Chardin practiced an art form that, by tradition, was not of a high rank: in the academic hierarchy, still life was placed lower than history painting, portraiture, genre scenes, or even animal painting. Parisian by birth and at first apprenticed to history painters, Chardin found a vocation in the humble genre of still-life painting, although he also painted figural scenes of contemporary life, combining children or kitchen maids with still-life elements. As Chardin rose from shop-sign painter to member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (where he was admitted to the ranks as a painter of still life in 1728), he gained the admiration of artists and collectors, and even the art critic Denis Diderot, who considered him a genius. These paintings, probably a pair of overdoors for a small study, testify to Chardin’s preternatural powers of observation and ability to render different substances in paint. They also are moral portraits of the owners of the tools, the artist and the architect. It has been noted that the dabs of paint on the palette are the colors used in the painting, as if the artist were providing a glimpse of his working practice. Attributes of the Painter includes a further wry, self-referential element in the small sculpture, which Jennifer Montagu has identified as a model by François Duquesnoy for the executioner holding up the head of John the Baptist in a sculpted tableau of the martyrdom of Chardin’s patron saint.
In the hierarchy established by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in ancien régime France, still-life painting ranked lower than history painting, portraiture, genre scenes, and even animal painting. Yet Chardin turned this apparent disadvantage into a strength, with collectors and critics delighting in the illusions of reality that he produced. His concern for creating a total visual experience through composition, spatial manipulation, color, and a loose painting technique led his contemporaries to observe that his still lifes—which, close up, read as a flurry of strokes—have a startling immediacy and naturalism. In Attributes of the Painter the artist’s palette shows the actual colors of pigments used in the painting, providing a record of the artist’s method of organizing his working tools.
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