Silent Mysteries

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The show of 99 works by the French artist Jean-Siméon Chardin, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until Sept. 3, falls just 21 years after the last Chardin retrospective in America-which took place at the Cleveland Museum of Art and didn't reach Manhattan. Does the new show add much to our knowledge of Chardin? In a sense no, because not many fresh facts about him have surfaced in the past two decades. But in the sense that really matters, yes, and yes again. Any extended contact with Chardin is invigorating and marvelous.

The show's otherwise excellent catalog frets a bit. Why, it wonders, should there be another Chardin show so close on the heels of the first? Well, the answer is that in human life-if not in that of a museum or a reputation-20 years is a long time. A generation of art lovers (maybe two) has come into being since 1979. All those interested kids who don't know Chardin, who have never seen him at full stretch! And, it might have added, what about the rest of us, for whom 20 years is far too long between full exposures to this genius of bourgeois imagination?

No question, Chardin was one of the greatest artists who ever picked up a brush-and all the greater for painting without the attributes of greatness. Eighteenth century France was a fine incubator for pictorial grandeur, as in the history pieces of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Its sexual rhetoric-think of Boucher's pink and frothy shepherdesses-was peerless. Since the reign of Louis XIV, whose minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert had striven to connect the visual arts to the essence of French gloire, every kind of official discourse had flourished in French painting and sculpture, as it did in the arts of Italy. But unofficial life-the relatively ordinary pleasures and utterances of the bourgeois center, the common protein of French society-did not as yet have its painter laureate.

Chardin became that man. There was nothing extraordinary about his career except the beauty of the works it produced. His field of social vision was narrow. But by painting what he knew, neither more nor less, he became the standard-bearer of visual truth to a generation of French intellectuals, the Encyclopedists, led by the philosopher Denis Diderot. To them, Chardin's refusal of the highfalutin theme seemed exemplary. He showed that a jar of apricots on a table could be just as important and freighted with meaning as a battle scene in an epic of Alexander, the impregnation of a nymph by Apollo, or the reception into Heaven of a patron's patron saint. In time, Chardin's "natural vision" would be eclipsed by a new form of idealism, that of the neoclassicists, like David. But never for long. People may admire David, but they love Chardin. They cleave to his lack of pretension and see it as something fundamental to the art of painting-which it is.

Chardin didn't say much-at least, not much that he did say has been preserved, since he had no Boswell and the gossips who adored his work, like the Goncourt brothers, came from a later generation and never met him. But there is a tantalizing remark attributed to him by a writer of the 1780s, Charles-Nicolas Cochin: "I must forget everything I have seen and even forget the way such objects have been treated by others." This hints at the extreme pride and immense ambition that underwrote Chardin's apparently modest arrangements of brown jugs, water glasses, dead rabbits and fruit.

To paint things in a way that forgot how they'd been done before-you couldn't do that with a nymph or an angel. Nymphs and angels aren't real, and for that reason you needed to know the precedents in order to do them. But you had to know things even better to forget them, to forget their names, their styles of presentation. And only by this means, this un-naming, could the penetration of Nature-things as they really are, the silent mysteries beyond nomenclature-really begin. This was Chardin's enterprise, and in a certain sense-particularly in the domain of inanimate objects rather than the expressive human face-he can be said to be the first artist to take on its full weight.

Painters had done still life before. The tradition goes back to Greco-Roman antiquity. Still life cropped up in later painting but usually as an adjunct, a prop. From there it turned into a sort of allegorical fixture-the 17th century peach with its brown spots and wormholes, for instance, warning of the rottenness and transience at the heart of worldly pleasure.

But there is little allegorical content in Chardin's still life, and when (rarely) it occurs, one senses a throwback. What he is best at painting is things seen for their own sake, deriving their meaning from their being, not the other way around. The Ray, 1725-26, is perhaps his single most imitated work in modern times. Cézanne, Matisse and Soutine all did homage to it in copies. Anyone who has seen the verso, as it were, of a dead ray, or skate, the commonest of sights in a Paris fishmarket, knows that the underside of this fish bears a grisly resemblance to the human face. But that sort of double meaning, with its built-in pathos, would probably have struck the artist as a bit cheap. Diderot, despite his great admiration of Chardin, thought the ray disgusting-but there's nothing to suggest that Chardin was repelled by those glistening pearl-pink guts or the lunar luster on the ray's skin, let alone that (like some modern writers) he saw in the hanging ray an analogy to public execution or even the Crucifixion.

All the same, it is a dramatic picture-almost a narrative, thanks to the cat making its move on the oysters-and Chardin's finest moments lay much more in the domain of stillness, where nothing "happens" at all. We know practically nothing of Chardin's character or emotional predilections, yet we can't help sensing that no artist could have been better equipped to paint still life. (Actually, he's not unlike the cat in his own seafood paintings, fastidiously stalking, with bright-eyed attention, something that cannot move but can go stale.) Everything comes to matter under his level scrutiny. A pyramid of red strawberries becomes a blazing Etna. The surface of a plum turns into a small adventure in discrimination as he gives you the white powder on the purply-black skin and the sharper white highlights reflecting from its gloss, and challenges you to follow the means by which he conveyed both.

He was a good painter of adults, pensive servants especially-who never, it should be noted, become illustrations for a lecture on class-but his children are marvels. A young boy, the son of one of Chardin's collectors, soberly kitted out in black tricorn hat and mole-colored coat, is attentively building a house of cards-that emblem of fragility that nonetheless does not fall. Another lad, not 10 years old, watches with the most exquisitely rendered absorption the fate of a spinning top on a writing table; it leans under the pull of gravity but is still (only just) erect.

And then there's the girl with the shuttlecock, that magical little refugee from a Piero della Francesca, all inwardness as she contemplates the sneak serve she is about to make. The visual rhymes here are delicious. Each feather of the shuttlecock, for instance, repeats some element of her appearance. White feathers repeat the white of her apron; a blue feather picks up the blue of her ribbon; a pink feather, the color of her cheek. It is as perfectly made as any sonnet. It makes you realize what rewards can flow from Chardin's desire to link the appearance of spontaneous feeling with the discreet display of its opposite, a technical perfection whose integrity rises from knowing its own limits. "All through his life," writes curator Pierre Rosenberg in the catalog, "Chardin battled to overcome his lack of natural talent." He is still an irrefutable proof that it isn't only virtuosos who change art history.