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Permanent Collections: Art School à la Chardin

"[We] crouched over our portfolios a long time..."

For this edition of "Permanent Collections," let's contemplate art school circa 1738, brought to us by Jean Siméon Chardin and the Kimbell Museum of Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

Opened to the public in 1972, the Kimbell's small yet impressive collection includes paintings by Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Corot, Courbet, Manet, Monet, Cezanne, and Matisse. All these works by master artists are housed in a building by Louis Kahn that is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture.

One of my favorite works at the Kimbell is the painting above, Young Student Drawing. It is typical of Chardin's pictures of daily life in 18th-century France, which often depict a single person engaged in an activity, usually domestic chores or leisure-time pursuits.

What sets Young Student Drawing apart from Chardin's other genre paintings is not only its academic setting, but also its mystery. Many of the details in this little painting (it's only 8-1/4 x 6-3/4 inches) seem intended to provoke conjecture. First of all, we can't see the student's face. How old is he, I wonder. I know he's young; he's a student after all. But how young? A pre-teen? A young teen?

I also wonder about his emotional state as he draws. If I could see his expression, would it show strain? Would it show confidence? Or would it merely show concentration and not betray the difficulty of his task? If I could see his grip on the chalk holder he uses, would it suggest tentativeness?

It is also unclear what the student is drawing. I guess he is copying the figure study on the wall in front of him, but it's hard to tell for sure. And what about the works inside the portfolio on the student's lap? If I could peruse these drawings, what would I see? The blank canvas at the right of the picture also adds to the mysterious air. I assume that once the student has mastered rendering with chalk--a task that could take years to accomplish--he will graduate to canvas and take on his subject in oil. But we have no idea how well he will do with a brush and paint, just as we have no idea if the student will succeed as a professional artist. Like the blank canvas, his future is unknown. Chardin himself had once been a young artist with an uncertain future, struggling to develop his craft. In conversations with Denis Diderot, Chardin described the many-years-long, rigorous education he endured. "The chalk holder is placed in our hands at the age of seven or eight years," he said. "After having crouched over our portfolios for a long time, we're placed in front of....masterpieces by Greek artists." Chardin and his fellow students were then told to draw the ancient works. "[Y]ou've never seen such tears as those shed over the Satyr, the Gladiator, the Medici Venus, and the Antinous," he recalled.* Young Student Drawing clearly shows that the young Chardin did not struggle in vain. Indeed, the technical skill he displays in the painting is what makes the work truly noteworthy. I feel a bit uneasy making such a definitive proclamation--I've never seen Young Student Drawing in person. However, the Kimbell's website provides a copy of the painting that seems large enough and sharp enough for us to appreciate Chardin's skills. Look at the carefully built-up impasto texture that suggests a slow, deliberative process. A process that allows Chardin to give his painting a richly subtle composition of colors. He has distributed reds along with vibrant blues and browns in a harmonious way that makes Young Student Drawing a treat to look at, even online. For example, consider the blank canvas to the right of the student. Chardin has added dabs of blue among its clay-like gray hue. No real, untouched canvas would be this mix of colors. However, the blue gives Chardin's blank canvas a quiet vibrancy that, coupled with the tactility of the impasto, makes it seem more real than if the canvas were merely a uniform gray. Also take a look at the bit of sienna-brown shirt peeking out at the left of the student's jacket. It stands out in contrast to the charcoal coat and the relatively dull, red-brown figure study on the wall. Some more of this brown peeks through the slit in the coat's bottom and through a hole that punctuates the back of the coat. Together these three areas of brown make up the eye-catching points of a triangle, a shape which is echoed in the student's tricorn hat, in the three-sided form defined by the student's head and flared coat, in the triangular part of the stretcher frame behind the blank canvas, and elsewhere in the painting. This proliferation of triangles produces a complexly balanced composition that reinforces the harmonious color of Young Student Drawing. I'm always impressed by a small painting that provokes the kind of consideration I have given Young Student Drawing. Chardin's remarkable little painting hangs in the Kimbell Art Museum amid a collection that includes works by Francois Boucher and other great contemporaries of Chardin. I wonder if those much larger paintings could also hold my attention so strongly. *From "The Salon of 1765," as translated by John Goodman in Diderot on Art, Volume 1, p.4, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1995.

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