In the Salon of 1771, the newly aggregated and received painter Anne Vallayer exhibited an array of still lifes, surely meant to dazzle through the sheer variety and breadth of her accomplishment. Alongside the large and coloristically resplendent pendant pair The Attributes of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture and The Attributes of Music (both housed at the Musée du Louvre and certainly submitted for her official reception into the Academy) was a bas-relief imité (fig. 1). This painting, described in the Salon pamphlet under no. 146 as being some 70 centimeters wide and 48.6 centimeters high, was cited as “lost since 1771” in Marianne Roland Michel’s seminal book on the gifted woman painter published in 1970.1 When Vallayer-Coster (she added her husband’s last name to her own upon her marriage to Jean-Pierre Sylvestre Coster on April 21, 1781) finally enjoyed her first monographic touring exhibition in 2002,2 the painting’s whereabouts remained unknown. To the delight of specialists, it has since resurfaced at auction3 and can now be more accurately characterized as a trompe l’oeil of an obliquely shaped, terracotta slab, hanging from a nail against a wooden board. The horizontal composition features the usual putti and satyr, in this instance, engaged in stuffing a large urn with grapes, presumably in the course of making wine for the usual bacchanalian fête. Compared to other published examples of Vallayer-Coster’s achievement in this specialized sub-genre of still life, the painting is conspicuously out-sized, most likely to rival and compete with the two large bas-reliefs imités exhibited by her supposed nemesis, the elderly Jean-Siméon Chardin in the previous Salon of 1769.4 That pendant pair had been modeled by Chardin after two terracotta reliefs from the Royal collection by a relatively obscure follower of François Duquesnoy (the Flemish born sculptor, Gerard van Opstal, b. 1594 or 1604 Belgium, d. 1668 Paris), and are similarly large in scale. As Diderot commented somewhat acidly, Chardin chose to showcase his illusionistic skills by elevating sculptural models of dubious accomplishment. Nevertheless, their feat of illusionism proclaimed the seventy-year-old painter’s undimmed “magic.”
This essay is actually not so much about the woman painter Vallayer-Coster, as much as it is about her more celebrated artistic forebear, Chardin. But I introduce my topic through this recently rediscovered trompe l’oeil because it relates to a transitional moment in the career of the aging and increasingly fragile older artist. On the very day that Vallayer was triumphantly received by her elders into the august body of the Academy (July 28, 1770) and on the same day that this newly rediscovered bas-relief was deemed acceptable by her peers, the Marquis de Marigny wrote a letter to Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, first painter to the King, pleading Chardin’s case in the supplementing of his pension. The following year, the year of Vallayer’s Salon début, Chardin’s old friend and supporter, Charles-Nicolas Cochin, secretary of the arts, was stripped of some of his responsibilities. His enemy, the more patrician Pierre, assumed charge of “artistic detail.” Cochin’s fall from grace would soon have unfortunate consequences for the hard-working Chardin as well. His failing health provided the convenient pretext to relieve him of his official duties just three years later. He was succeeded as Treasurer of the Academy by Guillaume Coustou. Even more importantly, the duties of tapissier for the biannual Salon were separated from the position of Treasurer and turned over to the ascending star, Joseph-Marie Vien.5 Part of the new triumvirate that included the comte d’Angiviller, the successor to Marigny’s short-term replacement (the Abbé Terray served as director of the Batîments from July 1773 to May 1774), and the aforementioned Pierre, Vien had taken over the direction of the Elèves protégés in 1771, succeeding Louis-Michel Vanloo. In 1775, Vien received the further distinction of the directorship of the French Academy in Rome. The stage was set for a new direction for the French school, which would culminate in the often-recounted emergence of Jacques-Louis David and his followers.
The institutional history of these years is well known. However, Chardin’s gradual recusal from Academic affairs, whether due to failing health or the machinations of the haughty Pierre, is the necessary backdrop for one of the most astonishing developments in the artist’s waning years: the turn to pastels at the advanced age of seventy-two. In this essay, I will argue that this move was not merely the coincidence of failing eyesight and ill health, exacerbated by the toxins to which he had exposed himself over the course of a long career as an oil painter. This explanation originated with Charles-Nicolas Cochin, who explained the artist’s new choice of medium thus: “Several years before he [Chardin] died, he was attacked by many infirmities which caused him to abandon or at least to exercise more infrequently his talent for painting with oils. It was then that he tried to make use of the pastel, a kind of painting which he had never thought of pursuing before.”6 While this may have been in part the reason that he stopped exhibiting new paintings, as I will argue, both the medium of pastel and the subject matter he chose to treat can also be construed as highly motivated, strategic decisions.7 In the public exhibition space of the Salon, the aged but still defiant Chardin, even after having been forcibly retired from academic office, could still use his art to visually outdo and undo his detractors, including the arrogant Pierre with his call for reform under the auspices of a renewed French classicism.
The evidence for my argument will be three-fold: the pastels themselves, the timing of their exhibition at the Salon, and the artist’s knowing self-construction through the critical trope offered by his frequent comparison to the Dutch artist, Rembrandt. The hagiographical construction of Chardin’s identity within the French school parallels the critical reception of the seventeenth-century Dutch artist, whose unorthodox technique and self-invention were thought to have enabled the realization of an inimitable génie, born through, paradoxically, what was construed as a necessary “enslavement” to nature. Similarly, as narrated by Chardin’s earliest biographers, the artist’s natural genius was only realized when he rejected the learned mannerisms of his teachers and submitted himself to painting only what he saw. Like Rembrandt, Chardin was also accused of an inability to draw as prescribed by classicism and, especially, the neoclassical reforms put in place by d’Angiviller, which in turn was said to explain the artist’s reputed inability to treat the living human form.8 The assertion that Chardin worked, like his unlikely predecessor, Rembrandt, d’après nature is normally taken at face value in art-historical accounts. In this essay I want to recover not only the academic controversy surrounding the balance between real and ideal, the beau idéal and the beau réel, but also the significance of an empiricist recasting of the role of perception in cognition and its justifiability as the necessary grounds for invention. This will entail, as well, a careful unpacking of the rhetorical conceit proposed by the very phrase d’après nature with regard to both artistic practice and its perception in the context of a quintessentially Enlightenment understanding of sensation.
Aside from Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s extended analysis of Chardin’s pastels, most discussions of this body of work have done little to elucidate their significance, beyond the universal admiration expressed for them by 18th-century critics.9 In what follows, I will reconnect the late pastels to several polemical issues swirling around the Academy in the crucial years attending the shift in power from Marigny, Cochin, and Chardin to d’Angiviller, Pierre, and Vien. These include the mid eighteenth-century consensus that excess stylization resulting from copying other works of art must be counterbalanced by perceptual observation, a consequent interest in the particularity of facial and bodily expression as mastered through study of the live model, and a related interest in the representation of states of unconsciousness as a type of subject matter that presents the least resistance to prolonged effects of pictorial illusion. Whereas previous discussions of Chardin’s art have tended to segregate it from the discourse on history painting, my argument will place the still life painter’s set of concerns squarely at the heart of contemporary history painting discourse. Chardin’s pastels, as I shall argue, are a visual manifesto of a brand of realistic particularization based not in the classical canon, but on a northern naturalism associated with the Dutch and Flemish tradition. My account of Chardin’s pastels is thus related to an interpretation I have published earlier on the genre transgressions of Jean-Baptiste Greuze.10 Whereas Greuze had failed with his still groundbreaking generic hybrid in the form of the misunderstood Septimius Severus and Caracalla of 1769, Chardin scored a clear victory with his carefully staged pastels in the subsequent 1771 Salon. Through not only genre transgression, but an anti-academic choice of medium, Chardin’s universally admired pastels amounted to a one-upping of his younger competitors and an unmistakable lesson in the master’s unique fusion of tactile and optical illusion.
The Salon of 1771 was notable not only for Vallayer’s début: it was also the début of Chardin as a pastellist, a medium with which he had never been associated before. He exhibited three pastels, one of which was certainly the 1771 self-portrait aux bisècles, (fig. 2). We also know that he chose to exhibit Head of an Old Man (fig. 3). That he forewent the occasion to re-exhibit any of his earlier work in oil, something he had done in the past, may have been a nod to the young woman painter whose submissions to the Salon that year so clearly emulated his own. He did exhibit a single trompe l’oeil, Autumn, quite similar in proportion to Vallayer’s bas-relief imité of frolicking putti. Autumn was modeled after a well-known bas-relief sculpted by Edme Bouchardon for a fountain on the rue de Grenelle. It is perhaps telling that the critics chose not to comment upon the relative merits of the older artist’s stately offering in comparison to that of the aspiring Vallayer. As Pierre Rosenberg has commented,11 Chardin’s choice to exhibit what are unmistakably portraits, a more elevated genre in which he had only limited success in the past, reflected the aging artist’s continued ambitiousness. What has not yet been remarked, however, are the nuances introduced by his decision to include his own features, as well as a study, seemingly from life, of an old man, fast asleep.12
Surely, Chardin’s astonishingly free handling of the medium in the Head of an Old Man was meant to provoke comparison to another representation of sleep that had established the youthful Joseph-Marie Vien’s early celebrity: the Sleeping Hermit of 1750, likely done upon the artist’s return from study abroad in Rome. That painting had caused something of an uproar when the young painter unveiled it in his studio in Rome, in a self-marketing ploy that anticipated the tactics of the young David. We are told that Monsieur de Vandières (the soon to be Marquis de Marigny and brother of Madame de Pompadour) saw it at the end of March and was sufficiently impressed to praise it to the skies in a letter to his uncle, the director of the Batîments du roi, Lenormant de Tournehem.13 The painting was subsequently exhibited in Marseilles, and then Montpellier, for three weeks at a time for the delectation of interested amateurs. By the time it was finally exhibited in Paris at the Salon of 1753, it was the star of the exhibition. Critics remarked upon the naturalism of the of the figure’s supine position, which Vien claimed to have stumbled upon when his model fell asleep with his violin in his hands while the artist was sketching him.14 Also remarked upon was the “touche ferme et hardie,”15 so different from the manner “of our painters, which is so transparent, so brilliant, and so made up”16 as the self-appointed critic, La Font de Saint-Yenne, put it. Vien’s early identification with this type of subject matter was cemented by his exhibition in 1755 of three Têtes de vieillard peintes d’après nature, one of which may be the Old Man Asleep conserved at the Musée Fabre, Montpellier (fig. 4).
In the 1750s and 1760s, then, the young Vien, who is typically singled out in art-historical accounts for having spearheaded the return to classicism with the support of Pierre and d’Angiviller, actually occupied an ambivalent position in the academic conundrum that still dominated painting: the correct balance between pictorial reference to direct perception, as informed by study from life, and pictorial citation of other art in the form of recognizable emulation. The upstart critic La Font de Saint-Yenne’s 1747 condemnation of the frivolity of the French school, with its penchant for portraiture at the expense of noble history painting, and its excessive indulgence in a kind of mannered decorativeness, had certainly raised a red flag in the Academy about this very issue. But if Vien’s greatest triumph would be his so-called Greek manner, popularized through such works as The Cupid Seller (fig. 5), his earlier work was clearly impelled by an entirely different agenda. What was perceived as a highly original adaptation of Caravaggesque (or perhaps, Guercino-filtered) realism in the Sleeping Hermit was taken several steps further in the artist’s even more ambitious Saint Jerome (fig. 6). That painting, which the artist again described as having been done from life, was actually rejected by the Academy when Vien submitted it as his aggregation piece. The artist’s stubborn investment in painting and drawing from life would not fade just yet, as his exhibition in 1755 of the three oil studies d’après nature attests.
When thus reconstructed, Vien’s early self-positioning anticipated the tactics of Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The notorious L’Affaire Greuze of 1769 entailed a similar miscalculation, where the somewhat arrogant young painter attempted to elevate his status from simple genre painter to that of history painter through a pictorial strategy that meshed citations of the canonical art of the past uncomfortably alongside particularities seemingly closely observed from life. The academic disdain for Greuze’s attempt echoed that suffered by the equally ambitious young Vien eighteen years earlier, whose Saint Jerome has the unmistakable air of a “real” peasant. The stocky workman’s body enfolds upon itself as if caught at a moment of vulnerability whether through sheer fatigue or, even more inappropriately, inebriation. It speaks volumes to the difference in character between the two artists that Vien eventually changed course quite dramatically, transforming himself into the first incarnation of d’Angiviller’s and Pierre’s new classicism.17 The less pliable Greuze withdrew from the Academy in a huff, refusing to exhibit at the Salon for the next thirty years.
Looking closely at Chardin’s 1771 pastel of an old man (fig. 3) in this light, it is difficult to believe that it was not meant to challenge both Greuze and Vien along the lines of a similarly realist agenda. Chardin’s study seems so particularized that it is hard to resist the assumption that it must record the features of a specific model. The old man slumps forward slightly, his arms crossed, with hands tucked under armpits with an irresistible naturalism. The hollowed eye sockets, the cottony hair, the bluish tracery of veins visible beneath papery skin, all of these details are expertly captured. Instantly attracting critical accolades for the “magic” of his touch, the pastels thus restored Chardin’s artistic status as the only one capable of a profound illusionism built up through inimitable swipes of color, this time in a medium previously monopolized by Maurice Quentin de La Tour and Jean-Baptiste Perroneau. It was also a jab at Greuze, who had eclipsed Chardin as the painter of bourgeois life. Greuze had exhibited his own challenge to Vien in the category of Tête d’expression with his ravishing pastel study for The Well-Loved Mother (fig. 7) in the Salon of 1765 and to great critical acclaim.18 In a sense, within the polemics of real and ideal at stake in the calls for reform in Academic pedagogy, Chardin even exceeded these specialists of pastel. The “truth” of his blatant hatches of color was just as palpable as his brushwork in oil, unlike the refined, almost silken, rubbed surfaces of a Quentin de La Tour. The old magician had done it again.
There was yet one more mediating competitor in Chardin’s challenge to Vien in the form of this pastel. For in the same Salon, the young Jean-Bernard Restout exhibited a highly finished académie (fig. 8) of the type in which the next generation of Davidians would excel. Taking the figural study to a degree of finish normally reserved for a fully elaborated history painting, the exercise was further dignified with a literary title, in this case, the winged mythological figure of Morpheus or Sleep. While clearly referencing Nicolas-Guy Brenet’s 1756 académie of the Sleeping Endymion (fig. 9), which in turn was likely an emulation of Charles Le Brun’s 1660s Evening or Morpheus, the young Restout was also certainly responding to his mentor’s failed aggregation piece, the Saint Jerome (fig. 6). Unlike the downward, fetal position of Vien’s Saint Jerome, Restout’s Morpheus arcs backwards, away from the viewer, necessitating a drastically foreshortened forehead and prominent chin; however, the figure’s feet, the left stacked atop the right, echo the same naturalistic positioning found in Vien’s Jerome. Like Vien’s Saint Jerome, Restout’s Morpheus seems to want to enfold his limbs to conserve body heat, as one does automatically when slightly chilled while asleep. Morpheus’s left hand at his crotch not only discreetly masks his nudity with a decorous palm frond, it also mimics an instantly recognizable position which one again assumes when unconsciously preserving body heat, and is, arguably, in part inspired by Vien’s Saint Jerome, his hands clamped between his thighs for warmth.
It should not be surprising that Chardin’s very choice of subject for one of the three pastels he chose to debut in the new medium should resonate on so many levels. It should make us pause, however, when we consider how it came to be that the pastels have not been recognized as deeply responsive to a host of issues then dominating academic practice and critical discourse.19 The modernist inclination to crown Chardin’s “genius” as anachronistically anticipating the experimental art of the next century has hampered our ability to see this eighteenth-century painter as just that: a fully engaged participant in the Parisian art world of the 1760s and 70s. For example, Rosenberg and McCullagh describe Chardin’s technique as resembling “somewhat the work of the Impressionists a century later.” They even draw parallels between Chardin’s pastels and the art of Cézanne.20 As my argument suggests, however, the representation of sleep was a pictorial challenge that Chardin selected cannily to provoke comparison to the very artist who appeared to have displaced him and his friend Cochin, the clear favorite of the new regime under d’Angiviller and Pierre. If Vien’s pupil, Restout, sought to pay homage to his master’s earlier work, while “correcting” its too familiar realism through a neutralizing classical pretext, Chardin’s Head of An Old Man boldly trumped both the pupil and his master with its vibrant, virtuosic handling, a loose, bravura technique that in subject and execution invoked, not the Italianate seventeenth-century realism that the youthful Vien had attempted to revive, but the Realism then associated with the Dutch master Rembrandt.21 Chardin’s choice to don the mantle of Rembrandt at this transitional moment in academic politics is significant. The association would be made even more explicit in the artist’s 1776 copy of Rembrandt’s Portrait of an Old Woman, also known as Rembrandt’s Mother (fig. 10). That he should have chosen to execute his copy after Rembrandt in pastel is an issue I will return to later on, but for now, suffice it to say that this species of subject embodies one of the central preoccupations of Chardin’s practice overall: an ambiguity of reference, where our ability to distinguish between the real and the imaginary is deliberately defied.
In the hagiography of Chardin, even in his lifetime, there is an almost compulsive recitation of the artist’s necessary dependence on perception, whether viewed positively or negatively. Thus, for example, Cochin would commemorate his old friend as an artist who restored the truth to nature of the classical tradition and could, as the pastels attest, have become one of the greatest history painters, had he been graced with the circumstances to expand his repertoire.22 Another often repeated observation was Chardin’s consciousness of his lowly status as a still life painter. If the assignment to paint an actual rifle opened his eyes to the phenomenon of color and shape as perceived, it was also this dependence on perception, we are told by Pierre-Jean Mariette, that was Chardin’s Achilles heel.23 Hence Chardin’s insufficient imagination for the nobler category of history painting and his underdeveloped draughtsmanship, the tool by which the history painter pulled ideas straight from his imagination. But what if, as I want to argue, Chardin solicited this response deliberately by selecting subjects that in and of themselves are characterized by an undecidability as to whether or not they were based on observation? What if, in other words, Chardin actually wanted spectators to perpetually flutter between these two poles of the representational spectrum?
Of course, all representational art must of necessity be ambiguous in this sense, unless explicitly anchored through announced generic distinctions. A commissioned portrait, for example, even when resemblance is unverifiable, is presumed to be based in perceptual observation at least to some degree. A still life, according to the relative value placed on it in the Platonically constructed academic doctrine of the hierarchy of genres, must necessarily be the meanest of the genres since it is supposedly based on direct imitation of inanimate objects as observed by the artist, and therefore, tainted by mere perceptually-based imitation. But by the second half of the eighteenth century, the old Platonic notion of mimesis was undergoing radical rethinking, as is nowhere more evident than in the meanderings of Diderot’s 1767 Salon introduction. The philosophe, ever elusive in his citation of Plato’s charge of the portrait as thrice removed from the “original,” waffles back and forth on the implications of the presumed “distance” of the representation from “truth.” After berating his, as always, feckless interlocutor Grimm for believing the platitude of feminine Beauty as the idealized synthesis of individual parts of nature united and thus perfected, Diderot asserts ringingly: “I hold that it’s in this interval of the third level, that of the portraitists of what’s most beautiful in subsisting nature, whether wholes or discrete portions, that are situated all possible praiseworthy, successful varieties of handling, all the imperceptible nuances of the good, the better, and the excellent.”24 In other words, Diderot, like any empiricist worth his salt, recognized the space of subjective perception to be the necessary ground of invention and genius. Were we to transpose Diderot’s reasoning into the empiricist philosopher John Locke’s terms, simple ideas of sensation are always intermixed with complex ideas of substance, since, according to the principle of the mind as a tabula rasa, the latter are necessarily derived from the former:
The mind being, as I have declared, furnished with a great number of the simple ideas, conveyed in by the senses as they are found in exterior things, or by reflection on its own operations, takes notice also that a certain number of these simple ideas go constantly together; which, being presumed to belong to one thing, and words being suited to common apprehensions, and made use of for quick dispatch, are called, so united in one subject by one name; which, by inadvertency, we are apt afterward to talk of and consider as one simple idea, which indeed is a complication of many ideas together.25
In fact, simple ideas of perception instantiate complex ideas of substance, which are necessarily abstractions that in themselves must derive from multiple perceptual experiences:
The complex ideas we have of substances are, as it has been shown, certain collections of simple ideas that have been observed or supposed constantly to exist together. But such a complex idea cannot be the real essence of any substance; for then the properties we discover in that body would depend on that complex idea, and be deducible from it, and their necessary connexion with it be known; as all properties of a triangle depend on, and as far as they are discoverable, are deducible from the complex idea of three lines including a space.26
Locke, famously, goes on to elaborate using the example (a favorite rhetorical tactic) of the gold ring on his finger. Language encourages us to believe that we designate a substance called “gold” through a complete knowledge of its properties when, in fact, we have no thorough understanding of its essential properties. We have what Locke calls an “inadequate” idea of substances, even though the act of naming generates the illusion that the representative idea of “gold” is the same for all and therefore, refers to its essence.
In a Lockeanized understanding of the world, in which all knowledge necessarily originates in an embodied, subjective state, we are suddenly very far from the model of Platonic essence upon which academic discourse had been constructed since the Renaissance. Diderot’s discussion of the virtues of the “third level” is similarly informed by a recognition of the inadequacy of our ideas of the world, which, as Locke insists repeatedly in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, cannot but be imperfect “copies.” But as Diderot recognized, it is because of the very “inadequacy” of these copies to the archetype (to use another favorite Lockeanism) that such a variety of artistic invention and translation exists.
I want to consider how this empiricist reformulation of the beau idéal and the beau réel, the general and the particular, the imaginary and the perceived, plays out in terms of generic distinctions in Chardin’s art. Does the backdrop of what Michael Baxandall has termed a vulgar Lockeanism27 help us to recover an Enlightenment sense of Chardin’s otherwise unaccountable manner of painting? How does an empiricist framework redefine the whole question of intentional, referential meaning in painting, especially with respect to the ontology implied by generic distinctions of subject matter?
One of the most often cited examples of Chardin’s attempt to elevate himself by treating the animate body is his presumed portrait of Joseph Aved. In 1737, when Chardin first exhibited the painting, it had the title Un chimiste dans son laboratoire. François-Bernard Lépicié’s reproductive engraving of the painting, announced in the Mercure de France in January 1745, described the subject as a “souffleur,” a man seeking the philosopher’s stone. When Chardin chose to exhibit the painting again in 1753, the painting was entitled The Philosopher. This time, the identity of the sitter was recognized by the critic Élie-Catherine Fréron, who originated the claim that it was actually a portrait of Chardin’s good friend, Aved. The picture’s second exhibition also cemented the habit of invoking the name of Rembrandt in praising Chardin’s work. The overt resemblance in composition and handling between Chardin’s Philosopher and Rembrandt’s Apostle Paul (National Gallery of Art, 1637) was pointed out astutely by Marianne Roland Michel in her 1994 monograph.28 The posthumous publication of Gersaint’s catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings in 1751 must have also meant that the Dutch master was top of mind in the Parisian art world when Chardin’s “portrait” was reexhibited and recognized as such. We know, too, from Aved’s posthumous estate sale that he owned a painting of a philosopher in his study, presumed to be by Rembrandt.29 He also purchased one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits “with a gold chain” and two Rembrandt tronies: one of an old man’s head in profile and another of an old man in a red hat at the estate sale of le comte de Wassenaer d’Obdam.30
Defining the special category of subject matter designated by the term “tronie” in the Northern tradition is a problem to which we will need to return several times in what follows. To begin, let me cite a useful definition of the term as provided in the catalogue for an exhibition called Rembrandt’s Mother: Myth and Reality organized by Christiaan Vogelaar and Gerbrand Korevaar:
Tronies were relatively straightforward paintings with a human face as their main subject, sometimes complemented by hands and a few attributes such as a book. Most of them depict old men and women. Since the nineteenth century a considerable number of these works have been regarded as portraits of Rembrandt’s father and mother. However, many are now no longer considered to be real portraits, whether of Rembrandt’s parents or not, but to be the type of painting referred to in inventories of the time as ‘tronies.’ Unlike a portrait in the real sense, for which the seventeenth-century Dutch term was konterfeytsel, in a tronie the identity of the model was irrelevant. This does not alter the fact that pieces like this were painted after living models, as is shown by the many tronies specifically referred to in the inventories as being ‘naer’t leven’ [from life]. Unlike konterfeytsels, which like inventien were usually intended for sale or were commissioned, tronies were originally made for use in the painter’s studio. They were ideal as experiments, as studies of the human face, as exercises in depicting various temperaments or ages, or as explorations of particular emotions such as fear, adoration or surprise.31
While the claim that the tronie was, like the portrait, done “naer’t leven” (in French, d’après nature) may seem straightforward at first, this distinction becomes more and more difficult to recognize with any confidence once we begin to encounter tronies, apparently of the same sitter, in such a multiplicity of canvases and, apparently, in the case of Rembrandt’s supposed “mother” and “father,” by a multiplicity of hands. Since the tronie was purportedly copied by students when an expressive type was needed in invented figural compositions, whether or not a tronie was painted from life or after another tronie becomes harder to distinguish. What is significant, however, is the defining claim of this species of subject matter as, at some degree of remove, inspired by direct observation of a living model. As we shall see, the very undecidability of this issue is what comes to define the tronie and its specific attraction for eighteenth-century French painters like Chardin, Greuze, and Fragonard.
To return to The Philosopher, that Chardin should have chosen to reexhibit the 1737 canvas fifteen years later among a group of figural works as well as several still life compositions would seem to indicate that he attached some importance to this, one of his earlier attempts at not only a human figure, but possibly, a portrait. If this “philosopher” is Aved, it would also have had a whole range of associations having to do with the artist’s practice, since Chardin was supposedly goaded into the challenge of painting people by Aved the portrait painter (‘if it were as easy to paint people as it is sausages, I wouldn’t balk at taking a lower price from one of my customers’). Pierre Rosenberg agrees with this supposition in his most recent assessment of the painting, based on Fréron’s assertion that this is indeed a portrait of Aved, a conclusion Rosenberg draws from the fair degree of resemblance he finds between Chardin’s Philosopher and Aved’s self-representation.
Of course, the question of whether the figure depicted actually is Aved is beside the point, especially when we consider the painting’s use of a recipe clearly adapted from Rembrandt. The figure’s improbable, vaguely exotic dress, his absorptive state, and the strongly contrasting areas of light and dark all declare the painting’s debt to Rembrandt’s example, whether specifically to the National Gallery’s Apostle Paul or some other similar composition. And if Chardin’s intention was to invoke the example of Rembrandt, is it not also likely that he was inviting comparison for the same reasons of generic ambiguity that have always been in play in Rembrandt’s fancy-dress tronies? Like Chardin’s Philosopher, Rembrandt’s expressive representations of old men or old women are so persuasively particularized that it has often been presumed that they portray “real” individuals—frequently, members of his immediate family. The delight of such images is the anticipation of the reversal of function that the portrait contains within it, as the issue of resemblance recedes over time and the pleasures of the painter’s artifice become the overwhelming focus of pictorial interest. This is literalized by what we mean when we boast of owning a “Rembrandt” today. Even if it was first conceived of as a portrait, the overriding attraction is the author’s hand and no longer the identity of the sitter. Often the case with painted portraits, it is exaggeratedly so in the case of Rembrandt.
Even more pertinent in the context of Chardin’s attraction to Rembrandt’s tronies is the particular type or tronie often identified as Rembrandt’s mother (fig. 10). Chardin’s choice to copy in pastel a painting he would have known when it was still in the collection of Count Silvain-Raphael Baudouin, from whom it was purchased by Catherine the Great in 1783, brandishes his indebtedness. While the painting’s attribution has come under question among Rembrandt specialists, to Chardin and his contemporaries, the image was quintessentially Rembrandt’s and therefore the significance of Chardin’s choice to translate it in his new medium cannot be understated. In general, the template offered by Rembrandt’s tronies has not been adequately recognized as a factor for French artists in the second half of the eighteenth century. Studies of the head, often of old men or women, have usually been considered only in the context of the Comte de Caylus’s proposal for a new competition devoted to the tête d’expression as a reform to correct the overly formulaic use of the seventeenth-century history painter Charles Lebrun’s recipes for facial emotion. But Chardin was not alone in his attraction to the referential ambiguity found in Rembrandt’s tronies. His younger colleagues Greuze and Jean Honoré Fragonard also engaged in a similar enterprise, but with a slightly different twist in each case. In the 1760s, Greuze established his celebrity for a new kind of genre painting replete with a psychological legibility unseen before, layering acutely observed details of décor, dress, and physiognomy. These works proclaimed his intense scrutiny of the living model. The models were often members of his immediate family, including his young wife Anne-Gabrielle, née Babuti. Recall, for instance, the slight flavor of scandal occasioned by Greuze’s choice to exhibit the red, black, and white pastel study of a young woman who seems to be in post-coital bliss (fig. 7). Diderot wrote of her “air of suffering mixed with pleasure” in his Salon of 1765; an interpretation shared by the men “who, pretending to be connoisseurs, come to enjoy a spectacle of powerful voluptuousness.”32 The critic marveled at the difference between this erotic pastel and the painting for which it was ostensibly related, The Beloved Mother, a vision of maternal happiness with only a soupçon of sexual innuendo in comparison. This memorable pastel was exhibited four years after the painting to which it relates, thereby functioning as a kind of pictorial assertion of that larger composition’s derivation from such studies from life. Note, as well, Greuze’s choice of the pastel medium, which, even in a limited range of hues, carried with it the presumption of having been sketched from life.
The quickening of interest during the 1760s in the tension between real and ideal, perceptually based representation and imaginative invention, is nowhere more evident than in Fragonard’s fascinating and still mysterious portraits de fantaisie.33 As Mary Sheriff has pointed out, the presumption that this series of paintings represent specific individuals ignores the eighteenth-century understanding of the term fantaisie.34 In the eighteenth century, fantaisie referred explicitly to the expectation that no model was used in the portrait’s invention, belying the usual meaning of the category of portrait altogether.35 Through a bravura facture that boldly proclaimed the artist’s painterly process as vastly more important and thrilling than any sitter’s mere identity, these so-called “portraits” resist signification unless they are “read” against the backdrop of their presumed transcendence of an actual individual. Consider, for example, the painting usually presumed to be a portrait of Diderot (fig. 11). As Sheriff rightly observes, the painting “is more precisely a portrait of [Michel] Van Loo’s portrait of Diderot, and clearly an inventive one at that. The obvious reference is to another work of art, especially since there is no evidence that Fragonard sketched Diderot from life.”36 Sheriff’s conclusion about the portraits’ deliberate ambiguity is important: “Do these paintings depict ‘real’ sitters or do they render imagined visages? The question is problematic only if we try to answer it rather than seeing it as the answer. In Fragonard’s portraits de fantaisie, the distinction between the true and the true-seeming is so obviously blurred that the blurring itself becomes a distinct feature of these portraits.”37
There is, however, one aspect of Fragonard’s beguiling portraits de fantaisie that Sheriff does not discuss, which is particularly germane to Chardin’s practice as a whole and in particular, to Chardin’s late pastels. One reason that the portraits de fantaisie persistently signify as if painted from life is because of the density of associations surrounding the manner in which they were painted. By the 1760s, the viscous, tactile facture (faire) of these so-called portraits had been established by the still life specialist Chardin (Fragonard’s early teacher, if only briefly), as an indexical sign of perceptual observation. The brilliance of Fragonard’s mobilization of the association between strongly gestural brushwork with a realist enterprise is, of course, his ability to supply the quotations around this very conceit. Whereas Chardin’s often thick touches of paint were interpreted as a sign of his laborious fidelity to the act of visual perception, Fragonard’s viscous swirls of paint instead overturned such an association to become proclamations of heated invention. That this recasting of painterly signification takes place while treating a category of subject matter (the tronie) that in itself points to the undecidable oscillation between real and ideal, life stilled and still life, is, as Sheriff has observed, part of these paintings’ endless source of fascination.
The issue of Chardin’s faire and the presumption that it must be read as “labored” (to use Mariette’s term) allows us to swerve back to the question with which we began, namely, Chardin’s invocation of the aegis of Rembrandt, made explicit in his copy of Rembrandt’s “mother.” In the eighteenth century, critical reception of Rembrandt was on the ascent. Chardin’s self-conscious allusion to the art of Rembrandt, in fact, began even before his initial exhibition of The Philosopher. The celebrated Ray, with its virtuosic transformation of the repugnant guts of the eviscerated animal, recalls Rembrandt’s Flayed Ox.38 Throughout his career, Chardin’s investment in things Northern, whether Dutch or Flemish, was recognized. We have only to recall the story of his introduction to the Flemish-born Nicolas Largillière, director of the French Academy, who mistook his paintings for the art of some talented Dutch artist, much to the aspiring artist’s delight.39 If Chardin adapted the subject matter of the Netherlandish tradition to his own purposes, he also rivaled the so-called little masters in his colorism and variation of brushwork. Genre subjects common to the seventeenth-century Northern tradition, but expunged of any easy moralizing, became a favorite vehicle.
Another of Chardin’s adaptations from the Dutch and Flemish tradition is the more monochromatic subgenre of the bas-relief imité, a type of subject that, as Vallayer’s 1771 exhibited trompe l’oeil terracotta exemplified, enjoyed a certain popularity in the later eighteenth century. Chardin’s mastery of this feat of illusionism was declared early in his career, just as it was for the aspiring Vallayer. The youthful Chardin exhibited an example at the Exposition de jeunesse and the same painting was likely among those canvases selected for his official reception into the Academy. Art historical accounts have insufficiently stressed the flourishing of this peculiar subspecies of trompe l’oeil illusionism during the 1760s and 1770s. Considered in the context of the undecidability between real and ideal at the heart of the portrait de fantaisie, these bas-reliefs imités take on a new significance. Not merely another example of Chardin’s adaptation of seventeenth-century Northern precedents, the subject matter of the trompe l’oeil bas-relief parallels the same structure of transcendence of its purported referent (a specific, typically widely recognized relief sculpture to which the artist has invited comparison). But, as Diderot commented in his praise of the pair of bas-reliefs imités Chardin exhibited in the Salon of 1769, the magician’s touch had taken what was a mediocre artwork and elevated it through its very translation into paint. As in Fragonard’s portraits de fantaisie, the painted interpretation displaces its presumed referent (a “real” person or, in this case, a “real” piece of three-dimensional sculpture) to garner all of the viewer’s admiration for its author’s superior creation. One appreciates, perhaps, the way the pleasure of this transcendence of the initial, “real” point of departure (a known sculpture that still exists) works when one compares Chardin’s Autumn to Vallayer’s 1770 aggregation/reception bas-relief imité. Hers is likely done after a terracotta by a sculptor named Louis-Félix La Rue, who was quite popular in the late eighteenth century, but the specific piece is no longer known (nor, for that matter, is any of his sculpture, to my knowledge). Since the model of La Rue’s sculpture is lost, we have nothing to compare to Vallayer’s painted imitation. While still admirable for its illusion of relief, the pleasure of its magical conjuring of a comparable “original” is no longer available. I note, as an aside, Vallayer’s playful selection of a group of female putti, a witty allusion to her gender.
The origin of the bas-relief imité in the eighteenth-century French tradition is quite likely found in those seventeenth-century genre paintings, typically of kitchen maids framed by a large window, the outer encasement of which includes a decorative trompe l’oeil of frolicking putti at the bottom. This framing within framing declares multiple degrees of illusion, differentiating between feigned three-dimensional objects and “actual” three-dimensional pictorial space, while simultaneously reinforcing spatial proximity to the viewer with the sculpture’s convexity swelling slightly outwards, the interior within therefore declared firmly beyond this initial picture plane. Such conventional usage of the trompe l’oeil bas-relief as part of an orchestration of varying degrees of illusion within a pictorial illusion may even have been part of the reason for Roger de Piles’s invocation of it in his discussion of illusion in painting and its inevitable attractions. Here again, Rembrandt’s association with a realist agenda is part of the Dutch painter’s early mythology. As Thomas Puttfarken has noted, de Piles added his own, updated version of pictorial illusion as complete deception to the usual tale of Zeuxis and his grapes with the example of Rembrandt’s maid, a picture of which he had placed at his window, fooling passersby entirely.40 The deception, so the story goes, was not detected for several days.41
As it turns out, the painting de Piles had in mind is no longer universally believed to be by the hand of Rembrandt.42 But the point here is that Rembrandt’s species of illusion is elided with the type of “hard” illusion that, according to de Piles’s model, is so lifelike that the spectator is drawn to engage the figure in conversation. As Marian Hobson has written, the eighteenth century saw a shift in its characterization of illusion, leaning increasingly toward illusion as deception (adequatio or “hard” illusion) and away from the kind of pleasurable flickering between awareness and consciousness of the effect of illusion (aletheia or “soft” illusion).43 Even the Rococo sympathizer Charles-Nicolas Cochin defined illusion in painting as a visual persuasiveness that is so effective, one must touch the painting for the illusion to be dispelled.44 This new sympathy with illusion as a kind of mistake, precisely what prompted Plato to threaten to cast the arts from the Republic, can be seen as one reason for the flourishing of the decorative bas-relief imité, now produced at dimensions identical to the original referent, as if to make the adequation all the more literal, and thus, the painter’s transcendence of his model, all the more striking. The achievement of the illusion through a limited chromatic scale in a mostly monochromatic palette showcases the artist’s skill all the more. The tactility of the sculptural relief is matched by the tactility of paint application, which conjures the relief as much through tonal gradation as through brushwork or touche. Paradoxically, in the case of Chardin, as in the case of Rembrandt, facture or visible brushwork functions as an indexical sign of a realist approach, despite the often-remarked phenomenon that the paint remains just that—paint—when viewed close up.
The mystery of Rembrandt’s technique is described ambivalently during the eighteenth century when the academic bias towards dessin and poetic invention persisted, in spite of a developing consensus over the necessity of strong illusion in all genres of painting. Dezallier d’Argenville’s 1745 biographical entry exemplifies the kind of complaint against Rembrandt—the inability to invent and a slavish devotion to nature—which, as I have claimed, was precisely the same type of critique that was leveled at Rembrandt’s eighteenth-century emulator, Chardin:
The manner of this painter is “rather dry” and quite different from that of his countrymen. His successful paintings, rough and disagreeable when looked at close up, are of a cunning and astonishing relief when viewed at a certain distance. When one approaches too closely in his studio freshly painted canvases, he shoos away spectators, saying that the odor of his colors might make them develop headaches. He put black in the background of his paintings to avoid weaknesses in perspective, for which he didn’t want to learn the rules or principles: the antique and what one refers to as the “Académies,” were not to his taste; he limited himself to the imitation of living nature and what is of the greatest simplicity. If he at times approached the beautiful, if he even surpassed it, he chalked it up to chance and to the continual attention to follow in the footsteps of nature. How many things from his hand do we have that are very mediocre and well below his reputation.45
Recall, once again, Mariette’s criticism of Chardin’s technique as labored, limited as he was to the perceptual imitation of things seen. Recall, as well, Diderot’s description of Chardin’s magical technique in his Salon of 1765: “Chardin’s handling is unusual. It resembles the summary style in the way one can’t make things out from close up while as one moves away the object coalesces and finally resembles nature.”46 Chardin and Rembrandt are simultaneously praised and blamed for their uncanny ability to render nature as seen, always somewhat grudgingly, with an obligatory acknowledgement of their ultimate inferiority to those artists whose art did not require mere imitation. For clever imitators such as these two, invention is almost an accident when the composition stumbled upon is “beautiful,” although more likely, it will only be “very mediocre.” In both cases, the artists’ technique, however, remains mysterious, a jealously guarded secret that is naively acquired (through sight alone) and therefore un-teachable.
Chardin’s invocation of the aegis of Rembrandt colored his entire career. Indeed, Rembrandt’s tronies, with their strange unlocatability as both fictionalized “types” and specific, closely observed individuals, could be said to have provided the template for Chardin’s practice overall. Whether with respect to his still life subjects, his genre scenes, or such undecidable subjects as his presumed portrait of Aved, the tension between that which is imagined and that which is observed d’après nature is a constant feature. In Rembrandt, Chardin found a prototype for his own exploration of what, in the eighteenth-century context, had come to be an abiding awareness of the inextricability of the conventional poles of pictorial signification: the real and the ideal, once separable in a classical model of visual signification. As transmuted through Locke’s simple idea of sensation, the two poles remain in constant tension, since the heart of the allure in a complex idea of substance is its instantiation through lived perception, which is what enables its abstraction in the first place.
Now that we are in a position to recognize the depth of Chardin’s Rembrandt riffing, let us return to the painting, variously known as The Philosopher or Le Souffleur. That Fréron should have recognized the features of Aved in this painting in his 1753 review must mean that Chardin captured a fairly good resemblance. Was Chardin perhaps paying homage once again, then, in the 1773 pastel portrait now preserved at the Fogg (fig. 12), a pastel that was at one time mistakenly identified as a portrait of the painter Jean-Jacques Bachelier? Would it not make more sense that it is his friend Aved, whose features he has recollected in this Rembrandtesque pastel tronie? After all, it was Aved whose goading pushed the still-life specialist into attempting portraiture some forty years earlier. In his late return to the figure and portraiture in the form of his own likeness and that of his wife, would it not be appropriate for him to treat once again, this time posthumously, his friend’s features through a pictorial vehicle that by its definition leaves ambiguous whether it is done from life or not? Careful scrutiny of the Fogg pastel compared with Aved’s own self-portrait at the age of fifty reveals a striking similarity.47 Note the slightly aquiline nose, the dark brows, the soft, sagging jowls of the aging face, and the cleft in the chin. For Chardin to bedeck his friend in the outlandish get-up of a Rembrandtesque tronie would have befitted Aved’s Dutch roots. What’s more, the pastel medium’s strong association with the conceit of transcription through perceptual observation of the model (d’après nature) would make Chardin’s magical performance the ultimate bravura gesture, since his deceased friend would have been unavailable to pose at the time of the pastel’s creation. Far from needing to “have his model before his eyes at all times,”48 Chardin’s art deftly capitalized on this presumption to dramatize all the more his inimitable and clearly undimmed magic.
Real or ideal, observed or imagined? Chardin’s sophisticated recasting of the representational poles that perpetually oscillate in Rembrandt’s tronies appears in all the extant pastels but with slightly varied ontological claims in each case. Consider again Chardin’s pastel copy of Rembrandt’s mother (fig. 10). Here he has only focused on the aged woman’s powdery features, framed by the simple headdress of which Rembrandt was fond. One marvels at the slight alteration Chardin has enacted in her expression. While the painting (fig. 13) gives us an old woman, her brow furrowed and her gaze lost in somber reverie, as if regretful of her spent youth, Chardin’s old woman exudes a milder, sweeter feeling. The tighter crop of the composition makes her gaze seem as if it meets our own, a hint of a smile hovering about the corners of her pursed lips. Perhaps his own experience of age and his deep affection for his elderly wife made Chardin incapable of recreating the morose demeanor of Rembrandt’s old woman. Through pastel, Chardin is able to translate the more sculptural trowels of Rembrandt’s facture into soft pillows of flesh that sag and crease in the hollows of the eyes and at the chin with beguiling verisimilitude. Were one unaware of the model, one might feel quite certain that Chardin must have done this pastel from life. Upon the realization of its relationship to the earlier painting, one’s admiration for the eighteenth-century artist’s skills can only deepen.
Or consider the pastel with which we began, the Head of an Old Man (fig. 3). The model bears an uncanny resemblance to Vien’s Sleeping Hermit. Or is it, rather, that Chardin has reanimated through pastel, as in his copy of Rembrandt’s mother, the painted model that he must have known through Vien’s precedent? As mentioned earlier, Vien’s own adaptations of Rembrandt’s tronies of old men originate from the same impulse as Chardin’s, uniting them under the same rhetorical conceit where the real and the ideal are no longer extricable. If anything, the extreme simplicity of Chardin’s composition, which places the figure as though just beginning to nod off, threatening to slump forward out of the picture plane, strikes an even more efficacious naturalism than Vien’s hermit, whose head, conversely, leans away and backwards, supported by the right hand. The pastel medium, despite the clear passage of Chardin’s diagonal strokes of chalk, is exploited to perfection for its textural properties. The dry chalkiness powders the old man’s crêpe-paper-like skin. Chardin’s characteristic injection of a marine blue in the hair, beard, and even glinting through the old man’s simple shirt cannot undermine the relentless verisimilitude of the image. But again, there can be no certainty of the pastel’s status as portrait, study from life, or reimagined emulation of the countless tronies that preceded it in the Northern tradition. Indeed, Chardin’s achievement is the image’s irresistible sensation as perceptual record, even though we cannot know if it represents truth or seeming truth.
The equation of Chardin’s art with the literal act of looking has long dominated the literature on this most beloved of eighteenth-century painters. While this is certainly historically based, beginning with the anecdotes that littered the artist’s earliest obituaries and eulogies, as I have argued, the claim of the artist’s enslavement to nature was also part of a complex realist rhetoric that, in the eighteenth century, was quite specifically motivated in the ongoing academic debate over the correct balance between real and ideal, the particular and the general, along with an abhorrence of the dangers of la manière. Art historians have often taken the presumption of Chardin’s absolute reliance on perception at face value. In the original 1979 catalogue for the great Chardin exhibition, Rosenberg included a pictorial essay aligning descriptions of the artist’s household goods from posthumous inventories of his belongings with details of what could be the very objects as recorded in his paintings. In the updated version of the catalogue published for the redux of this show that traveled in 2000, there is a generously illustrated essay juxtaposing photos of period ceramics and glassware alongside seemingly identical objects featured in the artist’s still life compositions. The impulse here is simple: a belief that Chardin’s art is supremely one of looking, looking long and hard at even the most ordinary of objects to produce universal images of the everyday that continue to resonate. However, the corrective I have tried to suggest here is that an Enlightenment preoccupation with the impossibility of adequation between any real referent and its perception allows us to recognize Chardin’s project as one that is intimately bound up with an abiding awareness of the ultimate failure of our ideas to match up with (as Locke would say) their archetypes. As I have tried to demonstrate here, in the late pastels, Chardin discovered yet another means by which to probe this dialectic, and perhaps nowhere more emphatically than in the very last work of art we have by his hand. In the 1778–79 self-portrait before an easel (fig. 14), we are confronted by the artist, who hunches forward, his watery if still bright eyes peering over his pince-nez, fixed firmly in our direction. He delicately clasps a stick of red pigment between thumb and forefinger, raising it vertically as if to determine the relative scale of his own features before making his next mark on the sheet of blue paper propped up on his easel. According to a literalist account, this self-portrait would seem to confirm the often-repeated accusation that the artist worked solely from direct observation. But if we are to take a more nuanced approach to the conventional conceit of this self-portrait as mirror reflection, the pastel becomes a more complex statement of the artist’s practice. The mark he makes when he places pastel to paper is the pastel at which we are gazing. It is, in this regard, perpetually self-referential: a closed circuit in which viewer and viewed are locked in a ceaseless see-saw where priority of subject and object is never resolved. The strength of the artist’s gaze resides in the belief, however, of his own priority, whether or not this intuition can ever be logically justified. It is the sturdiness of that conviction that informs an eighteenth-century empiricist’s world view at even the most skeptical of moments, just as it is the certainty of Chardin’s regard that distinguishes his eighteenth-century world from the destabilizing flux of Cézanne’s modernism.