ltd., London, 2002.

Literature:

See Bibliography at the end of the essay.

Exhibitions:

Paris, Salon of 1777, no. 50.

Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, Exposition Chardin-Fragonard, 1907, nos. 75 and 76.

Paris, Galerie Seligmann, Portraits francais de 1400 à 1900, 1936, p. 43, nos. 49 and 50.

New York, Old Master Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Lester Avnet, circulated by American Federation of Fine Arts, 1969-70, nos. 11 and 12, repro (color).

New York, Wildenstein, French Pastels, 1979, nos. 6 and 8.

London, Wildenstein, La Douceur de vivre: Art, Style and Decoration in XVIIIth Century France, 1983, p. 55, repro. pp. 20 and 21 (colour).

“Le XVIIIe siècle a véritablement été l’âge d’or du pastel. Cet art aimable et séduisant, spontané et spirituel, essentiellement français, convenait merveilleusement à cette humanité vêtue de velours de soie et de dentelles; il s’harmonisait aux étoffes de l’époque, aux taffetas changeants, aux mousselines, aux soireries, aux gazes rayées, à toutes les tonalities des carnations et des fards, à tous les chatoiements d’étoffes, à tous les jeux de la lumière.” We can forgive Paul Ratouis de Limay, as he writes in such exquisite prose reminiscent of the Brothers Goncourt, for his nostalgia for a France of the Ancien Régime, a world which survives only through the images conveyed by its art and literature, and whose civilized social values are today even less esteemed than they were fifty years ago; and we can understand his patriotic tone, in 1946. For it is indeed a cliché, but also true, to say that France in the eighteenth century was home to the “Golden Age” of pastel painting. It is no less true to assert that Jean-Simeon Chardin was one of the greatest pastel painters of the century. We use the word painting and painter here, because it was thus that the art and its practitioners were commonly described in the eighteenth century, as for example in P.R. Chaperon’s classic manual, which assimilated over a century of practice, Traîté de la peinture au pastel, published in 1788. In our own time these works on paper supports—exceedingly fragile and susceptible to excessive exposure to light–are, more often than not and for the aforementioned reasons, kept in the print and drawing cabinets of our museums, and are generally regarded as graphic rather than as painted works.
Chardin was essentially only a painter (but what a painter, we must exclaim!): drawings attributed to him can be numbered literally on one hand. As a painter in oils, he worked in the great tradition of alla prima oil painting, relishing the very substance of the oleous medium with its admixture of grainy ground pigments, following the example of the Venetian masters of the sixteenth century, or a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt in the seventeenth, finding painterly equivalents in the dense substance for the still life objects or the living models before him. Chardin took his contemporary public and critics by surprise when, after a distinguished career of over forty years as a painter in oils, the seventy-two-year-old branched out into pastel painting, exhibiting three of them for the first time at the Paris Salon of 1771: “No. 39. Study of three heads, in pastel, under the same number.” These included one of the masterpieces now in the Louvre, Portrait of Chardin Wearing Spectacles (inv. 25.206; fig. 3), and most likely the monumental Bust of an Old Man (fig. 4: Jeffrey E. Horvitz), both dated 1771; the third work has not been identified. The critic of the Année Littéraire noted, “He has adorned the Salon with three studies of heads in pastel as large as life and which are of the highest beauty, and of the most artful execution. It is a genre we have not seen him undertake before, and in which his first attempts succeed to the highest degree.” Another critic wrote that these pastels were “as true as everything he does…He is the father of the effects which the younger generation must consult often.” Denis Diderot, one of Chardin’s greatest and most consistent admirers since he first began writing reviews of the Salon in 1759, observed with approval, “It is the same bold, assured hand and the same eyes accustomed to seeing nature, but really seeing it and discerning the magic of its effects.” Chardin was not only branching out into a new medium, but he had only very rarely undertaken portraits, and never such “studies of heads,” earlier in his career: critics noted this double rejuvenation in subject and in medium.
These critics were clearly struck above all by the bold, gestural manner in which Chardin handled the pastel medium. In this response, they echo the first commentators on his oil paintings. Chardin began to exhibit them in 1737, when regular Salon exhibitions were first instituted for members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture—of which Chardin had been a member since 1728. Chardin never missed an exhibition, from 1737 until 1779, the year of his death; and at his last five Salons—1771, 1773, 1775, 1777 and 1779—he exhibited only pastels, portraits and studies of anonymous heads. The Portrait of a Girl (fig. 1) and Portrait of a Boy (fig. 2), dated 1777, for which this essay is providing a context, were exhibited at the Salon of 1777, under no. 50, “Trois têtes d’étude au pastel sous le même numéro.’ Gabriel de Saint-Aubin made little sketches in the margins of the livret (booklet, or catalogue) of the Salon of 1777, showing many of the works exhibited there, including a head of an old man by Chardin (since lost) and the two portraits of the boy and girl. In these tiny marginal sketches Saint-Aubin has drawn the pictures side by side like pendants. The poses clearly correspond to the two pastels under discussion, and one can even make out the hat worn by the boy and an indication of the chair. For all that they are presented as “studies,” the two images of children are almost certainly portraits, although the sitters have never been identified. Earlier in his career, Chardin had exhibited portraits of the children of several of his friends, but had in a sense disguised them as moralizing genre subjects—to take one example, the adolescent son of Jean-Jacques Lenoir, a merchant friend, is the young protagonist in The House of Cards (National Gallery, London), while it is likely his two siblings, who appear in the companion piece, The Little Schoolmistress. Here, Chardin blurred the categories of painting, for these are genre paintings, but also portraits. The two children in the pastels certainly have a family resemblance. The girl is the older, on the brink of adolescence, and we feel she is full of good sense: it will be a year-or-two before she discovers sensibilité. The boy, somewhat cute (or mignon, in French), has the slightest air of mischief in his sideways glance. Chardin was complimented on the pastels he exhibited in 1777: in the Mercure de France for conveying “the pleasure given by the imitation of nature well seized, and rendered with a free, intelligent touch, full of effect;” the Année Littéraire said that the “three studies of heads in pastel, with a broad and intelligent touch, prove that even in his diversion [from oil painting], Monsieur Chardin consults nature, and knows how to render its effects with that warmth and freedom which are peculiar to him;” the critic wring in the Mémoires secrets admired Chardin’s “strong and grand manner;” while the author of the brochure Huit lettres pittoresques à l’occasion des tableaux exposés au Salon de 1777 recognized ‘toujours la main du Maître.”
Thus the pastels Chardin exhibited in his penultimate Salon were still admired for qualities which recall the commentaries on the oil paintings he first exhibited forty years before: the bold originality of their technique. As one critic had observed in 1738, “His manner of painting is all his own. It is not a case of finished outlines, nor of a fluid touch; on the contrary, it is brutal and rugged. It seems as if the strokes of his brush are exaggerated, and yet his figures are of a striking realism, and the singularity of his manner only makes them more natural and spirited.” Chardin had adopted this broad, painterly manner of oil painting in the 1730s, and applied it to his still lifes of dead game, or varieties of kitchen utensils and foodstuffs, and to his small genre scenes of servants, kitchen and scullery maids, and other aspects of life “below stairs.” It seemed an appropriate manner in which to render the basic needs of life, and the ordinary human clay. But Chardin’s emphasis on a very personal and recognizeable technique was also a cunning way of gaining intimate attention in the public clamour of the Salon exhibition, and of challenging the more conventional manners of painting displayed in the adjacent works of those colleagues, who also showed their paintings there. As his old friend Charles-Nicolas Cochin wrote, in one of the first biographies of Chardin, “Although in general his touch was not very agreeable and in a way rugged, there were few paintings which could sustain themselves next to his, and it was said of him, that he was a dangerous neighbour.” The same challenging boldness was to be as true of Chardin’s late pastels, as of his early oils. We can only admire him for such self-renewal in his eighth decade!

*****
“Several years before he [Chardin] died, he was attacked by many infirmities, which caused him to abandon or at least to exercise less frequently his talent for painting in oils. It was then that he tried to make use of the pastel.” If we follow Cochin’s words, written to their mutual friend Haillet de la Couronne just after Chardin’s death, it seems likely that the ageing Chardin had trouble with his eyes. Perhaps he could no longer tolerate the vapours given off by the oils and thinners necessary in oil painting. We should note that, at least from the evidence of the late self portraits, Chardin wore glasses for working, and seems to press himself close to his model (whether himself, or other sitters), and also to bring the paper on its support close to his face—as in the Louvre Self Portrait at his Easel (inv. RF 31.748: fig. 5). Maurice Quentin de La Tour, perhaps the most famous of French pastel painters of the eighteenth century, claimed in a letter of 1763 to the Marquis de Marigny, that it was his shortsightedness, which made him into a pastel painter, because only by using that medium could he work within two or three feet of his sitters. Cochin continues to comment further on Chardin’s adoption of this heretofore unfamiliar medium: “He did not use it for his usual genres; but he did make use of it to treat studies of heads, of life-size. He made several of these depicting various characters, young persons, old people, and others. He succeeded in this extraordinarily well through his ability and his bold, easy manner, easy at least in appearance, for it was the fruit of much reflection, and he was hard to satisfy.” These observations certainly include reference to the Portrait of a Girl and Portrait of a Boy, but likely also refer to pastel portrait of a Petit Jacquet (Little Lackey), which Chardin exhibited in 1779, and which was acquired by Madame Victoire de France, one of the daughters of the late Louis XV (the pastel is lost). Among the greatest and most moving of Chardin’s pastels in the “bold, easy manner”—but among the least seen, even by visitors to the museum in Besançon, where it is housed—is the Head of an Old Woman (fig. 6), dated 1776, which is in fact a copy after a painting attributed to Rembrandt (State Hermitage, St. Petersburg). Painted in his seventy-seventh year, it is Chardin’s “col tempo”, executed with a breadth of handling, and an expressive sensitivity to the crumbling matter of his medium, that do indeed bear comparison with the art of his model, Rembrandt. More than one of Chardin’s contemporaries compared his art with that of the great seventeenth-century Dutch master, who was much appreciated in Chardin’s day. But let us recall the words of only one of the earliest commentators—very likely the great connoisseur Pierre-Jean Mariette, writing in the margin of his copy of the Salon livret)–when Chardin exhibited for the first time at the Salon in 1737: “The author has a manner all his own, which is original, and is close to Rembrandt.”
Both Chardin’s contemporaries and modern commentators alike recognize that his pastels are among the most boldly wrought in the eighteenth century. In that sense they hardly conform to the genteel, and gentle, image of pastel painting—effects of velvet, silk and lace–which is invoked by Ratouis de Limay’s poetic words at the beginning of this essay. Even the charming Portrait of a Girl (fig. 1) and Portrait of a Boy (fig. 2), whose relative delicacy of treatment is justified by the youthfulness of the sitters, were admired at the Salon of 1777 for “une touche libre, savante et pleine d’effet.” Another anonymous critic, writing in the Année Littéraire about the same works, noted that these “studies of heads in pastel, done with a broad and skilful touch, prove that Monsieur Chardin consults nature and knows how to render its effects with that warmth and that freedom which are peculiar to him.”

*****
The innovatory pictorial effects, which struck the first viewers of Chardin’s pastels, are apparent in the two self portraits mentioned above (figs. 3 and 5), in the Head of an Old Man (fig. 4) and the Head of an Old Woman (fig. 6), and even in the two delightful portraits of youngsters (figs. 1 and 2). We speak here of the bold and forthright manner with which Chardin applies the pastel, employing individual strokes of pure colour, stroke beside stroke, to model form and to convey the play of light and shade, both across the forms of the figures themselves, but also in creating an ambience within which the figures exist. The texture of Chardin’s pastels is very thick—the pastel equivalent, we might say, of the impasto of his oil paintings—and created by superimposing layers of pastel, stroke over stroke, each layer building up the structure and modifying the tones of the image. He chose not to smooth or to blend the pastel into effects of sfumato, but preferred broad, hatched strokes and even dabs or stabs of the pastel. Thus, close to, the surface of a pastel by Chardin presents a very active pictorial site, where we can see each aspect of the construction, as it were; but from a distance the coloured marks and individual strokes blend and harmonize into an image of unity and wholeness. It is not only Chardin’s penetrating gaze, but the frankness and honesty of his technique, which create the sense of realism and sincerity, which we admire in his art. It was in this probity of vision, and in the candour of his technique, that lay much of Chardin’s appeal to artists in the nineteenth century. Paul Cézanne wrote to Émile Bernard, on 27 June 1904, on the Louvre Self Portrait with an Eyeshade (inv. 25.207: fig. 7), “He’s an artful fellow, this painter. Haven’t you noticed that by letting a plane of light ride across his nose at an angle the values present themselves better to the eye?”
The innovatory nature of Chardin’s technique in pastel becomes even more apparent, if we look briefly over the history of pastel painting, and situate our artist there. The pastel crayon is a cylindrical stick, composed of coloured pigments, mineral fillers (such as pipe-clay) to lend body, and a binding medium, such a gum Arabic. There are many variations on this recipe, but basically these materials are finely ground, mixed together, and shaped and dried out into crayons. A large range of colours and an almost infinite range of tonal variations is possible. The crayons are normally applied directly to paper (sometimes tinted) or, on occasion, vellum. The dry strokes of pastel can be rubbed and smudged, smoothed with a stump, or spread with water, to achieve a wide variety of textures and effects. Fixing the friable powder to its support has always been a problem, but numerous recipes for fixatives have been developed over the centuries.
Pastel was first employed in the late fifteenth century, and one of the earliest examples of its use was when Leonardo da Vinci added some touches of colour in pastel to his Portrait of Isabella d’Este (Louvre), which was a preparatory study for a proposed painted portrait. Indeed, Leonardo said that he was introduced to the technique of pastel by a French artist, Jean Perréal, who traveled to Milan in 1499 in the entourage of Louis XII. In the late sixteenth century pastel was used by certain artists, such as the north Italians Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510-1592) and Federico Barocci (c. 1535-1612), to make preparatory figure studies and especially studies of heads: these studies were to have a considerable influence of the work of French artists in the eighteenth century. But in France pastel was used initially almost exclusively for portraits, as for example in the Portrait of Louis XIV (Louvre, inv. 29.874) by Charles Lebrun (1619-1690), and by the portrait engraver Robert Nanteuil (c. 1623-1678). Pastel really came into its own for painting portraits in the work of Joseph Vivien (1657-1734), who was received into the Royal Academy in 1701 with two superb examples, representing The Architect Robert de Cotte and The Sculptor François Girardon (both Louvre, inv. 33.290 and 33.291). Vivien worked in a highly refined style, with much emphasis on imitating textures such as silk or velvet. He preferred a smooth, tonal effect, achieved by use of the stump and other techniques, which resulted in an appearance reminiscent of mezzotint engraving, which was enjoying great currency at this period. Vivien’s approach, with its formal presentation of the sitter and the artist’s smooth and refined technique, remained influential all over Europe well into the eighteenth century, especially for court or other official portraits.
It was the work of the Venetian artist Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), which was to have the most lasting effect in France, and which conforms to the urbane elegance, lightness of touch, and more sugary palette evoked by Paul Ratouis de Limay in the words quoted at the beginning of this essay, characterizing the popular image of French eighteenth-century pastel painting. Rosalba, as she is still affectionately called, was a talented miniaturist and a brilliant portrait painter in pastel, who developed an international reputation and was in demand as a portraitist of nobles and notables throughout Europe. She paid a brief visit to Paris in 1720-1721, moving especially in the circle of Antoine Watteau (whose portrait she painted in 1720: Treviso, Museo Civico Bailo), his patron the collector Pierre Crozat (1665-1740), and another great collector and connoisseur, Pierre-Jean Mariette (as we have seen, not one of Chardin’s admirers). Rosalba’s pastel portraits cleverly combine carefully drawn observation, a charming informality of pose, a brilliancy and lightness of touch, a delicate palette, a hint of flattery, and a way of exploiting fluttery draperies such as lace, which defined the art of pastel for much of the century. On her return to Venice in 1721 Rosalba sent to Paris a pastel of an alluring and scantily dressed Nymph of Apollo (Louvre, inv. 4.800: fig. 8), which won her admission to the Royal Academy. Rosalba seems to have charmed as much by her personality as by her art, as we can tell from the letter addressed to her on this occasion by Mariette: “We were already strongly persuaded that your pastels had a great advantage over every other kind of painting. The one you have sent only confirms this opinion. We found graces, a correctness of drawing, light and precious touches, a truth and a felicitous tone of colour, which only you could bring. Finally, the work seemed to everyone worthy of you, that is to say, worthy of every praise…As each paints himself in what he does, [your friends] recognized in your work, as did I, that amiable character of politeness, which makes so precious the gift of your friendship.” We dwell on Rosalba because she so much set the tone for French pastel painting for the rest of the ancien régime.
An example of Rosalba’s influence would be the exquisite pastel on blue paper Head of Hebe (London, British Museum: 1850.3.9.1; fig. 9) by François Le Moyne (1688-1737), which was a study for one of the figures in his monumental ceiling painting representing The Triumph of Hercules at Versailles. In making such a preparatory study in pastel, Le Moyne was no doubt also thinking of the precedent of Barocci, and indeed Le Moyne made a pastel copy on blue paper (Musée de Rennes) of a pastel Head of Saint Francis by Barocci, then in the collection of Mariette (now in the Louvre). The production of this type of preparatory study in pastel continued through the century. A later example is The Beloved Mother (National Gallery of Art, Washington; 2000.15.1: fig. 10), a study for the principal figure—actually Greuze’s wife–in the eponymous painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). Greuze exhibited the pastel, as simply A Head in Pastel (Une Tête en pastel), at the Salon of 1765 (no. 115)—where it drew extravagant praise from his great admirer Denis Diderot; the painting for which it was a study was not completed and exhibited until 1769. Le Moyne passed his love of pastel painting on to his pupil François Boucher (1703-1770), for example in the lovely Boy Holding a Parsnip (Art Institute of Chicago: 1971.22; fig. 11), which is one of the most engaging pastel portraits of a child before the time of Chardin.
These artists tended to use pastel only on an occasional basis, however. The most famous pastellists of the century were Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788) and Jean-Baptise Perroneau (1715-1783), who took full advantage of the veritable vogue for portraiture in mid and late eighteenth-century Paris. Perronneau was a portrait painter in both oils and in pastel. He favoured a rather forthright composition, at bust length and often with the sitter confronting the viewer full-face: a masterpiece is his portrait of the sixty-nine-year-old Abraham van Robais (Louvre: inv. 4.146), where the artist has smudged the pastel to convey the sagging flesh of the elderly man’s face. Perronneau had a vigorous and varied technique, ranging from smooth, velvety passages to lively highlights revealing the touch of the crayon. His Girl with a Kitten (London, National Gallery: fig. 12) is one of the most enchanting portraits of a child in eighteenth-century art, and Perronneau has chosen to employ the softest of techniques and the most delicate hues to convey her innocence and the bloom of her youth.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour worked exclusively in pastel and arguably took the technique to the very heights of technical brilliance. He was in much demand as a portrait painter, whether for members of the royal court, the financial élite, or the intellectual world of the philosophes: his several images of Voltaire, and his charming Portrait of Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (Louvre: inv. RF 3.893; fig.13), who with Diderot was the editor of the Encyclopédie, are canonical representations of the dominant figures of the Enlightenment. La Tour painted Louis XV and his Queen Marie Leczinska (both Louvre: inv. 27.615 and 27.618), and also a full-length portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Louvre: inv. 27.614), a tour-de-force of the pastel technique and one of the largest ever executed (177.5 x 131 cm). This masterpiece, exhibited at the Salon of 1755, shows the royal favorite at full length in a gorgeous silk floral dress, itself a virtuoso performance of the pastel painter’s art. She is surrounded by books, prints, portfolios, sheet music, and so on, attributes intended to convey her important role as a protector of the arts. La Tour normally made lively pastel studies of his sitters’ faces from the life—a remarkable series of these is in the Musée Antoine-Lécuyer, Saint-Quentin, including three studies for the face of Madame de Pompadour —and then worked up the finished portraits in his studio. To the modern spectator, the life studies often have the freshness and spontaneity of immediate experience, which can be lacking in the finished presentation pastels, where the expressions of the sitters sometimes seem somewhat forced. La Tour’s studies show how perfect the pastel medium was, for catching a fleeting expression of humour or malice, or the character of intelligence or stupidity. In 1760 La Tour made a somewhat prosaic Portrait of Chardin (Louvre: inv. 27.612; fig. 14), which the sitter presented to the Royal Academy in 1774, on the occasion of his retirement after twenty years as its treasurer.

*****
Many other artists painted pastels in eighteenth-century Paris, often on an occasional basis. Greuze made a few portraits in this medium, as did Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) and her sister artist Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842), although both women were better known for their portraits in oils. Some painters made studies of one kind or another in pastel, especially of characterful heads, sometimes known as têtes d’expression: there are examples by Charles-Joseph Natoire, Carle Van Loo, and Pierre Subleyras, among others. During the period when the Royal Academy was being reinvigourated after the mid-century, the study of such expressive heads was assimilated into the official academic curriculum, when in 1759 the Comte de Caylus sponsored a competition, the Concours de la Tête d’Expression. Although female models were usually employed for this annual contest, the idea was to encourage young artists to study the human physiognomy, and the set of the head as a whole, as means to convey meaning and emotion. Not unrelated to this official artistic policy was the acquisition for the royal collection, at the estate sale in 1765 of the admired history painter Jean-Baptiste Deshays (1729-1765), of the fine Head of an Old Man, which is still today in the Louvre (inv. 26.205); it was the second of the two heads described in the 1765 sale catalogue: “No. 7. A head of an old man, beautifully and well characterized, as strong as nature, seen from three-quarters view; it is done in pastel, with much art and intelligence…No. 8. Another fine head of an old man, seen in profile, and done the same as the previous lot.” It would not surprise us, to learn that Deshays knew himself to be working within a time-honoured artistic tradition, for he owned “A head in pastel by Federico Barocci” (1765 sale, No. 30). Such were the prototypes for Chardin’s expressive Head of an Old Man (fig. 2) in pastel.
For all that they can be placed in an art-historical context, the moving pastels that Chardin exhibited in his last years stand on their own merits, and were deeply admired by his contemporaries, as were the artistic energy and regeneration they represented. As one anonymous critic noted of the “Têtes d’étude au pastel” Chardin exhibited in 1779—it was to be his last Salon before his death just a few months later–in the appropriately named brochure Le miracle de nos jours, “One could say that he is caressed by Painting, and that he is always thirty years old.”

Measurements
45 x 38 cm
Type
Oil on canvas
Literature

Matthiesen Gallery, London, Two Pastel Portraits by Chardin, 2002/3

Where is It?
Acquired through the Matthiesen Gallery by a Private Collector, 2002
Historical Period
Rococo - 1720-1780
Subject
Genre or Daily Life
School
French
Catalogue
Price band
Sold or not available