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.
Although he was a still life painter, Chardin was greatly admired by his contemporaries. His concern for creating a total visual experience through composition, the manipulation of space, color, and a loose painting technique led his contemporaries to observe that his still lifes—which, seen up close, read in places as a flurry of strokes—from a distance have a startling immediacy and naturalism. Attributes of the Architect, thought to have been an overdoor, along with its pendant, Attributes of the Painter, shows a shelf with the architect’s tools placed casually upon it. Seen from below in a small, dimly lit study, these paintings would have given an illusion of reality.
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