One of Holmes’s earliest impressions of art came from a book that his mother checked out from the library in 1963. It was Chardin by Georges Wildenstein. If one concurs with the opinions reported therein to have been held by Chardin’s contemporaries, it is that no one should ever again paint like Chardin–not even Chardin!
When the young Holmes viewed his first Chardin at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, he was less impressed than when he had first seen examples of Chardin’s paintings in a book. Later when he had a better look at the Chardins hanging in the Louvre in Paris, he was enthralled with “the remarkable interplay of transparency, translucency, and opacity that defies description.”
Wildenstein notes a passage on Chardin’s technique in Grimm’s Correspondence: ‘He has an unusual way of painting; he lays on his colours one after the other hardly mixing them at all, with the result that his pictures look almost like mosaics or point-carrė embroidery.’ Further, he directs us to a letter from C.-N. Cochin to Belle fils, remarking on, “a tint that harmonizes a picture, which is used to good effect by M. Chardin; it consists of lake, terre de Cologne, burnt ultramarine, English yellow lake. When the picture is finished one goes over it with these pigments so as to harmonize the ensemble. The green lake must not be allowed to show. I have heard Chardin say that with these colours, skilfully modified in various ways, he went over all the dark passages, whatever their hue. There is no question that he succeeded better than any other painter of his century in achieving a magic harmony in his pictures.’
Wildenstein includes other select commentary from Chardin’s contemporaries:
“…he did not adopt the manner of any master but ‘developed a manner of his own that it would be rash to wish to imitate’.” (Du Fresnoy)
‘Misled by the seeming facility and enchanting lightness of your pictures, the eye attempts to divine their secret, but to no avail. It is baffled, loses its way in your brushstrokes.’ (Baillet de Saint-Julien)
But the coveted “last word,” says Wildenstein, goes to Diderot, whose “comments are more remarkable for their poetic turns of phrase than for their perspicuity.”
‘There is a magic in this art that passes our understanding. Sometimes thick coats of colour are applied one above the other so that their effects seep upward from below. At other times one gets the impression that a vapour has been floated across the canvas, or a light foam sprayed over it. Draw near, everything becomes confused, flattens out, disappears, but step back and everything takes shape again, comes back to life.’ (Diderot)
“Thus in the eighteenth century,” writes Wildenstein, “there was widespread admiration of Chardin’s technique and talent, though the type of painting he chiefly practised, the still-life, was relegated to the third or fourth ‘grade’ of art. Today we have officially rejected classifications and hierarchies of this order; yet are there not still amongst us eminent authorities who assign to art a ‘loftier’ mission than that of painting, however well, a bottle of gherkins? But, on the other hand, among the artists in whom we glory, are there not some who, to justify their disdain of over-elaborate ‘set pieces’ and their instinctive taste for the beau morceau and pure painting, have been happy to find an illustrious example in Chardin?
“For a century and a half, despite frequent and far-reaching changes in the climate of opinion, Chardin has never lacked admirers, and their delight in this art has always been inspired by the same themes and the same responses, an awareness both of the rich complexity and of the rare perfection of his oeuvre.”